Editorial: Return of the write stuff for area students 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On March 15, 144 students from western Massachusetts elementary and high schools came together at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a day of workshops billed as the “Youth Writing Adventure.”

They wrote songs and scripts, short stories and poems. This adventure had come back after a decade’s gap – and should now stick around for good.

The Western Massachusetts Writing Project was founded in 1993 to help convey methods for teaching writing developed at UMass to teachers and students in area schools.

By the mid ’90s, the program was running teacher workshops and youth writing programs and putting out five publications a year featuring writing by young people. The students were not only writing, but developing their skills as editors. The UMass mission statement includes a goal “to conduct programs of research and public service that advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth.” The project was helping to meet that mandate by sharing the scholarship developed on campus with the wider community.  

Then, unfortunately, these programs were whittled away through funding cuts. Ten years ago this dynamic workshop was discontinued.

This year, the project used the UMass crowdfunding program, minutefund, to raise enough money — $4,005 — for the day of teaching and writing.

Crowd-funding efforts are gaining popularity in the public sector as well as in private life. People raise money this way to cover health care costs and public school teachers raise money for programming and supplies.

Reporter Amanda Drane and photographer Carol Lollis covered the workshop and helped us see what went on that day.

“We never get to go on field trips, so this was like a miracle that happened,” said Mary Hamel, a reading specialist at Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke. Hamel said so many students wanted to attend that administrators had to pull names from a hat.

“We’re learning things we have never learned before,” said Alysha Izquierdo, 12, a Donahue student.

School districts across western Massachusetts do not provide the same opportunities for students. Instead, those opportunities hinge on each district’s wealth, or lack of it.

According to a 2015 story by the Washington Post, federal data show that there is a growing gap in education spending by the nation’s poorest and most affluent school districts.

This means students who have the most to gain from a well-funded and inspired public education are often the least likely to get it.

One goal of the Youth Writing Adventure is simply to bring students who might never see a university up close, and might not entertain the idea of enrolling in the future. “Spending time on a university campus during the ‘tween’ years can encourage young people who might not otherwise see college in their futures to imagine themselves as college students and strive to make it happen,” says the program’s fundraising webpage.

We are pleased to see the return of the Youth Writing Adventure, but would like to see state and federal money secured to give this program and others like it a reliable future.

This program offers an opportunity for students and teachers to deepen their writing and communications skills. And in some cases, it may be the only field trip some children take. “All the kids wanted to come,” said Hamel, the teacher from Holyoke.

We say, listen to the kids.