Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Establishing A Teen Creative Writing Workshop a guest post by Rayne Lacko

Every teen has something to say. They need a safe place to discover, cultivate, and share their emerging voices. Creating a Teen Writers Workshop at your library allows young people the opportunity to grow both as writers and readers. I’ll show you how two YA authors teamed up with a teen librarian to create a successful monthly workshop, and let you in on The Secret Workshop Ingredient That Changes Lives.

Do Teens Really Want to Come to a Writing Workshop?

Armed with a solid vocabulary and capable of articulating complex thoughts, teens wrestle with tough social and political questions, and discover feelings strong enough to drive them to activism, to social justice, to speaking up. They are passionate about their values and principals and hold a deep desire to share their views authentically—without negative judgment from peers. Some teens create a persona on social media, or step up to a visible leadership role as a path to figuring out what the future holds and how they fit in it. Other teens immerse themselves in words, filling journals with prose, line drawings, dreams, and rants. Many slip into the fictional dreamworlds provided by YA novels, admiring how favorite protagonists handle the big questions of growing up.

Over the last four years teaching the Teen Writing Workshop at Bainbridge Island branch of Kitsap Regional Library (WA) to writers in grades 7-12, our workshop has attracted the journal-fillers and passionate storytellers already halfway through their first novel manuscript; our workshop is haunted by the deep readers, and quiet-but-powerful thinkers kept awake at night by make-believe characters acting out scenes in their heads. A few high-achieving English students come for enrichment, but we’ve had just as many sports fans, kids on the spectrum, and home-schooled students with so much imagination it can’t help but spill on the page. Occasionally a determined graphic novelist slips in to observe, longing to uncover the magic of story structure in order to sequence their beloved drawings to a climactic finale. At first, we did not attract the outspoken, the ones hoisting a megaphone for the troubles of adolescence instead of a pen. But that soon shifted.

Getting Started and Building Community

Lots of libraries provide space for teens to write, it’s true. Sometimes favorite authors come to talk, or writing prompts are provided. Those programs are excellent, but participation is unreliable. Teen librarian Stefanie Reddy wanted to establish a committed circle of enthusiastic regulars and reached out to published writers/editors in the community to lead.

In partnership with another Young Adult author Margaret Nevinski, we offer a one-and-a-half-hour monthly workshop based on curriculum she created, and let every English, Language Arts, and Creative Writing teacher at local middle schools and high schools know of our open-door policy. We sent emails, made flyers, and visited classrooms. We promised a safe creative space for all persons in grades 7-12, at every writing level, and any genre.

A theme arose among the students who attended our early workshops. We discovered our young writers engage in their craft independently, nurturing covert projects, and desperately sought dedicated writing time. Hiding their feverish prose while longing to have their work taken seriously, young writers came to our workshop because we provide uninterrupted writing time, and more importantly, one-on-one consultation with us.

Honoring Both the Written Word and the Writer

Arranging our writing tables in a large circle, we open every session by sharing our names and what we’re currently writing. Ages or grade level of participants are never mentioned because those details tend to divide, and in some cases, embarrass. My teaching partner and I give the students a window on our lives as full-time writers, with countless turns at revisions, interpreting feedback from editors and literary agents, and the reality of the contemporary publishing industry. We share news about writing craft books available at the library, writing contests for teens, and any local literary events. Teen librarian Stefanie personalizes the workshop with snacks, access to laptops and related books, and has a welcoming and down-to-earth personality everyone appreciates.

Our participants maintain an exhaustive list of writing craft topics they wish to learn about. Year after year, their list inevitably includes love scenes, death scenes, first kisses, comedy writing, escalating conflict, writing believable dialogue, and other subjects we absolutely adore discussing. Respecting their writing time, we select a topic in advance and create a handout highlighting examples from popular YA novels, and offer a high-stakes, emotionally-driven writing prompt to challenge them to step out of their comfort zone. We keep writing lessons to no more than 15 minutes to allow for as much writing time as possible.

One to One Gets Things Done

Writing is inherently lonely and often plagued by doubt, and at some point we all need a trusted friend to cheer us on. As the participants begin to put fresh words on the page, or add scenes to their existing works, my partner and I move to desks placed strategically on either side of the room. There, intrepid young writers can venture to meet with one of us for a one-to-one consultation. A consult might range from cheerful encouragement to keep going, to a deep examination of the work. Occasionally a student has several, loosely related yet brilliant ideas and seeks the grounding of story structure, plot-point or emotional arc planning, or to uncover the protagonist’s essential “misbelief.” We offer help with all aspects of story craft, but we don’t teach the students how to write. They choose the plot, characters, phrasing, imagery, and tone. We only provide the tools to leverage their individual styles.

Click here for our menu of five types of consultation (see link: https://raynelacko.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/teen-editing-menu.pdf)

It’s daunting to share a fledgling work-in-progress and that’s why we offer the menu. The participant chooses the spice level. Among our regulars are serious writers who dare to challenge their every word on the page, who return with local and national writing awards and the unwavering sense of having earned it. Some come back with better grades on school assignments, and in other cases, they just come back. One student, gifted at creating comedic scenes, asked for professional feedback every month, from 7th grade onward. Each time, the prevailing question arose from her hilarious vignettes: Why? Why did the character say that? Why did they do that? Why are they acting this way? Why? She struggled to understand the internal drives of her otherwise relatable characters.

But by ninth grade, she wove purpose into everything she wrote. Her characters became complex, intriguingly flawed yet powerful—and they did more than provoke a laugh. Their inner and external drives worked together toward complementary and clear story goals. When we met and she shared her newest work, I had goosebumps and could do nothing but applaud her finished piece. She cried in relief and happiness, and for a moment I wondered if my particular brand of “every-word-matters” feedback had been too tough. Now she’s a mentor in our group, a leader who can articulate her process to newcomers.

The Secret Workshop Ingredient That Changes Lives

Placing our participants in the hot seat by giving professional feedback isn’t the most squirm-inducing part of our workshop. That honor belongs to the Writers Circle, the “secret ingredient.” Approximately 25-30 minutes before we end our meeting, everyone must leave their desk and chair and we drop to the carpeted floor in a comfortable circle. Participants are invited read a portion of their work for 3-5 minutes. We only have time to hear from a handful of writers, and sharing is a choice, never mandatory.

There is always an aghast pause of horror so poignant that, in my first year of teaching, I wondered if Writers Circle was worth it. It is.

Writers Circle is where the magic happens. These young people have been making art. Their writing is precious and real. It’s so important that they’ve shown up to bring it into existence. It matters. And when a writer shares it, he/she/they give the gift of themself. At the beginning of Writers Circle, we repeat our “rule of kindness”: comments are limited to what we liked about the piece, or what stood out the most for us. If we need clarity or didn’t understand something, we can ask a question and allow the writer to explain, without debating the response.

A quiet young writer who has been shlepping a favorite journal around in her backpack, adding pages to a short story when no one was looking, agrees to share a piece, allowing everyone a crack of light into her creativity. Without fail, the other participants love it. Our rule of kindness becomes unnecessary. Everyone in the circle is laughing, applauding, cheering for her. I suspect the intimacy born of reading one’s creation provokes compassion from the listener. The reader, scared and filled with doubt only a few minutes earlier, suddenly has a smile, a flush of radiance, an inner glow. I’m not exaggerating, it feels like magic. Each person who dares to read is transformed by the positive reaction of the group. And all present are transformed by the sudden loss of doubt. It’s so  gratifying that our frequently introverted writers grew fierce, surer of themselves and their work, and wanted to share their art with the community. We soon established Teen Story Slam, a county-wide biannual teen spoken word event to raise funds for our library writing program.

