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Red Clay Writing Project helps develop next generation of instruction

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Service and Community,   Spotlight

When a student walks into a program at Deep Center, their teacher makes just one assumption: That child is full of powerful stories.

So then the task becomes: How does one extract those stories?

Thus, the power of the Savannah nonprofit sparks to life, creating safe spaces through two programs—the Young Author Project and Block by Block—that encourage kids in middle and high school to ask questions, share their feelings, have a voice in their community and, most importantly, write it all down. And along the way, Deep Center is creating a new way of teaching that could have a profound effect on kids across the country.

"There's this holistic approach to building up the student themselves, which is very needed, and helping them discover their voice. And then there's the aspect of pushing them to discover their voice and perform," says Keith Miller, program director at Deep Center. The nonprofit began in 2008 to address the effects of poverty and literacy in Savannah.

Often in classrooms, Miller says, a teacher approaches writing instruction in a linear way—for example, "I'm going to teach you how to write." But the instructors at Deep Center turn that approach on its head.

"We believe students come to the classroom already full of powerful stories," he says. "We focus on the joy or writing—instead of perfect grammar and punctuation—and encouraging the young person to find their voice."

The result is stories so powerful they could have some from someone with years of writing experience.

"What ends up happening is you have these very fearless stories. It blows your mind every single time because you realize that these students are more fearless than most adults."

The Young Author project has been in place for eight years, working with hundreds of kids each year to tell stories and create live performances. Block by Block was created after graduates of the Young Author project said they wanted a space to continue their writing. The program wrapped up its first full year of programming after a semester pilot program ran on a shoe-string budget two years ago.

Two years ago, Deep Center's executive director Dare Dukes and senior programs director Megan Ave'Lallemant attended the summer intensive program of the Red Clay Writing Project with this request in mind. After four weeks of workshops with fellow teachers from across Georgia, not only did they emerge as Red Clay Writing Project Teacher Consultants, but they also had a newly created curriculum for what was to become Block by Block.

"They were working on their Block by Block curriculum to build a curriculum for young people to research their community, think critically about how the place around them is affecting them as people and decide how they can work together toward social, political or economic change," says Stephanie Jones, a professor in the University of Georgia College of Education and director of the Red Clay Writing Project. "I really think it was transformative for them."

The College of Education's Red Clay Writing Project is affiliated with the National Writing Project, a network of sites at colleges and universities that provide professional development and support for educators who teach writing. With a foundation in social justice and equity, the Red Clay program was a good fit for educators with Deep Center.

Jones adds that having Deep Center take part in Red Clay also meant a lot to the dozens of teachers from across Georgia who also attended the intensive program. The program's small groups and discussions are as much about brainstorming new instruction methods and techniques as they are about exploring different ways to write.

"Deep Center has such an amazing reputation, and people listened to them," she says. "Having them in the same room with public school teachers or private school teachers opens up a traditional teacher's mind to what you could do."

And that's important because Deep Center's techniques can not only be applied to any traditional classroom, but these techniques can be a game-changer for kids who might not otherwise feel a part of the lesson.

The result could be not only a lesson for the students, but for the teachers, too.

"If they have lived experiences and they understand the world in particular ways that are unique to them because of where they live, we need to value those stories and use those stories to expand what is valid and powerful and celebrate it," says Jones.

Deep Center's techniques involve creating a safe space for the students and turning the curriculum upside-down to make students the center of the discussion, rather than have the teacher do most of the talking. Also, inspired by discussions at Red Clay, lessons are centered around a "mentor text," or an example of writing that sparks a discussion.

Block by Block takes this one step further by challenging the students to document people and places in their community. The program recently wrapped up its first full year, and plans a block party to celebrate. The West Side Block Party is planned for 3-7 p.m. Sept. 18 on Wayne Street in Savannah and features dramatic readings by the writers in the program as well as public art installations, music and food trucks.

"In this process, the point is to remind our students their stories matter—which is really important, because a lot of times our kids don't see representation of their stories on TV or in what they read at school," says Miller. "Second, we remind them that they are enough. This is a very powerful thing because for some of our students in school or at home, they are being talked at. So we're always asking, 'What do you think?' How do you feel about that?'"

And while the students' success is evident in their stories, Deep Center sees improvement in students' schoolwork as well.

"We have found that on average all of our students receive at least a half of a letter grade increase as a result of being in Deep," adds Miller, noting the nonprofit tracks student improvement using national standards-based assessments as well, often seeing double-digit improvements in scores by the end of the year.

Add to that the experience of public speaking, discussions about creating change in their neighborhoods and creating a deep understanding of their community, Deep Center students are showing how successful this kind of instruction can be.

"Most people think of literacy as, 'Can students read?' says Miller. "We see critical literacy as not only how students read, but how they see the world around them. How they connect their personal narrative to the social narrative. They are going through this powerful thing that's connected to the world around them."

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602