MP3 Audio: Rebecca Wallace-Segall interview

Jim: I'm interested in how you became involved in education. What spurred that? Why?
Rebecca: My two dreams in life were to become a writer or a child psychologist. And then I ended up becoming a writer. Then after writing for 10 years for the Village Voice, my editor passed away, and I wanted to take some time off. I was really missing children in my life and I realized that I didn't know any children in my entire neighborhood, and that was a really bizarre realization. I looked into some non-profit organizations where they send writers into schools. I started doing these residencies in public schools around New York City, and it just changed my life. Just connecting with the kids and working closely with them on personal works and on academic works and fictional works, just the bonds that we made and just watching them grow and change over the period of a semester. Within a year, I just realized that I wasn't going back to journalism.
Jim: Wow! What drives you today? Now you've had some experience. As you think about the next few years, what's keeping you going or what are you trying to accomplish the next few years?
Rebecca: That's a nice question. You know [indecipherable 0:01:56] Writopia. I developed a method and an approach to teaching, and a philosophy to teaching writing. We really feel like it has changed the lives of so many kids around us. I guess the idea, the goal over the next five years, is to spread this method and this way to as many teachers and authors, both in schools to teachers, and out of schools to authors who might want to work with kids, to spread it as far as possible so that kids can be touched by this and be reawakened because so many kids right now are feeling...they describe themselves as reluctant writers, they think that they hate writing, then they come to Writopia.

It's not rocket science, the way we speak to them, and the way we approach them, and the way we open them up. I'm telling you there's not a single so-called reluctant writer who hasn't come to Writopia for more than one session and said, "I love writing." The parents say to us, "What are you giving them? What did you feed my child? Why does he want to come back?"

It's really about loving every child, it's about deciding that you want to listen to them and connect with them, and hear them, help them write the story they want to write, help them write a paper about what they want to write about, and start from that place and then build, and build, and build.

As I said, it's just not rocket science, but it is a method that is having tremendous impact.

Jim: Why do they come to you? What's not happening in their schools? What's behind that?
Rebecca: I think a lot of different things. I will say that, first of all, a lot of kids just come to us because they need a creative outlet. Even the best public schools or the best private schools, they don't have enough time in their schedule and they don't have enough adults around them who either have the know-how or the interest to approach their creative ones. So we have a lot of kids who are already functioning on a very high level, who just really want adults who are going to talk to them about the thing and help them with this specific passion that they have.

Then on the other side, we have a growing number...we now have dozens and dozens and dozens of kids who come to us as an after school center or in the summer who would describe themselves as reluctant writers.

And those kids, what's happening to them is I think they are getting really stressed out in school because sometimes they have either written personal narratives as assignment for the teacher, so they are putting their heart and soul into something, then they're getting back a marked up piece of paper. So they feel scared. They think, "Wow, I put myself into this and there's red all over it." It's confusing. You know?

Jim: Right.
Rebecca: Or they don't have any creative writing and it's a lot of expository way of writing, and they were having trouble following. They think of it as a chore, as something they have to learn in order to get a grade, as opposed to something that really is their voice, a tool for empowerment. They don't realize that writing is a key way to get your thoughts and ideas out to the world, but rather than that, they see it as a chore and something that you just have to do for a grade, so it's very stressful.

We just really take the stress off of it. There's no grading here. There's no requirement. What's in your mind? What are ideas, what are the thoughts, whether it's academic, whether it's creative, whether it's personal? We just start from that place and the promise that we're not grading them and they relax and they open up.

What parents are seeing is that they're approaching their schoolwork with a much more positive attitude. They all of a sudden see writing at school as something that's an opportunity as opposed to a punishment. I don't know, do we change the whole entire education system and take grades out? I don't know what the solution is, but I just know that this is why they're coming to us.

