November 17, 2017

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Keeping a Kids’ Writing Workshop Going

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“Free Verse” author and workshop leader Sarah Dooley.

In 2010, Sarah Dooley, author of Free Verse (Putnam, 2016), launched a library writing group with four kids. Little did she know that they’d still be together six years later.

A former public school teacher, Dooley made a career switch in 2010 to treating children with autism. Back when she was in the classroom, she had her students participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and she missed writing with students. So Dooley approached the youth librarian at the Cabell County Library (CCL) in Huntington, WV, about leading writing sessions there. The four who showed for the first meeting included a 10-year-old with a 30-page ghost story composed in pink and purple ink. “I hope it’s OK that I already started!” the girl said.

1605_KeepWorkshop-Dooley-FreeVerseThe library provided “space and piles of paper” during the initial 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday night meetings, which evolved as the participants matured—and kept coming back. Initially, sessions were structured, but not too structured. Dooley would kick off with “a really loose writing prompt.” For instance, she would have kids reach into a “bag of words” and select one to include in a poem, story, or novel in progress. After working for an hour, anyone who wanted to share would read aloud.

During sessions focusing on revision, Dooley provided tips. “Read your writing with an eye toward continuity,” she advised. “Does the time line make sense? Does the name change halfway through?” Regarding language: “Does it still sound pretty? Do you still want to turn the pages?” While critiquing a buddy’s work: “What startles you out of the writing?”

In upper middle school, students would sometimes bring in 30-second sound clips—of music, dialogue from a show, or something else—for inspiration. Dooley would also go “to the antique shop and grab a bunch of old photos, postcards, and letters” for prompts.

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Dooley recently led a magnetic poetry exercise for young people at the library.

“I had kids writing in a variety of genres—poetry about a romance gone wrong; a dystopian novel set in this futuristic forest,” Dooley says. “We talked a lot about the fact that a lot of fiction is autobiographical, whether they realize it or not.”

For those working on long projects, she tried to hone in on outcome—what the tweens’ packed notebooks “were heading toward.” She steered them to NaNoWriMo’s plot roller coaster organizer and character questionnaire.

Sometimes, she shared her own writing. She also told them not to throw away old compositions: “You can mine them for gold later.” Dooley often finds “a snippet of dialogue” or something else useful in her own old, “cringe-worthy” attempts.

Over time, the group has grown to about 15 members, shrunk to the original four, and gone on hiatus. “After we had taken a break, I went to their high school to do a writing workshop,” Dooley says. A student updated her on another member’s novel: “ ‘You won’t believe what is going on!’ It was neat to see them trying to structure things [without] me.” The group now meets about once a month. “It’s much more informal and led by the kids—like the groups I’m in with adult writers.”

Dooley dedicated Free Verse to Beth Anne, the pink ghost story author, and all her “library writers.” At a recent CCL book launch and reading of Free Verse, Beth Anne brought prompts for a poetry workshop, including a digital picture frame cycling through images.

Recognizing a passage from Dooley’s novel, a member said, “You read this page at the meeting. You were stuck on that years ago!” Dooley says, “I wanted them to see that this is really a real job, and you can power through it.”

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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