Middle school writing program looking for mentors

Written for the Atlanta Writers Club

by Ralph Ellis

“I don’t really remember much about my mom.” That’s the beginning of Amien Hicks’ short story – and I think it’s a grabber. Amien is a student at KIPP STRIVE Academy in Atlanta. I was his mentor last spring in a writing program called Scribes.

Fourteen middle school students wrote short pieces of historical fiction on inventors of color, and Amien was assigned George Washington Carver. He started with Carver’s childhood, when slave raiders stole his mother, and moved through his struggles to obtain an education. Carver overcame racism at every step to become an inventor, college professor, and the most famous African-American of his time. Other Scribes wrote about Garrett Morgan, inventor of the traffic signal, and Charles Drew, who pioneered methods for storing blood plasma for transfusion.

This was the fifth student I’ve mentored, and every time has been an eye opener. Not all the stories are historical fiction. With an agriculture theme, my Scribe wrote about a budding peach tree that blossomed despite being bullied by other trees. When the subject was Atlanta institutions, my student wrote about a CNN reporter who turns back an alien attack on New York City. Yes, their imaginations know no limits.

The Wren’s Nest, the Joel Chandler Harris residence that’s now a museum in West End Atlanta, created and sponsors the Scribes program. Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales, lived in the Queen Anne style home until his death in 1908.

The mentoring program pairs writing professionals, or adults who simply love to write, with middle school students. The mentor spends around an hour a week for a dozen weeks working with the student in a writing lab at KIPP STRIVE Academy or Brown Middle School – both Atlanta public schools in West End. Mentors have been teachers, journalists, college students majoring in English or journalism, social media managers for corporations and public broadcast writers.

How deeply involved does a mentor become? That depends on the student. Kalin Thomas, the program director, provides daily goals for each session, so nobody goes off track. My last Scribe is a confident writer, so mainly I helped with the online research and made minor grammar fixes. Some of my other charges procrastinated, tried to play computer games or agonized over every phrase. Sound familiar? Mentors see a lot of themselves in these young writers.

A few months after my mentoring duties ended, I saw Amien again at the Decatur Book Festival. The Scribes’ stories had been bound together into a softcover book titled “Bright Ideas,” and a launch party was held in a hotel ballroom. The Scribes sat down at a long table and their parents and friends lined up to get books autographed. These middle school students had achieved something special. They were published authors. It was a proud moment for the Scribes – and for me. Being a mentor is not without sacrifice, and not every student is easy. But every session has been gratifying. The Wren’s Nest always needs mentors, so if you’re interested, contact Kalin Thomas here. If you’d like to hear more about my experiences, send a message to rvance52@hotmail.com.

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