Jim: Would you describe that success you've had then as environment, curricular, people? Would you describe the success you've had as part of the environment? As you say, no grades, it's more of a creative environment. Or is it the people, your leadership, your culture? Is it the raw materials, the kids? You know, what is the essence?
Rebecca: I don't know if you know, but our kids do win more creative writing awards than any other group of kids in the whole country. Right?
Jim: Yes.
Rebecca: So it's a bunch of factors. One is the very first thing is they come in and see couches and laptops. They see smiling adults who play writing games with them and do ice breakers. And we do exercises. We ask them, right away after we do our initial games, "What's your goal? Why are you here? What do you want to come from this workshop?" So they are establishing their own goals around the circle.

Each and every week, we ask the same question, "What is your goal for today?" So right away, they are taking ownership of their time here. It's very different than a lot of them are used to functioning in their school.

Jim: Right.
Rebecca: Part of it is the environment that's empowering. It's an empowering, student directed program. I think that's the number one key element. Then, after that, we do have an announcement methodology. Over the years, I've been teaching creative writing for 17 years, the truth is, I have figured out...there's a single child at Writopia who can say to me, "I'm stuck! I don't know where to go next in the creative piece!"

We do have a way of helping kids figure out why they're stuck and how to get to the next place. So we do have a definitive...I don't know, think of the word "curriculum," I'll tell you that.

I don't like the word "curriculum" because "curriculum" is usually about the teacher, not about the student. It's saying, "This is my agenda, not your agenda." I'm actually uncomfortable with that word, but we do have tools that we apply in every single workshop. Every single teacher here gets training. We have a handbook.

So we are prepared to handle each and every challenge the student brings to the table and we know how to move everything forward, but we don't come in with an agenda. We never start with a lecture.

We have our values, which we love to integrate into the session, organically. We have the insights and the tools and the values that we want to transmit, but we don't do it upfront. It's organically integrated into the discussion.

Jim: Let's say I bring one of my daughters in. How much time? How frequently? Describe what that process looks like for a student at Writopia?
Rebecca: It's generally a 15 hour program. So sometimes it's divided into weekly sessions by the semester, so it's an hour and a half once a week, either after school or on the weekends. In the summer, those 15 hours are between Monday and Friday, so it's three hours a day. Kids will often sign up for one semester at a time or one week at a time in the summer. There are some kids who spend all year here, and they have year long memberships. You know, we have the whole gamut. That's the general, and also we do go into schools. We work with teachers and principals, so we do that as well.
Jim: In the seven years you've been doing this in this organized fashion...
Rebecca: It's more like five. Writopia is five years old.
Jim: Oh, OK.
Rebecca: Yeah.
Jim: OK, so five years. How have the students changed, or have they during this time?
Rebecca: Well, I would say our very first crew was just like the most prolific kids in New York City. [laughs] Now we've spread across the country. Since we started, though, we have like the longest mission in the universe, way too long for any nonprofit. But, one of our missions has always been to help kids find power in their writing, for those kids who felt powerless to help them find their power. So thankfully in the last three years, especially we've had a growing number of kids who really are coming in struggling.

When I say struggling, I don't mean with remedial issues. We have a much smaller number of kids who are coming with actual literacy issues. We don't turn anyone away. We're a nonprofit organization.

We do have a fee structure, but it's sliding scale. It's pay what you can. Fifteen percent of our kids don't pay anything. We definitely didn't start with any background with those kinds of literacy issues.

So I would say we have a growing number of reluctant writers. These are kids who have a handle on it. They would be considered literate. They probably score average on the standardized tests in the writing section. Now they feel empowered, and they actually love it they're [indecipherable 0:11:23] are writing.

On the first contingent were all the top scorers, and now we have the middle, and really kids who just hated it. Now there are a growing number of kids who came in saying they hated writing who now love it. The kids don't even know the difference, because after the first session, they're all excited and writing. The teacher doesn't even know, "Now who was supposed to be a reluctant writer?"

Jim: It sounds like you do change your approach depending on the child's skills, interests and level, is that correct?
Rebecca: Yes. There are only six kids per group, and each workshop is run by an author who is totally trained in our method. The whole idea is that...When I say it's student directed, we ask each child what their goal is, and we're responding to each child's level. Let's say there's one child who has literary tension, this child who is 12. [indecipherable 0:12:25] and I'm blown away. I might suggest a few places where similes may give it more power. Then the student might be working only on similes that day. There is really no sense of [indecipherable 0:12:39] .

So, we're trying to establish what each character wants, so we're really working on that. They're happy, all working on their projects.

The second half of each workshop, the last 45 minutes of each session, will be sharing our work with each other and the kids will be giving feedback. I have to plug in my computer.

Jim: OK. [background conversation]
Rebecca: Sorry, sorry.
Jim: No problem. [laughs]
Rebecca: [laughs]
Jim: I'm good.
Rebecca: Oh, the last portion is the kids are sharing with each other. It's just amazing because that child who is really prolific and is really writing on a higher level, they just have much more connection, like she'll give really thoughtful feedback. What's really interesting is sometimes the adults are thinking, "Oh boy, you know, he's so silly and she's so serious. Are they going to camp?" But they love being in each other's presence. The girl thinks it's like so cool, that silly boy there. It makes him feel special like, "Oh, he's in this group with this really smart girl." They make each other feel good.
Jim: Right, right.
Rebecca: Sometimes, of course, the groups don't work perfectly, and then we're able to mix and match. We have six rooms, and we often have the same age groups in different rooms. The first few weeks of each semester we do a little bit of switching around. It's a very high touch environment.
Jim: Sure.
Rebecca: We're all emotionally invested in our kids. We have the ability to be this way, so we're this way.
Jim: Great. So thinking about your experiences both professionally and then Writopia, what does education mean in 2012 and over the next five to 10 years? You know, there's a lot going on, obviously, everything from virtual classes, you know these massive online college courses, to things like you're doing. You know? Then obviously we have the traditional education model. So what does it mean over the next five to 10 years?
Rebecca: Sorry, one more time a little more specifically.
Jim: Thinking ahead over the next five to 10 years and given your education experience, what do you think being educated means? And learning how to write, what does it mean over the next five to 10 years? Is it something that still is having six people to a class, that sort of model? Or do you think something will change? What's your outlook on education?
Rebecca: OK. I don't know how things are going to change. I wish I did know. How do I hope things change, or how do I think things are going to change?
Jim: Both. [laughs] Aspiration and then the reality. What should happen?
Rebecca: I think some really interesting information is coming out right now out of Finland. There are a lot of articles about the fact that they don't have any standardization when it comes to education. Everyone knows it's a very small country. You know, we can't perfectly compare it to us. But with that said, they haven't been applying any standardized test and they haven't imposed any standardized curriculum.

They just gave them a first test in many years, and the kids have scored very high on this one standardized test. I love the idea of people actually talking about that a lot and people really considering the ideas of all sorts of education gurus who have been insisting for a long time that we should stop confusing high standards with standardization and that while obviously there's a...

You know, I just heard someone speak yesterday who said something really interesting about...One reason why we need to standardize education to a degree is to make sure that teachers are treating poor people poor people and African Americans...

This one teacher was saying, "Without standards...there were no standards when I was a kid, and no one taught me Shakespeare because I was African American."

