Bay Area Writing Programs

But in recent years, the middle R – writing – has often taken a backseat to reading and math, pushed aside by a laser focus on those subjects driven by high-stakes, multiple-choice testing. A recent study by Arthur Appleby, a leading scholar in the field of writing instruction, found that middle and high school students spent only eight percent of their school day on tasks that required writing at least one paragraph.

Not surprisingly, many students struggle with writing and dread it. On the most recent writing test for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” in 2011, only 27 percent of students in eighth and 12th grades scored at a level of proficient or higher.

Writing “has really been neglected,” says Greta Vollmer, director of the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, which primarily trains teachers to teach writing. “Some kids spend seven to 13 minutes a day writing in school. It’s really miniscule.”

Those like Vollmer who believe writing is a critical skill – for communication, self-expression and more – are hopeful that a renewed emphasis on writing in the Common Core State Standards, being implemented in the Bay Area and beyond, will bring writing back to some prominence. In addition, the computer-administered standardized tests being developed for Common Core skills are expected to require children to write responses, not just tick off multiple-choice answers.

“We are optimistic about Common Core,” Vollmer says. “We see it as letting writing back into the curriculum in a big way and reshifting the focus. … Writing should be done across the curriculum, across multiple subjects. Writing should be integral to learning.”

But advocates of writing are not content to just sit back and watch what happens in the coming years with the new standards and curricula. Vollmer’s organization and others in the Bay Area are working directly with young writers and teachers to teach students how to tell their stories and to inspire them that writing is not a chore but an exciting opportunity.

“Students need to be heard,” says Julia Chiapella, the director of the Young Writers Program in Santa Cruz. “We need to have them feel captivated by their own thinking, and we need to reflect to them that their thinking and ideas are captivating.”


Here are some of their stories:

826 Valencia


One of the Bay Area’s best known writing programs – and the only one to operate behind a Pirate Supply Store – 826 Valencia was founded in San Francisco in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari.

Today, the nonprofit serves 6,000 San Francisco students a year with its corps of more than 1,700 volunteers. Its goal is to help close the achievement gap for students ages 6-18 in underserved schools, though 826 does offer drop-in creative writing workshops that are open to any student on a first-come, first-served basis. The organization spawned 826 National, which now has seven additional chapters across the country.

“The ability to communicate and express yourself clearly and coherently in writing is so huge,” says Programs Manager Molly Parent. “Many of the students we work with come from homes where English isn’t the primary language. Basically being immersed in thinking and writing and seeing a full paragraph of English text is something a lot of our students don’t get exposure to elsewhere. We try to open that door.”

In addition to its onsite writing lab in the Mission District, where 826 offers writing workshops and tutoring, the organization also operates programs at two San Francisco middle schools, Everett and James Lick. Once a year, it works with a San Francisco school on the Young Authors’ Book project, a published anthology of student work that is sold at bookstores nationwide. This year, juniors and seniors at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School wrote about the theme “place.”&pagebreaking&“A big part of our model is end product-driven,” says Parent. “The moment of seeing your name in print and holding the product you made is a key part of feeling empowered by the writing process.”


Bay Area Writing Project

For 40 years, the Bay Area Writing Project has been working with teachers on how to teach writing instruction, primarily through summer institutes held on the Berkeley campus. Started at UC Berkeley, the program gave birth to the California Writing Project and then the National Writing Project, which now has nearly 200 sites across the country. The Bay Area program has more than 500 trained “teacher consultants” in its network who offer trainings and workshops at school sites throughout the nine-county Bay Area.

“I think we’ve had a tremendous impact on teachers,” says Vollmer, who is also an English professor at Sonoma State University. But the “problem is scaling that up and maintaining it in an institutional way. … We clearly haven’t transformed the state of writing.”

Many children dislike writing, Vollmer says, because too many teachers focus too much on mechanics, if they teach writing at all.

“Writing has been narrowed down to such a mechanistic worksheet activity that of course kids hate it,” she says. “They think: ‘I’m afraid of breaking the rules, of punctuating wrong.’ We have focused so much on errors in writing that we haven’t taught kids how to use writing as a tool, that as an author you have choices.”