Our Teen Writers Workshop participants inspire other local creative teens. We’ve joined forces with various local non-profit organizations, and expanded to include an intensive summer camp. Learn how in Part II in this series, Your Library and Beyond: Building Positive Relationships with Creative Teens in The Community

Rayne Lacko believes music, language, and art connect us, and she explores those themes in her novel, A SONG FOR THE ROAD (SparkPress, August 2019), and DREAM UP NOW (Free Spirit Publishing 2020)

Friday Finds: August 23, 2019

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NaNoWriMo Helps Kids Jump into Writing with ‘Brave the Page,’ a guest post by Rebecca Stern

Tabletop Game Review: Throw Throw Burrito

What Not to Do at a Teen Writing Workshop a guest post by Heather Cumiskey

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What Not to Do at a Teen Writing Workshop a guest post by Heather Cumiskey

One of the unexpected rewards of becoming an author is being invited to talk to teens about writing. There’s nothing better than encouraging young people and adults to believe in their work and the story they are meant to tell. Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way. For instance, try not to . . .

Cover too many topics

My first workshop was at a local bookstore chain. I was instructed to divide my talk into five topics: genre, plot, characters, tone and voice, and setting. I quickly discovered that it was a lot to pack into a workshop and keep participants engaged. Teens lead busy lives; they also log in a lot of hours at school. Your workshop shouldn’t feel like another day in English class. Today, when I plan a workshop, I discuss one or maybe two of those elements. I feel out the group and see what they are looking to accomplish in their writing and take it from there.

Attempt to be an expert in what they’re reading

As a fan of YA contemporary fiction, I knew that my repertoire was seriously lacking in other genres like Sci-Fi, fantasy, and dystopian. I thought that I needed to read as many YA books as I could to prepare for my workshops. Ridiculous, I know. It’s impossible to gauge what your groups’ taste in genres will be. They are usually all over the place, and that’s a good thing.

You don’t need to have read the same book to discuss the elements of writing. Instead, ask what they liked about the story, about the author’s choices, and what made the characters memorable. You’ll see their faces light up. What they admire in a story are usually elements they desire in their own writing. Now you have a path to go down.

Expect that only teens will show up

The group that showed up at my first workshop ranged from elementary to college age. Yes, college. Parents, some of them closet writers, also attended. Now what? Try pulling out the commonalities. Start by asking what kinds of writing they like to do and their favorite genres. Writing prompts are also a great way to unify the group and get them talking.

Once at a workshop, an elderly gentleman walked in midway because he thought a workshop about “Finding Your Voice” would improve his public speaking skills. I managed to pull him into the conversation. Turns out he wrote poetry on the side. Meet your writers wherever they are in that moment, on that particular day. No matter their age, they all want to make strides in their writing.

Talk the whole time

I used to script my earlier workshops because I was afraid of running out of things to say. I also spoke too quickly and didn’t pause to let information float a bit before jumping on the next idea. I was basically talking at them.

Workshops are a whole lot more interesting when you treat them like a conversation and not a lesson plan. Depending on the group, let the discussion flow naturally. Begin by asking what it is they want to get out of the workshop. Where are their heads at? Are they feeling stuck?

I encourage the feedback and I love it when the sidebars happen between writers. I’ve learned to be okay with the blank space and don’t try to fill it up. When I give them room to process, that’s when the questions come up and the conversation takes on a new direction.

Think that the participants like one another

Sometimes teens at a workshop simply don’t like one another. They can be unintentionally critical or afraid to give their opinion because the classmate they loathe from second period is now sitting next to them. If it’s a public setting, age disparity can also contribute to the quiet indifference.

Set the expectations early on, something like, “Every writer in this room shares the same frustrations and fears when it comes to putting themselves out there. This is a safe place to share work and ideas. So be kind. Be respectful. We’re all in this together.” Another tip is for feedback to begin with two positives followed by a negative and/or a suggestion. It’s much easier to receive constructive criticism in this way.

Come with expectations

When writers share their work, it can lead to emotionally charged moments. It stirs up feelings among peers that can either be uplifting (Wow, you feel that way too?) or down right crushing (Your story sounds like something I’ve read before). Ouch. 

Once at a high school workshop, a girl stood up and shouted, “I’m a fake, I don’t belong here!” I told her that I felt the same way and that we all feel like fakes to which the other teens in the room nodded. I emphasized that she did belong. She left anyway. 

