Girls Write Now: A Showcase of Intergenerational Learning
At first glance, The Library of the General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen of the City of New York looks like it sounds—old, austere, and a bit secret. It sits tucked away on New York City’s “literary row,” stomping grounds of The New Yorker magazine, Harper’s magazine, and the Algonquin Hotel during their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. The stately exterior opens up into a graceful chamber of warmth, wood and learning. It does not look like it would be the setting for a vibrant display of intergenerational learning. Talented, fearless teen writers—whose thoughts are too often tucked away like volumes on the library’s shelves—and adult, professional women working in publishing, education, media and the arts would come together to share co-written stories. But, on the evening of January 24, 2007, the Library challenged more than one misconception by hosting the Second Annual Girls Write Now (GWN) Winter Pair Reading.
“We haven’t had this kind of energy here in a long time,” said Janet Wells Greene Ph.D, Director of The Library. “I love it…Part of our mission [here at The Library] is to promote an understanding of urban work, and we think this is a great opportunity to honor the craft of writing and the occupation of writer.” She concludes, “This event [was] an opportunity to see reinvention of apprenticeship in action.” Maya Nussbaum, Executive Director of Girls Write Now comments, “[The reading is] a wonderful opportunity to see the Girls Write Now community in action…The spirit of our mission is perfectly encapsulated in the collaborative pieces written and read aloud by our mentor-mentee pairs.”
Girls Write Now
Founded in 1998, Girls Write Now (GWN) is a New York City-based non-profit committed to helping New York City high school girls discover their voice and have the courage and confidence to share it with the community. Through one-on-one mentoring, workshops, readings, and events, Girls Write Now provides a safe and supportive environment where girls can expand their natural talents develop independent voices and build confidence in making healthy choices in school, career, and life. In today’s society, young women are often silenced by all consuming images and messages in the media that stereotype and objectify women. Women are a target group of consumerism, thus, most marketing strategically promotes women as objects to “appear” or “attract” rather than to act, build alliances with each other, or support and develop their talents and interests.
Research in adolescent development consistently shows that relationships with caring adults other than parents can make young girls significantly less likely to engage in drug use, underage drinking and sex, and more likely to succeed in school, peer, and family relationships. Mentors benefit from involvement with the program as well. Adult mentors report that their experience in the program increased their self-esteem, as well as their sense of responsibility and accomplishment. Additionally, studies indicate that mentoring improves morale at work and relationships colleagues, friends and family.
GWN matches at-risk high school girls who have a love of writing with professional women writers. The goal: to help these girls develop their unique voices, their writing skills, and the confidence to tell their stories, as well as the ability to make healthy life choices. GWN is the only youth program that combines a rigorous, but fun creative writing curriculum and girls-only programming within the context of mentoring that benefits mentees and mentors alike.
Mentors & Mentees
The Winter Pair Reading was designed to celebrate the collaborative creative work of GWN mentors and their teen-age mentees. GWN mentors and mentees presented only collaborative works for the event, specifically single pieces written by a mentor-mentee pair, or two complementary pieces written separately by the mentor and mentee but read together. Many of the night’s poems, stories and essays were born in GWN workshops, which are followed by take-home exercises for pairs to do together.
Ebony McNeill, a Brooklyn teen attending an adolescent employment and educational program and her mentor, freelance editor Karen Schader developed their collaborative poems from a writing exercise in which they walked together through a neighborhood, observing it with all of their senses except sight. This exercise allowed both women, despite their differences in age and experience, to work as equals. By observing their surroundings with different senses, they view the world in new ways—a great leadership perspective.
Other mentor-mentee collaborative topics ranged from the sweet stuff of teenage dreams to memories of growing up and everything in between. Emceed by Penny Wrenn, Talent Director of GWN, the night kicked off with a pair of earthy and heart-wrenching poems about chances in love not taken by Anna Witiuk, a junior at New York City’s Beacon High School and her mentor, teacher, author, and literary agent Caron K. Stengel. This is Anna and Caron’s second year working together in GWN. Their pride in working together is easy to see during their performance and shows the power of linking women across generations.
Ebony, Mona, and each of the other 28 girls enrolled in GWN meet with their writing mentors weekly for one school year to develop their skills and understanding of the writing process. Pairs are made by a “matchmaking committee” consisting of board members and veteran mentors who consider geography, genre interest, and the unscientific but no less meaningful “x-factor” (or chemistry) between a mentor and mentee (members are alerted to the presence of the matchmakers, encouraged to share their preferences, but warned there are no guarantees the matchmakers will grant them).
This simple, but unique approach has worked to build a strong community of writers to nurture one another and their creative freedom. “The relationship between girls and their mentors is symbiotic,” said Nussbaum, “As pairs work together, they become apprentices of each other, learning the art and craft of writing through life experience.” The workshops provide fertile ground for learning as the community of mentors and mentees collaborate under GWN’s guiding principle of writing as a communal enterprise — to be created and shared.
Intergenerational Learning through Mentoring
The intergenerational learning fostered by this approach is built on multiple layers of commitment that mentees and mentors make to each other — and to GWN — each season. The first of these layers is between each pairing and the organization itself. Carefully screened candidates undergo a rigorous application process, which includes detailed applications, writing samples, and reference checks. GWN seeks mentors who have impressive academic and writing resumes, as well as a demonstrated commitment to teaching, tutoring, or mentoring girls, and the drive to contribute to the organization’s growth. Mentees must demonstrate a commitment to growing as writers, regardless of their skill level upon entering the program. Upon acceptance into the program, each new member signs a series of forms confirming her commitment.
The second layer is a commitment between the mentors and the idea of teaching and learning through the mentoring process. Each mentor undergoes an intensive full-day training conducted by the Girls Write Now program board in conjunction with experts from Columbia University, NYU, Community Word, Girls Scouts of America, Planned Parenthood NYC, and Urban Word, among other community institutions. This training serves as an introduction to adolescent development, diversity issues, mentoring tools, editing and revision for teens, and writing workshop facilitation.
The mentor-mentee pairs seal the third and final commitment shortly after they are matched at the start of the season’s first workshop. Each mentor-mentee pair signs a mutual agreement explicitly outlining the responsibilities of their writing partnership and through it, their commitment to learning as a team. Mentees learn the nuts and bolts of writing, while their mentors are reintroduced to the magic and art of creative writing, free of the limitations often imposed by professional writing. Mentors are often surprised to find within their pair writing sessions a spark to ignite their own creative passion, and — through knowledge obtained by working with a teen girl — the tools to approach their work in new ways.
Weekly pair writing sessions are punctuated and informed by monthly, genre-based full-group workshops, featuring whole-group, pair, and small-group activities. The workshops are carefully balanced between spirited fun and curriculum rigor. Each workshop begins with an icebreaker to warm members to each other as well as to the idea of writing for four hours on a Saturday afternoon. One recent prompt was “My character for the day is [insert lovely, fun, or energetic color + food you like the sound of].” No one wants to miss reinventing herself as “Rainbow Meatball” or the chance to be introduced to “Royal Blue Hot Dog.”
At the close of each workshop, we engage in “Warm Fuzzies,” which are constructive, anonymous comments shared by all mentors and mentees around the circle. “Warm Fuzzies” begin with a prompt, such as the following from the fiction workshop: “If you could fly off with any character from today, who would it be and where would you go?” The anonymous nature of this exercise help to remove the mentor/mentee labels we initially assign, allowing for true reflection and intergenerational learning. It also fosters an environment wherein the relationships between mentors, mentees and the entire community transcend racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries in a city where many young people rarely leave their neighborhood.
In response to the fiction workshop prompt, one participant said: “I’d take off with black strawberry, the girl whose eyes change color. I would go to the park and watch people with her. I bet her eyes would show me great things.” Another member, prompted at GWN workshop to “name one thing in the world you would like to see change and how you would help make it happen,” put it this way: “I want people to stop being so skeptical and to not give up on their dreams just because their dreams are taking too long to get realized. How am I going to change this? By not giving up on mine.”
These statements echo GWN’s greatest achievement: mentors and mentees learning from one another as peers. Girl-only programming, with an intergenerational approach to mentoring, creates a space for communal voice, collaboration, and social, gendered change.
Michele Thomas lives in Brooklyn, NY and works as a K-8 writer and editor in children’s educational publishing. She is also a mentor and Communications Director of Girls Write Now. www.girlswritenow.org
Girl-only programming and one-on-one mentoring creates a space for communal voice, collaboration, and social, gendered change.