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Bringing Writing Into Baltimore Schools

“I want you to think about how to get rid of wishy-washy words,” Writing Seminars graduate Phyllis Zhu ’11 instructed asmall group of Baltimore middle school students during a summer writing workshop at Barclay Elementary/Middle School. Standing next to a white-board loaded with “wishy-washy” words and phrases, she pointed at the first example. “What’s a better way to write ‘not so often’?”

“Oh I know!” shouted Alecia Shuler, who was just a few days from starting the sixth grade. Her raised hand was mostly for show, as an answer was forth- coming whether Zhu called on her or not. “Rarely!”

As it turns out, simple lessons in writing and communication like these are becoming increasingly rare in less affluent schools—in Baltimore, and else- where. According to the Maryland State Department of Education, about 24 percent of Baltimore City students are “not proficient” readers when tested in the fifth grade. That figure jumps to 39 percent when students are tested in the eighth grade. (Writing ability is not as thoroughly tested in many Maryland schools, but the pattern appears to be similar.) Though language arts are taught during those middle school years, writing instruction has virtually disappeared in many less-privileged schools state-wide, and writing proficiency has followed suit.

One Johns Hopkins alum has set out to reverse that trend. Patrice Hutton founded Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS) within months of her 2008 graduation from the Writing Seminars with little more than some helpful mentors and a newfound passion to teach. “When I was at Hopkins, I taught a writing workshop at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, which was arranged through the Writing Seminars program,” she says. “The kids were just awesome. I mean, I met a seventh-grade boy who was writing an epic sci-fi novel all on his own. Working with him and his classmates really resonated with my experience in high school and at Hopkins. They helped me realize that this could be so much bigger.”

After graduation, Hutton worked with local principals and administrators to launch a pilot summer writing workshop at Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, just a few blocks from the Homewood campus. Within months, Writers in Baltimore Schools was up and running, at first with in-school programs meant to complement city curricula, and eventually hosting after-school writing clubs and workshops. Hutton plays the role of director, fundraiser, and instructor, with advice from Bill Tiefenwerth, director of the JHU Center for Social Concern, and Mary Jo Salter, a professor and poet in the Writing Seminars. “I keep waiting to find some book or formal training that teaches me the secrets to everything,” says Hutton, “but until then I’ve realized that I can do a lot with just trial and error and guidance from people like Bill and Mary Jo.” Hutton recalled WBS’s first open mic night, where she challenged her students to practice oration and celebrate their creative writing by reading their stories in front of an audience … and only one student showed up. “I’ve learned to be more tenacious, even if it means I have to meet a student at their parents’ house and walk them to class or an event.”

In spite of not yet finding the book that explains everything, Hutton has grown WBS into a full-fledged nonprofit, having initiated in-school writing workshops, after-school writing clubs, and summer writing workshops in five underprivileged schools around Baltimore City. More than 300 middle school students have worked their way through at least one WBS program, a head count that has required Hutton to enlist interns and volunteer teachers—mostly Writing Seminars students like Phyllis Zhu.

Thanks to funding from more than 60 corporate and individual supporters, WBS is now a full-time job for Hutton, who is looking to expand programming—inside and outside Baltimore’s city limits. She recently started a similar after-school writing program with a few of her favorite childhood teachers in Wichita, Kansas, her hometown. “There is really no limit to how many schools we could reach,” she says.

Watch Hutton and the Writers in Baltimore Schools in action below: