Program pairs student volunteers with young writers
April 16, 2014
By Jillian Birkholz '15
In a brightly lit community meeting room, Bennies and Johnnies greet young students filing in holding notebooks and pencils. The young students take seats around large, square tables and wait to hear what they will be writing for the next hour and a half.
On Saturday afternoons during the academic year, students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University become teachers at the St. Cloud Public Library for a writing workshop series called Creative Cloud.
CSB sophomore English and theology major Melissa Torgerson and SJU senior communication major Cody Lynch are the student coordinators for the 2013-14 year. Each week, a team of CSB/SJU volunteers from a variety of academic majors join Torgerson and Lynch in leading workshops.
"I was really interested in finding some kind of service opportunity in college, and this one just jumped right out at me," Torgerson said. "It gave me a chance to volunteer while also developing my own writing skills."
The workshops concentrate on poetry in the fall and fiction in the spring, providing building blocks for various styles of writing. Each session focuses on a different element of the writing process, and students, who range in age from 8 to 18 across two sessions, get a chance to practice that skill and discuss the writing exercises with each other and the CSB/SJU mentors.
The students gain literature-based skills that improve writing ability and reading comprehension, but also empower students both in and out of the classroom.
"We're interested in asset building," said Chris Bolin, an instructor in the CSB/SJU English department who serves as the faculty director for the program, which was developed by CSB student Kit Chambers and SJU student Eddie Hanlon in 2012. "Some of them might need poetry or fiction to get through a rough patch or it might be the thing that makes them feel connected to other people when very few things do. So that's as important as the kid being able to raise his or her hand to answer a question about metaphor."
"It's really rewarding work. It's fun to work with students who are self-motivated, confident, and a lot of times really impressive writers, especially considering their ages," Lynch said. "It comes easier for some of them than others, but overall the students desire to keep learning more about the material and more about how to keep strengthening their writing."
Every volunteer attends a training session where they gain knowledge of youth development theory, how to manage a classroom, and how to teach and possibly develop their own lesson plans.
"I explain to them that we create the reality, so if we explain and show them that poetry and fiction are ways to gain experience beyond oneself, they'll take that as reality," Bolin said. "And in fact, you just opened a door for them."
The program is open to all St. Cloud area students, but Bolin hopes to reach out to high-risk students specifically. Torgerson and Lynch visit underperforming schools to recruit out of the classroom and feature information about the program in school newsletters to reach parents.
"We have kids who are nervous about being vulnerable and we can make those kids feel comfortable and safe," Bolin said. "Part of what we do is show kids how to unlock themselves - find something to which they can respond comfortably until they're ready to tackle something else."
"Every student is different and every teacher is different," Torgerson said. "We had a student once who was just having a really difficult time getting started with his work. We made our usual rounds in the classroom and every student teacher tried to get him to engage with the work. It wasn't until the last student teacher made it to this student that there was any kind of connection."
For Bolin, moving forward with the program means finding a way to reach the largest number of students. Especially for high-risk students, transportation is an obstacle.
"I'm always trying to find the best way to reach the most kids," Bolin said. "We want to be a community organization that's open to kids of all stripes."
Torgerson and Lynch would like to see Creative Cloud expand and draw more CSB/SJU volunteers. Along with benefitting young community members, the program also has built-in perks for CSB/SJU volunteers leading the writing workshops.
"I'd really like to get more people actively involved," Torgerson said. "I'd like to see us really develop a good curriculum for the program, with substantial options and variety in our lesson plans."
"Everyone there has a respect for creative writing. So I think for a lot of people, at least for myself, there is a value in just being able to teach that," Lynch said. "Along with that teaching, it gives a full-circle understanding for you as you're also learning and trying to produce your own writing. That adds a lot of value."
"There are skills that are required for teaching and managing kids and being responsible for their creative lives, which is really the responsibility you bear when you walk them through creative writing exercises," Bolin said. "Ultimately, I hope all of these students go into working with kids in some way, but the fact of the matter is they're not going to. So short of that, I hope that they can come out during an interview or grad school essay and talk about a meaningful experience and connect it to their lives going forward."