Each summer, the Bay Area Writing Project hosts Young Writers Camps at several Bay Area locations. The creative writing camps for students in grade 3-9 are taught by teachers who have gone through the organization’s teacher training ( The camps offer in-depth writing instruction, but strive to do it in a way that inspires young authors to enjoy writing.

“I think the biggest key is finding opportunities for kids to write that are not stressful but fun. When they tell stories, help write them down and illustrate them,” Vollmer says. “Don’t be obsessed about correctness at the initial stages. It’s a process. First drafts are not so great. You go back and go back (and revise). If we cut kids off too early with rules and correctness, we stifle them.”


Society of Young Inklings

One way to make writing fun for kids is to make it a game, literally. That’s the idea behind the Society of Young Inklings, a six-year-old organization founded by Naomi Kinsman, who developed a program based on children’s theater games.

Kinsman has children start their story on their feet, with exercises such as “Walk as if…” you’re in quicksand or on the moon. The children then start to develop their character, imagining what he would wear or what might excite him. Sitting down to write comes later.

“It helps makes the writing process kinesthetic and brings it to life,” says Kinsman, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Kids who struggle to come up with ideas have done their rough draft on their feet, which is really fun. They don’t even know they’re working.”&pagebreaking&“Teachers assign writing prompts with good intentions, but kids feel like they get so many things wrong, they hesitate to take risks. They’d rather use only words they know how to spell or ideas they can write correctly,” she adds.

Society of Young Inklings currently runs after-school programs in 32 schools on the Peninsula and in Silicon Valley, holds summer camps at several locations and also offers private classes and one-on-one mentorships.

Each year, it holds a writing contest for students in grades 1 through 8. Winners are matched with a professional writer who works with them one on one, and the results are published in a book. Young Inklings also publishes a free monthly online newsletter, The Ink Splat, in which student work is published. In addition, young novelists can be matched with mentors for an intensive six-month editing and revision process that results in their book’s publication.


Sophia Nesamoney, 13, of Atherton, published her first novel through Society of Young Inklings. The Other Side of Carroll is the story of twins who are separated at age 8 following the murder of their parents in Depression-era New York.

“I like how there were no limits and I could really take my time and develop ideas, even if they weren’t realistic,” she says of the program. She also learned “about patience because while I was editing my book I just wanted to quit and stop writing, but after I finished I realized how much better my writing was after the editing process.”


Kinsman believes writing can be transformative.

“I think when kids can read, they find hope in stories and characters they can relate to,” she says. “When kids can write, they create hope for other people.”


Young Writers Program

Mentorships and publishing are also key parts of the Young Writers Program in Santa Cruz, which started in 2012 and was modeled after 826 Valencia.

A joint project of Santa Cruz Writes and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, the project sends trained volunteers into fourth- through 12th-grade classrooms in public schools, where they work with small groups of students on their writing, which is later published. The program has served 185 students with more than 600 volunteer hours.

“What is so critical to student success is individual time with an adult, someone sitting side by side with students who listens to their ideas, encourages them and supports the process of writing,” says Chiapella, the program’s director.

Having their work published also motivates young writers, she says. The program this year published a book called Shattered, in which eighth-graders at Branciforte Middle School wrote about bias and stereotypes. It is sold at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

“When they received their book, which is just a gorgeous book, the kids were so captivated by reading their fellow students’ writing,” Chiapella says.

Teacher Jessica Olamit, who has worked with the program for two years at Mission Hill Middle School and Harbor High School, said she values the individualized support and attention her students received from interested adults who are passionate about writing, as well as the professional end product.

“After completing a project with the YWP, students realize how hard writing is, and how a true writer spends most of his or her time rewriting,” she says. “They also get to experience the pride of seeing their hard work published and shared with the larger community.”

In addition to frequent reading and exposure to books and language, Chiapella says the key for a child to become a better writer is practice.

“If Diary of a Wimpy Kid is their favorite book, open it up and read a sentence, and start writing from that sentence,” she says. “If a student can write a paragraph every day, his writing will improve by leaps and bounds in one year.”


Click here for ideas to encourage kids to write.

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