More often though, teens are amazingly supportive of one another and are willing to take chances. Like the time a writer sang the most unforgettable, thought-provoking lyrics that we were all left with chills. It was thrilling.

Think that you know why they are there

Once the workshop is over, the real stuff tends to surface, like mini one-on-one confessions:

“My parents don’t know I’m here . . .”

“I’m currently being or have been bullied . . .”

“I detest my English teacher because . . .”

“I have a book in me, but . . . (insert a billion excuses)”

Often times, away from the group is where the real talking begins. Leave room for it. Be accessible afterward for them to tell you whatever is on their mind. It’s usually a lot. And I’m always grateful that they trust me to share it.

Heather Cumiskey is an award-winning writer and author. I Love You Like That is the second book in the poignant YA duology about addiction, peer pressure, and first love. Connect with her at HeatherCumiskey.com

Friday Finds: August 9, 2019

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Friday Finds: August 2, 2019

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Friday Finds: July 26, 2019

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Friday Finds: July 19, 2019

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What A. S. King Means to Me, a guest post by The Teen

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Friday Finds: July 12, 2019

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Slime, slime, and more slime

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Slime, slime, and more slime

Thing 2, a slime connoisseur

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the library…

Like many things (Minecraft, anyone?) slime seemed at first to be a passing phase. But no, it just keeps coming back around. So here I am with my two fail safe slime recipes. The secret to slime success is in how you add the activator – A LITTLE AT A TIME. Please learn from my mistakes, and always add whatever activator you use sparingly, stir a lot, and then add more if needed.

The secret of how to get the teens to add activator sparingly, well, that took some time and trials. My go to method is to put out the plastic toy pipettes from the children’s science set, but you can also buy cheap plastic pipettes from many online retailers. If you put out a bowl of activator without an obvious way to pour it, no spoons, and plastic pipettes, they seem to get the idea.

The secret slime weapon! You can buy pipettes like these on Amazon

No-Fail Sparkle Slime

So first, lets do no-fail sparkle slime! For this recipe you will need: clear glue, water, food coloring, glitter, and liquid starch.

Start by adding equal parts clear glue and water to a bowl (I usually limit the kids to half a cup of each, because the resulting slime will fit in a sandwich bag.) Stir these until they are completely combined, then add food coloring and glitter as desired, stir to combine. Then, slowly, with the pipettes, add one squirt of liquid starch at a time, stir, and evaluate. Continue to add liquid starch, one squirt at a time, stirring completely, until the mixture achieves the desired consistency. Take out of the bowl and play!

The Teen making slime

Foam Slime

Next up – foam slime! For this recipe you will need: regular school glue, shaving cream, food coloring, and borax solution.

First you need to create the borax solution. To do this, pour boiling water into a bowl, add borax one spoonful at a time, and stir to dissolve. Continue to add spoonfuls of borax until it will no longer absorb into the water. You will have some borax settled into the bottom of the bowl, but never fear! Leave the bowl to cool for a couple of hours, and the rest or the dregs should absorb into the water.

When it’s time to make the slime, add half a cup of glue and 2 cups of shaving cream to a bowl. Stir gently to incorporate the glue into the shaving cream without deflating the shaving cream. When the mixture is completely combined, add food coloring as desired and mix. This is where the regular glue comes into play. You can use clear glue, but the color won’t be as vibrant as with the regular school glue. Next, add the borax solution, one squirt at a time, stirring after every addition, until the slime reaches the desired consistency.

A word about desired consistency – this may be different for each individual. I’ve had some teens who prefer their slime to be drippy and gooey, and some who prefer theirs to be almost solid. In general, you are looking for an oozy but not sticky consistency that is easy to stretch and play with without it sticking to your hands. The more you make slime the more you will begin to recognize this in the bowl, but sometimes you just have to take it out and play with it to be sure.

Do you have a favorite slime recipe? Be sure to chime in in the comments.

Friday Finds: July 5, 2019

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