Jim: Right, right, right.
Rebecca: "I deserved to learn Shakespeare." So she really believed...she's a proponent of standardization because she believes that that means that it's going to insure that...
Jim: There's a baseline. Right, right.
Rebecca: If only we can understand. If only we can look and assess and say, "OK, we understand that there's a baseline that's needed in education just to make sure." Even this guy in Finland who was talking he said, "The world accountable doesn't even exist in Finland because we don't need to be held accountable."
Jim: [laughs]
Rebecca: "We're so ethical." You know, like we're not going was very interesting.
Jim: Yes.
Rebecca: So maybe we do need to be held accountable. You know, maybe we have other social equality or whatever. Anyway, if only we can look at the last 50 years and say, "OK, we need some streamlining. We need to make sure that there is equality. But we can't let this streamlining, we can't let these standards undermine our goal. What's our goal? Our goal is to inspire, instruct, and empower the next generation of writers."
Jim: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca: Children.
Jim: Children, yes. [laughs]
Rebecca: The next generation of Americans. What else are we doing in education if not that, inspiring with knowledge and instructing with tools and empowering them with self esteem, then what are we doing? You know? I hope that we can look around at the world and especially the last 50 years and be able to do things thoughtfully. Sure, there are some aspects of standardization that we should keep, and there's a whole lot of it that we should not be amplifying, which, unfortunately, is exactly what we're doing right now.
Jim: So given your experience, what advice do you have for parents today?
Rebecca: You know, I have a three and a half year old and a one year old.
Jim: Good, perfect.
Rebecca: I'm right there, right now.
Jim: Perfect.
Rebecca: I guess I would say to speak out, meet with your principal, tell them what you really need and want, ask your principal to create a culture of love and empathy in the school, if you don't have the resources to create your own school. It would be amazing if everybody could just to go to their principals and demand a loving, inspiring, instruction-based, knowledge-based, empowering environment. I think maybe that's a way to start.
Jim: What about for students? Let's say you're finishing high school, what would you study today? If you were 18, what would you do?
Rebecca: What would I study in school if I was able to go back to college?
Jim: Yes.
Rebecca: I would actually definitely be studying fiction and playwriting. If I had Writopia as a child, my life...I was a journalist. I'm giving a very personal answer, but I personally just would have been definitely focusing on creative endeavors at a much younger age.
Jim: Less of the hard stuff and more of the fun stuff really.
Rebecca: I think there's a lot of hard stuff in fiction.
Jim: No, no. I guess when I say journalism, that's what I'm thinking about, the things you have to do to write in journalism as opposed to maybe a more creative approach.
Rebecca: This is very personal answer, just about me. If you're asking we about what I think other people should study, that's a different answer. Is that what you're asking? I'm sorry.
Jim: No, no, I'll loop back to this, this is sort of my last question now. Can you describe your education?
Rebecca: Sure.
Jim: Thinking back to how you were educated, and then thinking about it as a parent, what you might do differently given what you know now.
Rebecca: Going on the record, this is something I think about everyday. I grew up in the New York City public school system. Let me think about how to answer this question. I think my parents, everyone around me, made the best choices that they could make, and everyone was trying the best that they could. I didn't feel cared about. My classes were large, and so I didn't have personal relationships with my teachers, starting in fifth grade. I did when I was younger, but then as the classes grew bigger, I didn't feel anything nurturing from them. It wasn't until I went to college that I started to develop really close relationships with my professors, in graduate school.

Then I ended up working in private schools for a couple of years before I started Writopia, and I really understood how schools that are philosophically-driven, mission-driven, can create such a different world for kids. That's why I'm encouraging parents to go to the principal.

I think the principal even of any school can bring a culture to a school. Maybe that's where we should be starting. The power that the principal has...if the school doesn't have a mission, doesn't have a philosophy, like this is the kind...

Jim: Right, right, right.
Rebecca: If that's not what it's based on, then the principal can bring that to the school. And I know there are some examples of that in New York City. There are some schools that are just different from other ones.
Jim: Sure.
Rebecca: That's because there's a totally, insanely amazing principal at the top who is a little bit, you know, intimidating and then a lot incredible.
Jim: Right.
Rebecca: You know, so I guess for my kids, I want them to be in a loving, nurturing environment. I think I would have benefited tremendously from that, and I hope my kids do.
Jim: Cool, great. Well, that's what I have. Do you have anything else you want to add today, Rebecca?
Rebecca: No, that's good. Thank you for this opportunity.

Transcript by CastingWords