Archive for WITS


Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , on June 30, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Vicky Edmonds, WITS Writer-in-Residence


When we sit down to write we are writing a window into midair and then opening it and looking through. We can look outside of ourselves into different places in the world that exist or don’t exist, or we can look inside ourselves, where the air is sweet and every realm of possibility is also waiting for us. Neither is greater than or less than the other, both allow us to see things we’ve never seen before, but going inside – that’s where I want to go. I want to walk down every hallway that exists in me, I want to be in every room before I don’t live in this house anymore, and I want to bring every beautiful thing that’s in there back out into the world and somehow leave them as gifts before I go.

When children pick up a pencil I can almost hear the drawing of the frame beginning, and I can hear the pulleys and the weights behind the frame that will almost make it effortless for them to open and go through.

I give them instructions… “This is a simile.” “This is how you write details of imagery.” I make little templates like blueprints where they practice, filling in the blanks to see how it feels. It’s almost like an art class. We put down the paper and show them the blue, green, pink, then something catches inside them that makes them gravitate to that color and that paintbrush. We have never really known what causes that choice, only that when we let it happen we are amazed to watch the results. All artwork has this effect on us. We try putting it down but it keeps calling us. It takes different forms, but whatever we seem to make (or love in someone else’s work) shows part of us back to ourselves that we couldn’t have seen without that mysterious mirror.

So there they are, 30 children in a room, all with paper in front of them, pencil in midair, and I try to help them find the window so they know it’s there. Underneath logic, underneath expectations or grades, lies an entry point to their own truth that only they can find. I try to take away any worries… tell them they never have to share. I want to make this a place where they can come and explore any time they want to. But there is this paper calling, like white walls they’ve never been able to see through before, and the pencil is the tool that cuts through the sheetrock, and suddenly they can see more… and then they can see more…


Feelings Poempermission to tell the truth

[He said he couldn’t think of anything to write, that his mind was just blank. So I asked him to write about ‘blank’. He couldn’t believe that was allowed.]

My mind is blank, fleeting of thoughts, ideas, just blank.
The writing is not singing to me, it is not resonating
with excitement, eager to tell me the words.
No inspiration, no spark, just emptiness.
Looking for the components, the parts required to write,
looking for the key that I am so clearly missing.
Lost, searching to no avail,
trying to find the words on the page that fit.
Then I realize, I have already found them.

Kai Brook,
8th Grade


Apology Poemfinding all the unspoken regrets
that have been caught in our throats, just under our breath

[Her teacher told me that she had been sad for a long time because her friend had moved away and she couldn’t find the words to talk about it. But there was another friend who was trying to comfort her, and she found the words to say everything to her.]

Dear Isabella,
I’m sorry for being mean to you when I’m sad or mad.
I was like dark clouds storming at you.
I was like 1000 pounds hurting you,
being mean to you, pushing you away when I really needed help.
I want to be more like soda and popcorn
at a movie, nice and funny. Will you please forgive me?
Yes       Yes       Yes       or No       (please circle)
Of course I’ll forgive you.
You may have pushed me away,
but we were only an inch away
in my heart.

Bella Sanborn,
3rd grade


Nature Personificationbeing grateful for the gifts so generously given

[I love it when you get to see them watching the world through the window.]

The rain rushes
to help plants and grass and flowers grow.
Rain is water rushing to help.
The rain whispers a rain song.
The rain reaches for my hand.
The rain sings the song softly,
and the rain dances with me.

Desmond Thompson,
2nd grade


Inquiry & Passion Poemsinking deep into something they’re passionate about and then finding all the questions that call to them

[I loved that he found the words to describe his love for this.]


Can you hear it? That sound of knowledge and teaching?
Can you feel it? The touch of a reassuring hand spinning you in the right direction?
Can you smell it? That old, musty stench of history and a story never heard?
This is learning, the love of knowing more than before.
This is the teaching of worlds long gone by.
This is the force that keeps dragging you back for more.
This is an adventure, an always exciting plot.
This is history, the never ending story.

Isaiah Lenoue,
7th Grade


Invisible Beauties Poemfinding the unseen qualities inside us that can shine so brightly inside that they can help us find our way

[And when you’re through the window, when you’re in the inside place, all the instructions disappear, and you can see everything…]

My voice is like
a bright silver arrow
racing toward the target of my life,
never stopping
till I stop pulling back
the bow of my spirit.

