Category: Storytelling

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.

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.

Our Friend Jane Yudelson

Our dear friend Jane Yudelson passed away on May 29th. Jane and her husband of nearly 67 years, Harold, have been long time friends of ours here at the Wren’s Nest. Harold served on the Board for many years and was our Board Chair for a time. Jane and Harold met in an art history class at the University of Pennsylvania. Jane not only helped Harold pass the class, but became the love of his life. They had three children together, six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. Jane was an accomplished artist with her own gallery in Buckhead. We will miss her elegant and joyful presence.

Let's Hear it for Mary Claire Kelly!

The Wren’s Nest’s very own Mary Claire Kelly did something great. Not that we’re surprised or anything. Anyone who’s apart of the Wren’s Nest Team, the young scribes, their mentors, Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, Mr. Harris, they never fail to impress us around here.

One of our Brown Middle School mentors had an article featured on WABE 90.1FM, Atlanta’s NPR News Station. Can someone say complete awesomeness?

Mary-Claire-Kelly

Kelly’s article was featured as a part of WABE’s Beautiful City series, where journalists are showcasing special places to go in Atlanta for those of us who love Atlanta too much and just don’t want to leave, or simply for those who have been in Atlanta for a while and have yet to get “culturally acquainted”  (Side note: If you’re looking to get culturally acquainted, right here at the Wren’s Nest is a perfect place to start!)

Anyway Let’s clap it up for Mary Claire Kelley. She highlighted the Lake Claire Community Land Trust. Pretty interesting if I do say so myself!

Go ahead and check it out. Here’s the link to view the pictures, read the article, and listen to the podcast. Great Job Mary Claire Kelly! http://bit.ly/1FD9EfF

Our Words for Goodwin

George Goodwin died last week. Born and raised right around the corner from us, George left the entire nation with a wonderful example of what it means to make a difference. Well known for being the first Atlanta journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished local reporting in his 1947 series exposing voter fraud in Telfair County, Georgia, George played a major role in shaping Atlanta’s transformation from a rural town to the cultural metropolitan area that it is today. “Be it planning for growth and development; sustaining libraries and the arts; promoting philanthropy; improving education; advancing race relations or encouraging civic responsibility, George Goodwin was a force for progress and understanding.”

Back in the day The Wren’s Nest was a Carnegie Library – at least one room was. George told me he spent hours and hours as a boy reading at The Wren’s Nest. He claimed that those hours were a big part of his love of the written word and development as a writer. I only met him the last couple years of his life but it was clear that in addition to his wit and heart, his charm was a big part of the legacy he leaves and the example he set for us all of a life of service. He was 97.

 

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