This August, Writers in Baltimore Schools held its first sleepaway writing camp, the weeklong Baltimore Young Writers Studio. We’ve held two-day writing studios in Baltimore before, but this year, we took fourteen kids between the ages of twelve to sixteen to the woods of western Maryland for an intensive writing experience. It was a homegrown project, staffed by local writers and Teach for America dynamos, and created in the image of the writing camp that perhaps changed the direction of my young life, the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. As a teenager, that camp helped me realize that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d need to develop a work ethic, read everything I could find, and surround myself with a community of writers. I wanted to create the same experience for the young writers of Baltimore City. I’m happy to say I think we succeeded.
At the Studio, every morning, the teenagers rose to write. They attended workshops on character creation, point of view, grammar for writers, and story structure. They found a dying frog and eulogized it with a personalized rendition of “Amazing Grace” (“Amazing Leaper”) and wrote commemorative stories of its better days. They watched the sunset over Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia and rose to the challenge of writing about the sunset in three ways they’d never heard it described before. They wrote ghost stories and performed them by flashlight, in the dark. Sometimes we had to nudge the kids on to pool time, knowing they wouldn’t want to miss it, even though they were determined to finish writing a story. They produced dozens of stories and poems, which will be published in a Studio anthology. And their post-Studio evaluations melted our hearts: “I had the time of my life at camp. Make it longer next year.”
Just after the Studio, I met two individuals who run summer programs for talented youth, and I asked how I could get my students slots in their programs next year. One smiled nervously and told me that they only take kids who can sit through a full day of workshops. The other said that they work with kids who are capable of things like reading Dostoyevsky in 6th grade. Implicit in both statements was the assumption that my students, Baltimore City kids, would not have the focus or drive necessary to thrive in one of these programs. Both conversations left me furious. I smiled politely and told them that at our Studio, workshops often ran all day, and that I would encourage my students to apply.
Sadly, similarly low expectations frequently shape our institutions and policies, depriving youth of growth opportunities. We need to raise our expectations for Baltimore’s youth and then offer them opportunities that meet these expectations. At Writers in Baltimore Schools, we plan to expand our Writers’ Studio and are using its intensity as a model to further develop our school year programming. Youth, across Baltimore, across the nation, are capable of rising to meet high expectations—if only we have the audacity to challenge them.