Abigail Peterson,
2nd grade


Nature Narratives: Teaching Story Structure to Third Grade Classes at Whittier Elementary

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on May 14, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Clare Hodgson Meeker, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Creating a story from idea to finished book sounds like an ambitious undertaking for an eight-year-old. But I am always amazed at how quickly these young writers take a character and run with it when they are given a simple three-problem approach to creating a story. Asked to write a fictional story with an animal as the main character, each student picked an animal and had to find three facts about it that could be turned into an opening problem for their story. For example, having to find food, shelter, raise a family or deal with predators or humans interfering with their world. Then they prepared outlines of their stories using this worksheet.

In my mini-lesson on beginning a story, I asked them to emphasize a problem or event that grabs the reader’s attention right away and pulls us into the story – either something the character wants (a goal) or an inciting event that propels the character to take action and do something. Here is a great example from Kian Graham in Ms. McGrath’s class who picked an endangered animal, the Pangolin, for his main character. Note how the sound effects help create a sense of urgency and add energy to the story:

           Pangey the Pangolin lived in the South African forest. He was as happy as can be, when, “chop, chop, chop!” Some construction workers were cutting down the South American forest. “Chop!” The tree Pangey was sitting on was being cut down.

           Luckily for Pangey, it was only with an axe, so he had time to jump to a different tree. He realized that he should get out of there. He leaped from tree to tree for hours until he grew very sleepy.

From then on, we focus on story development – the steps the main character takes to reach his or her goal and the problems (at least two) they face along the way. We talk about how every action or inaction causes some effect on the character or their situation, good or bad. The idea is to make the character struggle until he finally figures out how to solve the story problem. My favorite part of story development is “the darkest moment,” just before the story’s climax. Renowned children’s author Jane Yolen describes this as getting your character up a tree with no idea how he or she will get down. It can be a situation that is life threatening or an emotionally low moment in the character’s journey. But from this low point, the character somehow summons the courage and figures out how to solve the problem (the climax) and reach his or her goal (the end).

A surprise twist is a great way to end a story, and Kian surprised us all with this ending. After Pangey bravely breaks out of a cage he’s imprisoned in, he is captured by a nasty crook who says,”This one’ll sell for millions!” and puts him in the back of a car in Washington D.C:

          They passed by nine black limousines. “Wait, what? That means the president was in one of them,” the cooks thought. Suddenly, one of the limos pulled out of the group. The other limos followed. The limo window opened and Barack Obama’s face appeared.

          “What are you guys doing?”

          “Ummmmmm,” the crooks stammered. “We were giving this pet away for a national yard sale,” one of the crooks lied. “We’ll give it to you if you want it?” the crook said.

          “Okay, I will take it,” said Barack Obama.

           As soon as the president took him, Pangey felt a wave of calmness come over him. Pangey and Barack Obama drove back to the White House and Barack Obama gave Pangey the leftovers of his lunch, which was chicken, potatoes, and gravy with a side of salad. Pangey ate very slowly.

          When Pangey finished, Barack Obama played with Pangey until they both tired each other out.

          Next Barack went and told one of his men to go to Petco and get a drinking bowl and a very nice dog bed for Pangey. Pangey ran around in circles, jumped up on his hind legs, and hugged Barack Obama, so Barack hugged him back.


Writing in the Dark

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , , on May 12, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Samar Abulhassan, WITS Writer-in-Residence

     “Black silk, shelter me.
     I need
     more of the night before I open
     eyes and heart to illumination. I must still
     grow in the dark like a root
     not ready, not ready at all.” 

               -Denise Levertov

     I must write the same poem over and over,
     for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

     If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
     of myself, I must live as a blind man

     who runs through rooms without touching the furniture.

                -Ilya Kaminsky

Teaching artists often have a handful of foolproof writing lessons on hand. For myself, I can usually trust that if I hand a young writer a cobalt, sunset-orange or sea green paint swatch and ask a row of questions meant to de-familiarize a color (perhaps supplemented by Federico Garcia Lorca’s green winds, or Dottie Lasky’s green secrets), the results are vibrant and unexpected. I have always loved films beaming with saturated colors and poems that heighten seeing. I have also always been in love with nighttime and writing born out of “darkness.” One night, on a weeklong writing retreat this past February at Friday Harbor Labs, I walked into town along a pitch-dark path lined with madronas, feeling my way through the cool dark. I emerged startlingly nourished by trail’s end: I was almost sad to see the street lamps.

