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Savannah's Deep Center honored by White House; influenced by Red Clay Writing Project

  |   Kathryn Kao   |   Permalink   |   Kudos,   Service and Community,   Spotlight

For many underserved students, finding a place to channel their passion and creativity can make all the difference between feeling unwanted and forgotten to feeling completely empowered by the value of their own thoughts and words.

For this very reason, Savannah's Deep Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 to address the effects of poverty on literacy, was recently awarded the 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the White House for its Young Author Project.

The Deep Center was one of only 12 community-based programs chosen from more than 285 nominations nationwide to receive the prestigious award. Additionally, the organization will receive $10,000 to support its programming, which provides free creative writing workshops for underserved public school students in Savannah-Chatham County.

Dare Dukes, the executive director of the Deep Center, and Megan Ave'Lallemant, the center's director of programs, also serve as teaching consultants with the Red Clay Writing Project at the University of Georgia College of Education. The two attended Red Clay's Summer Institute—an 18-day intensive training program for teacher leaders—for the first time this past June.

"The Red Clay Summer Institute really influenced our curriculum and the way we train our educators," said Dukes. "They encourage people to take an inquiry-based approach to training where you're not so much of a teacher or instructor standing up before a room full of people instructing them as you are somebody who is a co-learner in the space and is facilitating the process of mutual learning…That was a huge takeaway for us."

The Young Author Project is the Deep Center's core program that gives young writers an opportunity to express their thoughts and emotions through creative writing. The program's curriculum is heavily focused on skill acquisition, as well as personal mentorship, trust and sharing.

"All of the learning is project-based so our young students can learn a variety of skills," he said. "They can write about really anything, but we encourage them to tell their story in a variety of different ways. We stress that their stories are enough so that they're writing with originality, honesty and fearlessness."

At the end of the semester, Deep publishes a book containing all of the students' best literary pieces. The three most popular ones are read aloud at the center's book launch and reading session called Deep Speaks!. Each session draws around 550 people from around Savannah-Chatham County, and according to Dukes, it is one of the city's most diverse, cultural events.

"A lot of people show up expecting to hear stories about cupcakes and unicorns, and they leave hearing pretty profound middle school voices talking about the same issues that everybody cares about like gun violence, grandma's cornbread or grieving a lost loved one," said Dukes.

He believes that the Deep Center is unique for placing a focus on both reading and writing. In fact, educators often use past stories written by students in the program to introduce new writing skills. After students read and analyze these new techniques, they then try incorporating them into their own writing, which is hugely important from both a learning and humanities perspective, said Dukes.

At the end of the day, the Deep Center is a safe haven where kids can come and express their thoughts without scrutiny and judgment. While these values have always been a part of Deep, Dukes credits the Red Clay Summer Institute, as well as Stephanie Jones, a professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice, for making them more readily available at the center.

"We talked a lot about how to create a space where young people feel like their opinions and voice matters," said Dukes. "The dialogical inquiry-based model of teaching is really a model where you start with the assumption that everybody in the room has knowledge and other assets that can feed the learning process, and so every voice ought to be respected."

This asset-based approach also feeds into the center's holistic take on mentoring. For Dukes, it's important that teachers and educators consider themselves co-writers with the program's young authors. Instead of instructing their students, they are practicing their craft and learning alongside them.

"We tell them to spend 80 percent of their time in the workshop listening rather than instructing to make sure that they're fostering the voices of each and every young person in the room," he said. "And we tell them that they're learners in the room so whatever assumptions they have about the young people they're working with are shattered. When we worked with Red Clay, it really gave us the opportunity to get much more explicit about talking to our educators and making sure this was happening in our workshops."

For Andre Massey, Jr.—the 14-year-old writer who was chosen to represent the center in Washington, D.C.—Deep is a place where literacy, creative writing and mentoring form a perfect intersection. In his speech at the White House, he explains how writing closed a communication gap between him and his father and how Deep was the first place where he felt his feelings really mattered.

"I've spent a lot of time since we won this award making sure people get that Andre is exceptional, but that he's not the exception," said Dukes. "There's a ton of young people in our programs that have remarkable stories like his. What most of them need is just an opportunity to channel their passion and creativity."

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602