For Christine Chisolm, the fact that her son was a “reluctant writer,” anxious even at the thought of putting pencil to paper, was only part of the problem. His teachers, trying to help, encouraged him to practice writing through a remedial program that, Chisolm thought, threatened to sap any enjoyment he might get out of writing and school. But she also lamented the lack of other opportunities for writing for young people, remedial or not.
Then she found Spells Writing Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching Philadelphia’s kids not only how to write, but that writing is, at its very core, a fun, creative, and personal process.
“At Spells, Eamonn was thrown together with young writers of many different ages, abilities and interests,” Chisolm said. “You managed to inspire and engage all those children, individually as writers, and collectively as a community of diverse young learners. All of Eamonn’s writing was integrated into engaging, fun activities until the writing itself became the engaging and fun activity.”
For Liz Encarnacion, the program director at Spells, this is the highest compliment. Encarnacion, a children’s book editor, runs Spells’ various programs, from one-off workshops throughout the year, to summer camp, to programs they bring into public schools throughout the city, working with students for 4 to 5 weeks at a time to develop their creative writing skills outside of the traditional curriculum model. All the programs at Spells are completely free of charge, run through grants and donations.
To keep it free—while increasing its impact—for the first time in its seven-year history, Spells has launched a fundraising campaign, which includes a crowdfunding video through Generosity, the nonprofit arm of IndieGoGo. The video launched yesterday, with a goal of raising $25,000 to double the organization’s presence in schools during the 2016-2017 academic year.
Because, as the fundraising video explains, Philadelphia is a city in need: 68 percent of Philadelphia students performed below proficient on the PSSA standardized English exam, up from 58 percent in 2012; 86 percent of 4th grade students in Philadelphia scored below proficient in literacy skills, and these same 4th graders are four times more likely to drop out of school, adding to a citywide dropout crisis; 22 percent of Philadelphia adults are illiterate and more than half of all adults in the city read or write below a 3rd grade level, making it virtually impossible to fill out a job application on their own.
In classrooms, Spells can do many things that traditional teachers cannot. “So many teachers would love to do what we are able to do,” said Encarnacion, “but they are forced to focus on the kind of writing that allows students to test well, because it is all about the standardized tests.”
The formulaic writing method is, intentionally, the antithesis of what Spells does. Sometimes Encarnacion and her team of volunteers dress up in lab coats as scientists led by “Dr. Benjamin Franklin Spells” to help kids think of writing as an experiment, a process of reimagining stories in different ways and constantly revising. Another in-school program has students use all their senses to think about what they want their future to hold, and write their own version of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Other times Encarnacion uses rollercoasters to show how a story-arc should be structured. Spells’ summer camp includes week-long themed sessions—like “sports writing” and “secret agent camp”—and one of their most popular workshops taught kids about the science behind superheroes and then asked them to come up with their own superhero and write a story about their character.
While it started as an after-school program in North Philly, Spells has focused in recent years on getting into more public schools in every area of the city. (While they typically target 4th to 6th graders in schools, they have also done programs in high schools around college essays and other unique workshops.) The in-school programs complement the existing curriculum, but turn them into fun classroom activities. With a strong volunteer base and an active board made up of people from creative circles throughout the city, the organization has managed to do almost all of its work with an annual budget of about $80,000-$100,000, most of which consists of in-kind donations like supplies and pro bono work.
“Our program director is paid next to nothing, and our executive director is 100% pro bono and has been for all seven years [that we have been in existence],” explains Spells president Steve Wittenberg, “so we’ve done an amazing job of growing an organization without really any budget.”
According to Wittenberg, about 500 kids did in-school programs this year, in addition to several hundred others who experienced Spells through summer camp and other activities—like The Citizen-sponsored Write Your Block workshop in the winter. Now, Spells is hoping to make that number 1,000 for next year, with the ultimate goal of spreading Spells’ “irreverent” writing programs throughout the district.
“We’re telling people: help the students learn to write so that everyone can write,” says Wittenberg. “We want to be a better community, a more educated community. And so we’re asking for everyone else’s help to help us get there.”Photo: Spells Writing Lab