Young Women’s Writing Project Helps Girls Find Their Voice
We treat our fellow men so wrong
Then blame it on some one else
And racist sayings
About people of a different color
What is the American Dream?
Just as it says it’s all a Dream
The real question is, when will we start living it
Seventh, eighth and ninth grade students from Roosevelt Junior High School gained a better sense of their talent, creativity and potential from the Young Women’s Writing Project, presented by Hofstra’s Reading/Writing Learning Clinic at the Joan and Arnold Saltzman Community Services Center.
These are the last few lines of a poem titled “The American Dream?” by Jennifer Farquharson, an eighth grader from Roosevelt Middle School who participated in Hofstra’s Young Women’s Writing Project. Read during the program’s closing celebration on June 10, 2005, it was just one of the works to elicit cheers, tears and laughter from the standing-room-only audience of parents, siblings, grandparents, Hofstra reading instructors and faculty, and Roosevelt school administrators. Representatives from Planned Parenthood of Nassau County, Inc., and Joan Saltzman of Hofstra’s Saltzman Community Services Center Advisory Board were also present. It is a program, now preparing for its fourth year, that has helped dozens of teenage girls find both their voice and potential through the process of journal keeping and creative writing.
The Young Women’s Writing Project was born out of a longstanding partnership between Planned Parenthood of Nassau County, Inc., and Hofstra’s Reading/Writing Learning Clinic at the Joan and Arnold Saltzman Community Services Center. Planned Parenthood, through a New York state-funded initiative titled Community Based Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (CBAPP), had been providing funding and working closely with Roosevelt students and Hofstra on a series of literacy support services to help young people think in more creative ways about their future and set higher goals for themselves as readers, writers and learners. Clinic Director Andrea Garcia says that “the Roosevelt district was chosen because it was identified as a community with a high risk for teenage pregnancy.”
“In the past,” says Dr. Garcia, “we offered after-school services that were co-ed and more one-on-one oriented. Attendance was an issue. It was hard to motivate the students, who felt they were coming for remedial purposes.”
Still, the enthusiasm of some of the girls impressed the Hofstra instructors. They modified the program, so for the 2002-2003 school year it was reborn as the Young Women’s Writing Project for seventh graders. Dr. Garcia says the revised format worked much better. “That first year was very successful, and by the second year, the original young women, at this point in eighth grade, were asking to come back to complete the work they had started.”
Dr. Garcia explains that the girls’ desire to return for a second year prompted Amy Gaddes, the literacy specialist working with them, to rethink the program model yet again. “We came up with the notion of a mentoring program so that the eighth graders would be able to participate in the program with the new seventh grade students. This added another tier.”
In the early days of the revised five-week program, the eighth graders received mentorship training, and their younger peers were asked to read poetry, coming-of-age stories and books to help stir their creativity and get them ready to write.
“The mentors are asked to think of themselves as guides and find ways to facilitate the writing process for others. They share their success stories and things that worked for them as writers. It’s very goal-oriented,” says Dr. Garcia.
“One of the things we noticed early on,” Dr. Garcia says, “is that when you provide a space for these young women to express themselves, the conversation quickly turns to the things that matter most to them: their community, friendship, loneliness, attention, love or the lack of.”
It was no surprise that for 2004-2005, several ninth graders, who had participated in the previous two years, wanted to come back yet again. Dr. Garcia, Ms. Gaddes and a new reading and literacy instructor, Melissa Cody, allowed those older girls to serve as expert writers. The returning eighth graders remained mentors and a whole new group of seventh graders were brought in, bringing the program participation up to 24 students
Bussed to Hofstra’s campus for two hours a week from Roosevelt, the girls formed dynamic relationships with one another and with Dr. Garcia and the instructors. “One of the first things you notice when you walk in the room is the energy,” Dr. Garcia says of the weekly gatherings. “There really is a special connection that develops between the students and teachers. Relationships become very important. The program is very organic in that the instructors sow the seeds but the students take the experience where they want it to go.”
“Some girls are very comfortable right away and begin writing. Others are not,” says Dr. Garcia. “We respect that. This is for them. This is not for a grade or for passing an exam. So some students may write as many as 25 poems and others may only produce a few. We don’t look at it quantitatively. It’s for the experience.”
Dr. Garcia is not yet sure if this year’s ninth grade participants will be allowed to return for a fourth year: “We don’t know what is happing next,” she laughs. She is clearly pleased that it has been the students who have steered the direction for the project. “We discovered by observing the girls closely that through their engagement with literacy we were developing their self-esteem,” she says. “We’ve seen them develop as strong leaders. I think originally we hoped they would learn how to express themselves through writing, but they are also now much more aware of their potential and they are comfortable setting newer and higher goals for themselves.”
For the parents, too, the program is enlightening. “They raise their expectations. They are moved by the powerful words in their girls’ work. They are voicing issues they find hard to talk about.”
The Young Women’s Writing Project has also had an impact on the community. As a result of their experiences in the program, the girls recently requested the start of a mentorship program in the Roosevelt district itself. And for the first time they also organized in committees to plan all aspects of the closing celebration on June 10, where each girl read her most meaningful work. As a suggested means of admission, the young women also asked guests to donate a book to the Roosevelt Junior High School Library relating to the challenges and coming of age of young minority women.
If the students have their way and this tradition continues, the books to be donated may someday be written by them.