This year in several classes at B.F. Day and the Hutch School, I hoped to gently nudge us all toward an intimacy of writing meant to record the giddiness and terror of stumbling. As the end of this school year nears, one of my favorite after-images of teaching was witnessing a sea of open faces, eyes closed, pen moving across paper. Asking students to close their eyes (blindfolds work great too) I invite students to allow dream logic to reign over waking logic on the white page, for an allotted amount of time, in the safe container of classroom. I reminded students to welcome the private experience, although sharing, like always, was welcome.

Before we begin, I dim the shades, turn off the classroom lights, and I read them Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem, “Writing in the Dark” as an invitation. Here’s an excerpt: “Keep writing in the dark: a record of the night, or words that pulled you from the depths of unknowing, words that flew through your mind, strange birds crying their urgency with human voices, or opened as flowers of a tree that blooms only once in a lifetime: words that may have the power to make the sun rise again.”

Students write for ten minutes, with felt-tip pens, inside a quiet hum. Some students feel immense freedom during this experiment; other writers feel uncertain and anxious. Perhaps both. Sometimes I also read them Levertov’s poem “With Eyes at the Back of our Heads,” offering the first line as a launching point for their own excavations. Often the results are beautifully raw – fragments inked in innocent script: cursive that crawls and leaps and zigzags beyond margins. “Practice will reveal how one hand instinctively comes to the aid of the other to keep each line clear of the next,” Levertov writes. It’s true: writing in the dark, students come into new contact with their hands, remembering the physicality of writing. Yes! Still, even when they inadvertently write over words — the “mishaps” are delicate, complex, lovely — layers of meaning and ideas trimmed, intermingling. To give you a brief glimpse into the marks students made, I offer a cento here, a patchwork poem made from the notes of fifth grade students of B.F. Day and middle and high school students of the Hutch School.

Pages of Mistakes (Ave)

Glowing eyes, the power to see and shine (Luz)
hidden rivers oar like subtle shadows
when they are echoing inside doors (Jenny)
walking into the car of midnight and driving it (Oliver)
Don’t worry: it will be a little darkish
try to think of it as a beautiful bird flying your imagination
to the next step (Minh)
Trees tempt me with their swaying branches
They are asking me to climb them (Eva)
Am I afraid? Of course. Am I willing to be brave?
Yes like the moon and yes like the sound of dawn (Ave)
as the lights go off my mind is at ease (Ginger)
It does not stay restless like a tiger (Marc)
secret rivers that never rush by (Jude)
sorrow of the scarecrow (Megan)
as gentle as a feather coming to you
in your hands and heads knocking
at your door (Marc)
don’t bloom worry … clear voices …
flowers … drums … now what words (Jaylynn)

Things I Know at Seattle Children’s Hospital

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on May 5, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Ann Teplick, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Enter the Heart


I know when I walk through the doors of Seattle Children’s Hospital, I will enter the hive of a heart. There is so much love. I know there are families from all reaches of the planet. I know the scent of anxiety and uncertainty, and that when I walk into the classrooms, I will write poetry with youth who share what may seem impossible to imagine. I know the halo of their courage and resilience, and how I am a much stronger person because of it.

At Children’s, I write with youth in the Jan Sayers classroom—where those, whose health allows them to be around others, stay current with their school work. I also work in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit.

Reading and writing poetry helps me to make sense of the world. I choose, with care, which poems to bring into the classrooms, and these are the ones I dizzy over.

I know the moment I fall for a poem. Sometimes, it’s like snow that kisses an eyelash. Sometimes, like a peacock that fans its teal.

When I find a poem I love, I read it many times. I don’t try to dismantle its weave, to understand it. I sit with it, and tuck it beneath my pillow. I listen to its music—its Yo-Yo Ma, its Mic Jagger, its Merle Haggard, its B.B. King.

Enter the Cow


One poem I love, and often open my residencies with, is Joyce Sutphen’s “Things I Know.” This is a poem about growing up on a farm. Which appeals to me because it’s not my experience. I love the imagery, from the subtle turn of a cow’s head, to the chicken pecking gravel, to the rain that slides in silver chains over the machine shed’s roof. I love the way the poem ends, the knowing of everything: “trunk by branch by leaf into sky.”


by Joyce Sutphen

I know how the cow’s head turns
to gaze at the child in the hay aisle;

I know the way the straw shines
under the one bare light in the barn.

