It is like a topsy-turvy 1950’s newsroom where all the reporters are kids and all the managing editors are encouraging and friendly.
Here, at Queen Alexandra Elementary on East Broadway and Clarke, young writers are lined up at typewriters, mulling over the next sentence in their stories. A few minutes back, two of these scribes were sharing details about Mo Willems’ Gerald the elephant and Piggie the pig.
This celebration of words comes courtesy of the Writers’ Exchange. Their mission is to get ‘inner-city kids excited about reading and writing.’ The enormously successful WE program was launched by Jennifer MacLeod and Sarah Maitland, both of whom had worked for years in the publishing industry.
Maitland was inspired to devote her time to child literacy after a summer working with children who were playing in a needle-ridden park and struggling to read simple sentences. “We have to do something to help these kids,” said Maitland. “We need to give them a safe place to go, where they can practice their literacy skills in a way that’s not scary for them, not intimidating, where it’s really fun.”
Maitland quit her job in Canadian publishing and moved to San Francisco to learn all she could as an intern at author Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia program in San Francisco. In 2011, Maitland returned home and partnered with Queen Alexandra Elementary School and KidSafe. She realized that one-on-one mentoring was key to program success. Maitland ran an ad and, within the first four days, twenty people had applied to be volunteers.
Soon, the zero-tuition Writers’ Room program was successfully launched. Maitland and Jennifer MacLeod – who first joined as a volunteer – started brainstorming about expansion. Schools, teachers, parents and kids were looking for broader access across the under-resourced community. After an extensive fundraising drive, the Writers’ Exchange was launched in 2012. They now have a home base on East Hastings, multiple In-School, Break-Time and After-School programs and more than 200 dedicated volunteers.
Joe Sales is one of those volunteers. This photographer and father of three grown boys joined WE in its first full year. He is there twice a week, for two hours at a time: one day with kids in grades 1 to 3, the other with kids in grades 4 and 5. What has kept Sales coming back for four years? “The kids are really fun to work with,” he says, and “the need for programming in the area we work is so strong that I really want to contribute.”
“A typical after-school session,” Sales explains, “begins with a shared snack and chat – “How was your day?” “How was your week?” “Have you read any awesome books?” – followed by 10 minutes or so of a game.” That game could be Banagrams, Upwords, Hangman. Sales is two years into a weekly Go Fish game with a young enthusiast.
After snacks and games, it is time for reading. Each volunteer will be teamed with one or two children. “For this part, the children and the volunteer they want to hang out will select books to read. This could be reading to a young tentative reader, co-reading, listening to the young reader or even silent reading. It doesn’t really matter as long by the end of the reading section of the day no one wants to stop!”
Once the books are put away (and the program is always looking for more age-appropriate books), it is time for writing. Some of the kids will be composing their own stories by hand; some will be clacking away on the beloved typewriters. What you won’t see here are computers or tablets.
The stories may be freeform, built on the kids’ interests or triggered by prompts from the programming volunteers. “Food-themed projects are always reliable,” says Sales. “Next week we are going to make sandwiches for a snack and then write about sandwiches. What would be the best sandwich in the world?”
With his experience as a professional photographer, Sales will sometimes equip his Grade 4 and 5s with donated cameras and take them on photo walks around the school. “I find that most kids are really great photographers because they don’t lock into conventions and exhausted phrasing.” The kids will choose their favourite 10 images and, by the next session, Sales will present them with printed photos and small workbooks he has made by hand. Each young creator will sequence his or her images and build a story around them.
“Both our founders came from the publishing industry and their really impressive stroke of genius when starting Writers’ Exchange was the idea to publish books with the stories that the kids have written. Twice at year, we have a book launch party. When the kids arrive, they get their own copies. The kids grab them and quickly find a place where they can sit down and find their story in the book and read it and re-read it. Then, only if they want to, they step up to a microphone and read it out loud to everyone.”
The book launches are rewarding for the kids, their parents and the volunteers. They are another visible example of the tremendous impact that the Writers’ Exchange program is having on the community that first inspired Maitland to take action.
“Every year,” Sales says, ”we get new kids into our system and some of those kids face tremendous challenges. Sometimes, they are really uncertain and tentative and maybe even disruptive but now, with experience, I know that just by being there and offering them kindness, a continual fresh start and enthusiasm for reading and writing in general – and for the reading and writing that they produce – yields really inspiring results.”
Here’s a peek at the Writers’ Exchange program experience from Filmmaker and Director, Grady Mitchell.
Written by Elizabeth Newton
* All photos by photographer Dylan Doubt