KIPP students get professional help to tell their stories

ByLaura Miller

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Around 3:15 p.m. on a Wednesday, writers arrive at the KIPP STRIVE Academy in southwest Atlanta to meet with select students, as they will weekly until April.

The Scribes Program, part of the Atlanta-based storytelling organization The Wren’s Nest, began in 2010 at KIPP STRIVE, a charter school, with 14 students creating, writing and publishing their own book on a shared topic. The Wren’s Nest brings in professional writers to serve as mentors who work one-on-one with students, sharing talent, encouraging ideas, and helping with story structure.

This year’s topic, Inventors of Color, has spawned books on Betty Harris, Madam C.J. Walker, and George Washington Carver. Ten African -Americans, one Latino and two Native American inventors will be featured.

During a 12-week period, the mentor and student meet once a week to compose and write their creative fiction story. The finished books will be presented at the Decatur Book Festival in September.

Modeled after the 826 Valencia Writing Program in New York City, Scribes has gained a solid following. Many students come back year after year, and mentors are so inspired that they return as well; some have been mentors every year of the program’s existence.

“The Wren’s Nest is a very special place, not only in Atlanta but in American literary history,” said Chad Hagan, a fourth-time mentor. “Storytelling is the basis of most entertainment too, so to work on that and help cultivate young authors’ storytelling process is pretty profound.”

Choosing students and mentors begins well in advance of the January start. Interested students in grades five through eight write an essay; the winning few are chosen as the year’s Scribes participants. They are then paired with mentors who have been through an orientation and class that includes learning how to assist students and construct a story in a limited amount of time.

Each week, the mentors and students sit together and complete the Frame Up, a comprehensive list that Program Director Kalin Thomas creates every week to help the process along.

“We believe that young folks can learn a lot from one-on-one interactions from older folks,” according to The Wren’s Nest website. “We also believe that a hands-on education is a great way to improve writing skills, bring families closer together, and validate the stories of southwest Atlanta.”

This echoes the creed of Joel Chandler Harris, the famed Atlanta author and folklorist who wholeheartedly believed in “inspiring education and empathy among neighbors in Atlanta.”

Mentor Taylor Schwensohn agrees.

“I’ve always loved writing, and when I realized that I could help kids discover and develop their own talent for it, I knew I was hooked,” she said. “I’m a fierce advocate for arts education. In today’s world, opportunities for students to learn creative writing, music, or painting are the first to go when schools experience budget cuts and shortened class periods.

“So I’m especially thankful for programs like The Wren’s Nest Scribes that give them that extra chance.”

The Wren’s Nest Scribes Program emphasizes unity, collaboration and nurture for young writers, and is dedicated to providing that service one story at a time.