How a chicken pecks gravel into silt
and how the warm egg rests beneath

the feathers—I know that too, and
what to say, watching the rain slide

in silver chains over the machine
shed’s roof. I know how one pail

of water calls to another and how
it sloshes and spills when I walk

from the milk-house to the barn.
I know how the barn fills and

then empties, how I scatter lime
on the walk, how I sweep it up.

In the silo, I know the rung under
my foot; on the tractor, I know

the clutch and the throttle; I slip
through the fence and into the woods,

where I know everything: trunk
by branch by leaf into sky.

Sutphen’s “Things I Know” is an invitation to any writer to share their bounty of knowing. Their area of expertise. When one is challenged with illness, it’s easy to misplace the compass that steers us to our strengths.

I begin the conversation by asking my students what they feel they are good at, what they know well. We generate a group list, which has included knowing how to scramble an egg; knowing how to irritate our mothers, fathers, and siblings; knowing how to lie; alienating others; pretending we are okay; breaking hearts; mending hearts; playing baseball; playing the trumpet; loneliness; being confused; swimming; sleeping; snoring; telling jokes; trying to be perfect; sabotaging ourselves; planting a garden; skateboarding; and teaching our hamsters tricks.

I then read “Things I Know,” which is followed by a group reading—each of us with a couplet. I love when many voices ring the room with a poem.

We talk about what we’ve noticed about this poem. It’s written in couplets. The words “I Know” repeat themselves many times. We talk about the way repetition underscores importance, and creates rhythm in a piece of writing. We talk about words, phrases, and images that we like, and why. We talk about what we don’t fancy, and where we have questions. We talk about the poem’s small moments, and overall, what the author might be trying to say. We share similar experiences to that of the narrator, if we have them. We shower the poem with sweet-smelling hay. But really, the poem showers us. Here are some of the student poems inspired by Joyce Sutphen’s “Things I Know.”


I know how to catch fish in rivers,
lakes and oceans.
I know how to put baits and hooks
on my line.
I know you have to be patient
while waiting for fish to bite.
I know where to fish
by using my polarized glasses.
I’ve known fishing for seven years
and counting.


The euphoria of staying afloat,
a pitch-black warmth of a mother’s womb.
The detachment and the praying at night,
the still silent air with the vibrancy
of a dirty old tomb.

It numbs moon-touched skin and pulls
you to the heat of your core.
The way you wake up in the middle of the night,
caramelized eyes, that cracked-open door.

Sweat that runs with the salt and the blades
that slide through your abdomen
and past pale skin.
It’s the realization,
the finality,
dread that your death will be painful.

The invisible warmth of a loving hand,
the after-glow of another worldly night.
A God-given gift.
What’s it like to wake up the next day?
Determined and willing to fight.
This is what I know.


I know how it feels when life hates you,
when nothing goes right, and everything goes wrong.

I know how it feels to want to give up.
Such an easy way out can be tempting.

I know it’s hard to try to love life,
when all you see when you look around is bad.

I know you will find plenty to love, though,
if you look closely at the things you may feel are small.

I know sometimes I feel lonely here,
and think that my friends have forgotten me.

But I know they are just busy and stressed
and they don’t know how to talk to me in this situation.

I know that my illnesses will always be there
and some will worsen with time.

But I know I have family and friends around me
who will help me live the most fulfilling life I can.

Here are two poems, also inspired by Joyce Sutphen’s “Things I Know,” which were written collaboratively by students at Children’s and students at Mercer Island High School, in a special project this spring—

I KNOW WATER (ages 11 and 16)

I know how to swim. Diving into the cool blue water.
I know how the water tastes like bleach and burns your nose.
I know how to propel the water and pull myself forward.
I know the rush of waves crashing against me when I’m racing to the finish.
I know how the butterflies in my stomach feel when I step onto the block.
I know how they fly away as soon as I hit the water.
I know how looking at my coach, and hearing his words of support and congratulation, make me feel relieved.
I wish that diving off the block would be easier for me.
But I know how swimming lights my day.

I KNOW WARM VELVET (ages 14 and 16)

I know how to make delicious red velvet cupcakes.

I know how to cream the butter with the sugar
and crack the pale eggs on the side of the metal bowl.

