Open Society Institute Impact Series
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Notebooks Full of Beautiful Ideas

Photos by: Colby Ware

February 25, 2015

As an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Patrice Hutton taught creative writing in a city school where she saw first-hand the dearth of creative writing in classrooms in low-income neighborhoods. So in 2008, she started the after-school program Writers in Baltimore Schools, with the help of an OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship.

Every summer—as a highlight of her program—Hutton brings a group of talented students from the city’s schools to camp for a week of learning, writing and camaraderie.

Bryonna Reed

Bryonna Reed, 16, came to the program from Baltimore City College High School. But even among some of the city’s brightest, she still felt like her need to write wasn’t fully understood or appreciated. “Some of my friends get it, but most of them can’t understand how this is my art,” she says. “It’s our outlet and our outreach to get people to listen to us.”

Sahara Page, Journee Cuffie and Kyra Smith

Hutton strives to give writers time, space and the encouragement, closeness, and validation of like-minded peers. Here Sahara Page, Journee Cuffie and Kyra Smith perfect a composition, while Taj Logan (foreground) works nearby. “My first year coming to camp, I wasn’t that knowledgeable about writing,” says Journee, 15. “Now I’m writing short stories. And probably next time, I’ll be writing a novel.”

Patrice Hutton, 2008 Baltimore Community Fellow

“What we do at camp is try to shake them free from the strictures of public school writing,” Hutton says. “It’s divorcing the idea of writing as this rote, practiced thing they do for standardized testing. I’m constantly telling them, ‘No, this is your thing. You are free to do whatever you want.’”


Inside their notebooks by the end of the week are masterful short stories, arresting poetry, and the beginnings of beautiful ideas waiting to be fleshed out. One girl’s journal began: “But the tide always turns / And the wind always blows / In the other direction / Of home…”

Dustin Reynolds and Journee Cuffie

Adult instructors encourage students and help them refine their work, Hutton says. Some are teachers or former teachers, guidance counselors, graduate students or just Hutton’s friends who enjoy writing. Here, Dustin Reynolds—an unpaid volunteer—helps Journee Cuffie improve a short story.

Khaliah Williams and A’ Yanna Solomon

Community is a major theme at the summer writers’ studio.  Second year camper A’ Yanna Solomon, 14, breathed a sigh of relief the first time she found herself surrounded by fellow writers. “When you first get here, it feels great, because you’re around people who understand how significant this is,” she says. (A’Yanna is pictured here with instructor Khaliah Williams, who is reading A’Yanna’s work on her phone.)

Terrell Kellam

Terrell Kellam was one of Patrice Hutton’s first students to participate in Writers in Baltimore Schools.  As a child, Terrell says he was never one of the “popular” kids. “I didn’t need friends because I had an imagination,” Terrell, now 20, says. “Writing took me places that I never would have gone.”

Dion Barnes

When camp ends on Friday, the students take the show on the road. They head to Red Emma’s, a coffee shop and bookstore in Station North, and, with an audience of parents, friends, teachers and others, read their work aloud. Here, Dion Barnes, 13, proudly stands in front of the crowd and reads words he perfected at camp.

Patrice Hutton and Jailyn King

Hutton (shown here hugging Jailyn King) feels a particular closeness with her young writers. “Middle school, I know, is terrible for everyone,” Hutton says, “But for writers, readers—people like these kids—it can be even worse. I think that’s why my heart goes out to the kids in middle school. I was quiet and nervous in middle school myself. Writing was my outlet.”

The Story


At the top of Shock Rock in Frederick, Md., 23 students gathered this summer to write. They were 50 miles away from their homes and schools in Baltimore City, but they might as well have been in another world. Looking out from a birds-eye perch at farmland and treetops, waterways—even blue-gray mountains—they breathed in the day’s air, and noted hints of sarsaparilla. They traversed the rocky planks and soaked in the sun. Some talked amongst themselves—about their favorite storybook-turned-movie characters, about patriarchal societies, standardized testing and nature. Others sat quietly alone, thinking of music and love, memories old and new—words, words and more words.

This is just what Patrice Hutton imagined three years ago when she built into her successful after-school writers’ program a sleep-away summer camp for middle and high schoolers. She wanted to get her students out of the city and immersed in their writing.  She wanted to give them simultaneously the power of solitude and the nourishment of being in a writers’ community.

“There’s something special about taking them to this remote environment outside of Baltimore,” says Hutton, who started Writers in Baltimore Schools in 2008, with the help of an OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, and has grown the program from one school to four. “It shows them how your brain can function in other ways—outside of the hubbub of the city and school—that are more conducive to concentration and creativity.”

The writers spend a week at Mar-Lu-Ridge Summer Camp and Education and Conference Center, doing things that campers do—hiking, telling ghost stories, roasting marshmallows, swimming. But they also spend intense time in workshops learning about imagery, metaphors, narration and points of view. And then more time still sprawled out on sofas, or curled up on Adirondack chairs, writing, revising, and writing some more.

“Because of Ms. Hutton, I’ve been able to experience a lot of things,” says Terrell Kellam, one of Patrice Hutton’s first students who came back this summer as a junior camper. “She gave me a chance to be around people who thought like me. Once or twice a week I had something to look forward to. And it made a difference.”

With Hutton’s help, Terrell was accepted into both the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, experiences he calls “amazing.”

“Iowa and Kenyon would’ve never happened if it weren’t for her,” he says. “She’s just always there for me.”

Read more from Hutton’s Writers in Baltimore Schools—who are working on a project called “Black Words Matter” here: