Category: Decatur Book Festival

Let’s hear it for our Scribes

For the past decade, Labor Day weekend has been one of our favorite times of year at the Wren’s Nest. We always had a booth at the Decatur Book Festival and threw a publication party to celebrate the book of stories written by our Scribes, the middle school students in our writing program at KIPP Strive Academy. (That’s 2019’s party in the photos.)

We can’t do either this year. Because of the pandemic, the 2020 book festival went virtual and virtually all its in-person events were canceled — including our booth and our book party for the students and their families.

As many of you know, we’ve been publishing the stories and parts of stories created by our Scribes on the Wren’s Nest website in our “Summer of Scribes.” The last of five installments will be posted this Friday.

We had to do it this way — no print volume, online only — because the pandemic short-circuited our time with the students. The Atlanta public schools went online in March, so the work of our budding writers and the communications professionals we pair with them as mentors had to go online as well. We had mixed success at best.

The last installment of Scribes stories this week is a sort of kibbles-and-bits anthology. It consists of six story fragments, none longer than 500 words. Why so many incomplete stories? Because middle school students, like writers everywhere (including me!), have a tendency to push their deadlines. When classes at KIPP Strive Academy went online in March, we had completed only seven of our 12 weeks together. As a three-time mentor, I know that most of the writing happens in those final weeks.

So please join us in congratulating these young people — our Scribes class of 2020 — for becoming published authors, however strange the path has been. Their names:

Ajahla Jefferson, Akiva Bryant, Alexandria Tyrus, Amaya Conner, Amirah Jabbie, Ashe Davis, Brooke Fuller, Delaney Gordon, Faith Lawrence, Grayson Trawick, Hilton McGill, Kaydance Brown, Layla Dixon, Malia Dewberry (on the left in the photo), Mustafa Kilinc, Nikai Brown, Nola Hemphill (on the right in the photo), Ry’En Dillard, Ryan Henderson, Taylor Haney, Travis Lawrence, Tulah Jefferson, Ty-Rionna Hightower.

Thank you to our 15 mentors. And special thanks to our coordinating teacher at KIPP, Celeste Clark.

We didn’t get to get have our party this year — the customary sheet cake and punch — and listen to students read from their work. We did what we could. Here’s hoping things have returned to normal by next Labor Day.

Writing in a time of coronavirus

Perhaps it was an omen.

Three Scribes at KIPP Strive Academy working on their stories before the shutdown. From left: Amaya Conner, Faith Lawrence, Amirah Jabbie.

In January, when we asked students in our Scribes writing program to pick a topic for their stories, we suggested that since it was 2020, they look 20 years ahead and describe the world of the near future. Our students are middle-schoolers and love science fiction, so many of them imagined doomsday scenarios involving meteors and climate disasters.

We had no idea how eerie it would all seem in a few weeks.

Scribes is one of the best things we do at the Wren’s Nest. Every year, we recruit media professionals to mentor middle-school students at the KIPP Strive Academy, a public charter school that occupies the former Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School building near our home in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta. Lain Shakespeare, our former executive director, started the program in 2010. More than 125 students and more than 110 different mentors — writers, academics, journalists, PR people — have participated. This is our 10th anniversary year.

My wife, Pam, and I — both semi-retired journalists — directed this year’s program in consultation with KIPP English teacher Celeste Clark. Twenty-five students and 15 mentors signed up. We would meet every Thursday after school and spend an hour working with the students, getting to know them, helping them choose their topics, talking about storytelling, critiquing their early drafts in Google Docs. You could feel the enthusiasm.

Then the pandemic struck.

The 2019 class of Scribes in the entrance of the old Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School.

We had just finished our March 12 session when the Atlanta school system announced that all classrooms would be closed because of the coronavirus. We were seven weeks into a 12-week course, and we weren’t sure whether we could continue.

We tried to mentor our students online. But as any teacher in America can tell you now, distance learning, while better than nothing, pales in comparison to classroom instruction. Some of our Scribes had internet connectivity issues. Many were distracted by the strangeness of trying to work in a shelter-at-home environment. Some no doubt saw it as an extended snow day.

The goal of Scribes is to produce a collection of stories that the Wren’s Nest publishes in a book. We’ve put out 10 Scribes volumes since 2010 — that’s last year’s cover on the left. Every Labor Day weekend, we host a launch party for the students and their families at the Decatur Book Festival, one of the largest and best book festivals in the country. I’ve been to many of these parties and have never tired of watching bright middle-schoolers become published authors for the first time.

It’s going to be different this year. More than half of the students have not finished their stories, so we don’t have enough content for a traditional book. Nor is the book festival likely to take place as it usually does, with tens of thousands of people roaming the streets and crowding assembly halls and church sanctuaries to hear authors talk. There will be no book launch party for our Scribes and their families this year.

So we’re doing what we can to celebrate these student authors. We’re editing the stories we have, choosing excerpts from some of the incomplete ones, and publishing samples of their work on the Wren’s Nest website in the coming weeks. It isn’t what we planned, but we’ve all had to change plans of late.

We promise these stories won’t be too apocalyptic. One of the unfinished ones, for instance, was going to describe a world overrun with giant cats. The working title: “Cat-pocalypse.”

If only our reality had been as cute.

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