I know how the machine rhythmically clinks and beats as it mixes the deep red batter.

I know how to pour the silky batter into the pan and smooth it out.

I know how to put the cupcakes into the oven with careful hands,
feeling the warm rush of heat brush across my rosy checks.

I wish I knew how they tasted as I wait impatiently for them to finish baking.

I hear the timer ding, and I know how it feels to take the first bite
of the warm, moist cake; how it delights my taste buds.

Enter the Caterpillar


Amy Gerstler is a poet whose work I love, as well. Her “Advice from a Caterpillar,” is another poem I’ve tucked beneath my pillow. It’s crisp and witty, with advice that articulates the precision of a bulls-eye.

by Amy Gerstler

Chew your way into a new world.
Munch leaves. Molt. Rest. Molt
again. Self-reinvention is everything.
Spin many nests. Cultivate stinging
bristles. Don’t get sentimental
about your discarded skins. Grow
quickly. Develop a yen for nettles.
Alternate crumpling and climbing. Rely
on your antennae. Sequester poisons
in your body for use at a later date.
When threatened, emit foul odors
in self-defense. Behave cryptically
to confuse predators: change colors, spit,
or feign death. If all else fails, taste terrible.

I use this poem to compliment Sutphen’s “Things I Know,” because in life’s grand scheme—first, we know things; then, we know them well; and finally, we can dish out advice, right? Here are some of the student poems inspired by the caterpillar.


First, buy a high-tech radio. Then, take it apart
and keep all the important things from the radio.
Next, buy a hat and a small satellite
and mount it on the hat. Now, go to the market
and buy hamburger ingredients to grill the patty.
And put the parts of the radio in the patty.
Then, put the burger together and eat it.
Put your hat on and wear headphones.
Now, plug the headphone into your satellite dish
and listen to people’s thoughts.


First, what you could do is take apart the computer and wipe out
the memory card. If that doesn’t work, you can throw it in the
trash. Then take apart the computer and burn four red wires. Cut
three yellow wires and drop it in the sink. What you want to do
next is connect the yellow wires with the green wires. Then put
the computer back together and carry it to the ocean. When the
computer gets to the ocean, I’m going to tie dynamite to it and
light it and then throw it in the ocean. Bye-bye computer.


It’s sore after the surgery.
It feels like you can’t move,
like you’re paralyzed.
If you move, if feels like you’ve been stabbed
a million times in your side.
After a week, you can try to get up
and walk around.
My first step felt weird, like I was taller,
because you grow and you don’t even feel it.
Don’t start running around.
You’ll feel limpy like an old man.
But the more you walk, eventually
the better you’ll feel.

ADVICE TO MYSELF (excerpt, age 15)

You aren’t defined by who you were,
but who you are now.
Remember, you are not dirt,
don’t let others treat you like that.
You are skillful in many things,
my little divergent.
Use your skills to help, not hurt,
especially yourself.
Stop beating yourself up
with the many “yous.”
Look at the limits you draw
Pretend you have forgotten, and slip through.
Peace will never exist,
it is simply an illusion, along with hope,
but be the fool who uses illusion for comfort.

ADVICE TO ME (age 13)

Be true to who you are.
Don’t let people change you.
Hold yourself together.
Safety pin by safety pin, fix your torn heart.
Smile. Laugh. Giggle. Joke.
Be what you want to be.
Watch the slowly ticking clock.
Watch the hours tick by,
counting down your time left.
Live to the fullest.
Try with no regrets.
Hold your head high.
Protect your heart and mind,
because every princess has a crown.
Don’t let yours fall.
Be true to who you are.

Hopefully, we can tuck this poet’s last line, “Be true to who you are” beneath our pillows, as we navigate our days, as we try to walk strong, as we reflect upon the things we know well—knowing nothing can take those away.

The Resuscitation of Childhood: A WITS Reading with Matthew Burgess, Jason Koo, Erin Malone, Emily Perez, and Tiphanie Yanique

Posted in General with tags , , , on April 21, 2015 by writersintheschools

By WITS Interns Laura Burgher and Tracy Gregory

As new interns of the Seattle Writers in the Schools program, we were eager to hear perspectives from the panel of nationwide WITS writers presenting at this year’s AWP conference in Minneapolis. Each writer spoke about past or current residencies, working with students from 2nd grade through high school. We followed the threads of commonality that wove through each of the writer’s experiences as they shared stories of working with students, and the influence this had on their own writing. In their students’ work they all found a freedom, a wide-open space of play and creativity, that by tapping into they were able to access new levels of creativity in their own work. They all spoke very highly of the talent of the students they work with and find immense value in teaching.

