Changing the World, One Writer at a Time:
Community Outreach in Holyoke MA
Guest Blogger: Kathy Dunn
For the first half of the twentieth century, Holyoke was one of the wealthiest and most arts-rich cities in the nation. Today, its citizens have the lowest average income and the lowest literacy rates in the state. Since the spring of 2013, I’ve been leading writing projects with children ages 9-13 in Holyoke’s public schools and community agencies. I’m not sure who has benefitted more.
Creative writing is both an art and a tool for change. What makes this medium even more compelling is the connection between writing and literacy. And literacy skills impact learning in all arenas, across all ages and stages.
My work in Holyoke began with a small workshop for girls at the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club, using Amherst Writers & Artists methods. “My” girls want to know all about the world around them, and they have something to say about everything. I can’t think of a better set of qualities for a writer – or a better way to develop strong voices in preparation for middle school.
In the spring of 2014, I led a writing workshop for fourth graders in a neighborhood public school. Twice weekly, families delivered their sons and daughters to school early – to write, share, and respond to each other’s stories. We made a lot of noise, and gained a lot of confidence. At the end of the year when it came time to measure reading levels – one indicator of literacy – these students had progressed at three times the rate of their classmates.
This year, I lead five writing groups, both before and during the school day. I’m often at a loss to articulate how hard, and at the same time how rewarding, this work is. My students live with uncertainty about things I take for granted. Poverty impacts their lives in every way – and caring about students means carrying small heart breaks every day.
Still, every child comes to school wanting to learn. Their teachers and administrators are some of the most resourceful and dedicated professionals I’ve ever met. And for two years now, Holyoke’s schools, agencies, and community partners have worked together to build a citywide Literacy Initiative. Their goal: to identify, align, and orchestrate literacy efforts wherever children spend time across the day. This includes a large effort to engage parents and families in literacy learning, as well.
The city’s efforts have won national recognition, and even as the State begins a controversial receivership of the public schools, officials recognize, and express commitment to building upon, the city’s ongoing efforts.
Learning is at stake for some of our most vulnerable children, and there are no simple answers. So I write. I journal, ponder, and consider. Then I plan for the next day’s groups. Writing helps me balance the complexity of forces that impact my work with children on a daily basis. What I can say for certain is that my days are more challenging, my skills are deeper, and my world is far bigger and richer.
Kathy Dunn is Founder and Director of Main Street Writers, offering creative writing workshops and daylong retreats for adults in the Pioneer Valley. Her work has been published in literary journals, anthologies and magazines; she has also received numerous grants for her work with children and teens. Kathy is currently writing reams about her work with children and literacy in Holyoke.