Teaching children creative writing

Teaching children how to write well may help them become more successful in life. Writing can also be an excellent tool for self-expression and building a sense of identity.

However, Creative Youth Center (CYC) Executive Director Lori Slager says most of the writing taught in schools is “more analytical than creative” and that the creative side of writing is necessary to get kids interested.

At the CYC, they believe that fostering a child’s creativity and giving them an opportunity to express themselves may allow them to someday change the world.
Slager received exciting news recently to help with this. The organization she started in 2009 to teach children creative writing skills was just awarded a $225,000 three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Slager says the CYC will use the grant money to pay some of people who have been generously donating their time and skills. She also recently signed a lease on the building that formerly housed the Literary Life Bookstore at Wealthy and Eastern.  

Currently, CYC volunteers work out of the Baxter Community Center, the Cook Arts Center, and a few other locations. With the new space, Slager says it will seem more like a real business and “it will make it much easier to accept anyone and everyone” and not only those in the neighborhoods they're currently in.

Rockford Construction has offered to build bookshelves and get the space ready for the expected January opening. There will be large work tables inside and a storefront area to sell promotional items, novelty products, books, and more.  

“We’re trying to make a really inspiring place,” Slager says.

The CYC began after board member and Schuler Books & Music President Cecile Fehsenfeld found out about the 826 youth writing group started by award-winning author Dave Eggers. At the time, Slager was teaching writing at the Cook Arts Center. She and Fehsenfeld gathered some helpful advice from the 826 organization and, soon after, launched the CYC.

Initial funding was provided by the Fehsenfeld Foundation, the Awesome Foundation, Dollar General, Wealthy Street business owners, and many other individuals and businesses.  

When children first become involved with the CYC, they are asked to write a personal narrative. This helps the staff figure out where the child is skill wise and it provides an introduction to their world.

Not much critiquing is done in the beginning -- they want to get the children interested in writing first before skills are taught. Once a child starts learning new techniques, Slager says sometimes their writing gets worse before it gets better, which is usually attributed to fear and self-doubt.    

Classes are free and usually separated by age -- 6-9, 10-13, and high school students -- and for the Press Club journalism classes, they’re divided into new and experienced writer groups. The experienced writers have already learned how to interview and don’t need as much guidance as the newer kids.

One of the most exciting parts for the children in the CYC program is to see their work published online or in print. A year ago, a collection of student stories called The CYC Book of Explosions was published. Each of the kids received a copy and the book is currently sold at Schuler Books & Music. There are now enough new stories to fill a second book and Slager hopes to have that produced in the next few months.

Volunteers are always needed to help with tutoring, editing, and design. Slager reached out to a few writers she knew when she first began CYC. She also finds volunteers through the United Way website and at Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand, a business she owns. Everyone has to go through a background check and an interview, and experienced writers with a degree or who are still in college are preferred for the tutoring lessons.

Often, the tutors become role models for the students and end up getting more involved in the child’s life outside of the writing lessons.

“So far, they’ve been amazing,” Slager says.

Program Director Katie Caralis has been volunteering with the CYC around 30 hours a week and now, thanks to the Kellogg grant, she will start getting paid. Her role is to connect the tutors with the students based on what is needed, schedules, and personalities.

Another volunteer and board member, Steven de Polo, says he’s “happy there's a nonprofit that helps children explore their creativity and find their voices through the written word.”

“Lori and her team have great experience and they work very hard on behalf of the children,” he says. “We are also lucky to have such great community partners.”

To encourage more creativity in our area’s youth, here are some ways you can get involved in the Creative Youth Center:

-    Visit the Creative Youth Center online to find out more.
-    Donate to the Creative Youth Center by clicking on the donate button on the website.
-    Volunteer your time.
-    Like them on Facebook.

Sources: Lori Slager, Executive Director of the Creative Youth Center, and Steven de Polo, Board Member and Volunteer Tutor
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by the Creative Youth Center.
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