Matthew Burgess, who teaches 1st and 2nd grade students in Brooklyn, believes there is an inner poet in all people, and that children especially embody this poet by embracing nonsense. When faced with a nonsensical phrase, the adult mind would dismiss it, while the child “jumps right in to keep the song going.” Matthew credits his students with teaching him how to write. Jason Koo read a poem he wrote based on an assignment he had given to his 3rd and 4th grade students in New York, who he believes are much better poets than adults. While we have suffering, he says, they come to the page with energy, imagination, and fun.

Although creativity overflows in the younger grades, Erin Malone, from our own WITS program in Seattle, recognized that her 5th graders tended to fall back to a “safer” place in their writing by returning to rhyme. When she pushes them to write outside of their comfort zone, their writing reveals a glimpse into their complicated inner lives. Erin noticed a trend in her students’ poems that draw from and address fears. She pulls from a similar place of fear and loss in writing her own book, Hover. (Erin will be reading from Hover this Wednesday, 4/22 at Elliott Bay Books).

Emily Perez, working in high schools in Houston, realized that most of her students censor themselves in their writing. She uses “experiments” to encourage them to take risks. She spoke of working with a student who had already developed her poetic voice, but by providing a safe environment to take risks in, the student wrote in an original and powerful way. Tiphanie Yanique also works with high school students, in New York, and read from an accomplished student writer. She attributes WITS with the development of her teaching and writing skills, which she sees as intricately intertwined.

Using the language of the panelists, including their poems and their student’s poems, we wrote the following interpretation:

wake the poet

find yourself an ocean

bump around in the blue

join in the interior feathered moss

dissolve what ifs (is blindness)


light a match into the windbreak

of your hand

fold tufts of clouds back

like moths eating sky

into your sweaters


scour the lion’s stomach

be the king of anything


when the ink runs dry

you faint

so make sure to sing

beautiful gigantic things


Making Writing Their Own: 8th Graders and Zines

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on April 9, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Corinne Manning, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Something I love about teaching for WITS is the encouragement to roll with the punches. At the beginning of a teaching residency, you might have a defined schedule, a plan with a classroom teacher, and a curriculum, built shiny, and ready to go. Anyone who has worked with youth, or who has even just worked as a teacher knows that all the careful planning can—will—change instantly. There some changes at the school I worked at this year, but the nature of the WITS program is to find innovative and creative ways to help students fall in love with writing, so I had everything I needed to embrace that change.

But sometimes, even writing super exciting and awesome stories, poems, and memoir gets old when you are at an age where you aren’t quite sure why you like something, when you haven’t had a chance to really define for yourself why you like doing it. In 8th grade, that pinnacle of adolescent muck, you are constantly getting told what to do and maybe you’ve heard all the reasons why you are told to do something a certain way, but… whatever—it just doesn’t make sense yet.

I’ve found power in defining writing for myself, and finding ways to continue to make it mine and useful. Growing up, I wrote stories and poems and put them into books that I would copy and give to other people. It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned I was making zines. During that time of making my own books I found two things that I loved: writing and bookmaking; and I got the chance to make each of them my own.

So, instead of doing Reader’s Theater with the 8th grade, I switched up my curriculum and decided to introduce them to zines.

photo 1

“How To Make a Hamburger” by Parker, 8th grade

Zines are self published magazines that are made using whatever you have on hand. They have a cut and paste look to them, as they are most often made using a photocopier. The print runs are small, so only a few are made at a time, and they’re made to express something, not for profit.

The energy of zines is empowering. This form has been used again and again through the ages, often with the edict: if they won’t publish us, we’ll publish ourselves. Zines have found form in publications for protests, Sci-Fi and dystopian narratives, comics, and most recently, through young women who defined for themselves what it means to be a girl or grrrl.

“I don’t have a computer at home,” some of the students would say, trying to get out of the project. And every time I told them that they didn’t need a computer, that everything they needed they had in school, they’d look at me like I was crazy. Many of them didn’t seem to know what a photocopier was, and I had to emphasize again and again in a crochety-aging-hipsters manner: Get the authentic experience and make this on a photocopier, not a scanner or printer.

A zine, of course, can be made on anything you want, and in the future, they can totally make their zines at home using their printer and scanner if they have one. But it sure looks cooler from a photocopier.

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Some zines by Catharine Blaine 8th graders

How can zines be applied to creative writing?

I had the chance to work with these particular students for two years and I knew their writing, they’d written in every genre of fiction, written poems, even came up with creative definitions of fiction, so I trusted that they knew what they were doing. But all this work I’ve done with them wasn’t going to amount to much unless I gave them the chance to see how to apply creative writing on their own terms. I wanted writing, the power of it, to feel immediately useful to them.

Before they got into their final project, the Per-Zine (stands for personal zine, which can be about anything that’s personal to you) they made zines about their favorite things and zines that explained how to do something: making hamburgers, waking up on a Monday, or even making a your younger sibling cry.

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How to Survive the Pre-High School Years, by Luna, 8th grade

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How to Survive the Pre-High School Years, by Luna, 8th grade

Perzines tend to have an opinion even if its about something simple, like the things that make you happy, or the way you’ve found to survive the pre-high school years. It’s yours.

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Students found clever ways to articulate their feelings about their thoughts, God, or their frustration with stereotypes.

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Gotta Problem? Blame Science. By Elizabeth, 8th grade


Gotta Problem? Blame Science. By Elizabeth, 8th grade

All writers know that the game changes when you introduce the idea of making something public. But it’s even more thrilling when the rules change: when you decide that something is ready to be published, when it’s your finger hovering over that green button on the photo copier, when you are the one that’s decided that what you have to say is valuable and needs to be heard. It’s true that they’ll grow up and many of their opinions will change, but the day they sat in class and created a zine to share, what went through their minds when they were bored are documents of who they were at a time, and are articulations of what many of us, even as adults, are still feeling. Through creating zines, students connected with one another, whether it was teaching each other how to photocopy, or finding something they related to in the work of another student. They have everything they need to make writing their own—not a bad skill to bring with you into high school, or maybe the rest of your life as a writer.

This website was a wonderful resource and includes a template for making a quarter page zine line the ones by Catharine Blaine students.

Story Problems: Learning Narrative through Pictures

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , , on April 7, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Greg Stump, WITS Writer-in-Residence


Comic by Maya, a 1st grade student at Broadview-Thomson K-8 School.

As a teaching artist who helps students of all ages learn to make comics, I’m often fascinated by how a single lesson or exercise can be just as useful for the very young as it is for teens and adults. Short comic strip stories, humble though they may be, seem to be especially effective in teaching story structure to anyone. This is because all parts of the story (introducing a character in a setting; throwing a conflict/problem or disruptive event into the scenario; heightening the drama/tension; and resolving the matter as the character is restored/transformed) are not just visible, but adjacent to each other as well. In a comic, we can see all at once how the story ends and begins, or we can read it piecemeal or in reverse order — unlike text narratives, which are inflexibly linear, or movies, which can only show us one part of the story at a time.


Anyone who spends time with young children knows that they can tell stories even before they’re able to write them down, and this is never more evident to me than when teaching them comics. As a WITS writer-in-residence this year, I was very happy to get to teach the first graders at Broadview-Thomson, in part because it’s so much fun to see what little kids (who are still learning how to write) will come up with when asked to draw out their stories. The comic you see here, drawn by a first grader named Maya in Jeanne Medalia’s class, is a great example of how a simple six-panel comic can demonstrate both a solid grasp of narrative structure, and a delightful imagination to boot.


As the story begins in the first panel, our butterfly protagonist leisurely flaps past a flower. Suddenly, disaster: the butterfly collides into a tree (the “disruptive event”) in the second scene. The “rising action” in panels three and four show our hero laid out on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to a hospital bed, where it lies miserable and injured. Fortunately, a nurse mends the butterfly’s damaged wing, and the comic ends much as it begins — with the butterfly in flight, only now with relief after having gone through a dramatic ordeal.


Again, this is a simple exercise, but the use of a vertical six-panel grid to tell a story in pictures can be quite powerful in getting kids — or anyone, really — to see, quite literally, that what makes a story engaging is how it introduces and resolves problems. And when assigned to students as young and creative as Maya, it leads to work that is as charming as it is instructive.