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CREATIVE WRITING CAPPUCCINO? SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF HOPE

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by Hillary Needleman

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In our modern world, creativity is often sacrificed in favor of efficiency, and in inner city public schools where overcrowding and underfunding have become an epidemic, arts programs are often cut from the curriculum. Creativity is placed second to test scores – even though it is precisely in the inner city where hope is most needed. And often, it is creativity and imagination that inspire hope.

It was with this in mind that The Starbucks Foundation last year created its Language of Hope program designed to "support community-based programs that engage ‘at-risk’ or underserved youth in creative writing workshops." Established in 1997, The Foundation’s overall mission is "to create hope, discovery and opportunity in communities where Starbucks lives and works." Because of both the "original vision for the Foundation as a vehicle to combat poverty" and the "historical associations" between coffee bars and reading, literacy became the initial and primary focus of The Foundation’s efforts. Dave Olsen, Starbucks senior vice president, Corporate Social Responsibility, says, "Words build bridges to a brighter future and create an enhanced sense of identity, power and vision." Today, the Foundation has expanded the arena of its grant-giving and activism to include AIDS, the environment, the arts and international development.

In April, the foundation, under the auspices of its Language of Hope program, gave four grants of $25,000 each to not-for-profit youth organizations throughout the nation. One of the recipients was the New York City division of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Inc., established in 1994 as an outgrowth of the children’s book publishing company Scholastic. As early as 1923, Scholastic had instituted The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. B.J. Adler, executive director of the Alliance, explains, "Early on, Scholastic realized kids learned in different ways. There were many awards for athletics, but there was nothing that rewarded kids who excelled in other areas."

By 1994, the awards had grown so large that the Alliance was created to administer the program. The Alliance believes that through its efforts, it "provides the recognition that is critical to fostering the voices and visions of the young people who will become our next generation of creative leaders. The Alliance is also dedicated to supporting arts educators by recognizing and rewarding their classroom efforts, cultivating community support for our young artists, and nurturing the creativity that is critical to the health and future of America’s cultural heritage and economic vitality."

In October, the Alliance, using the support provided through Language of Hope, introduced "Pathways to Success for Young Writers and Their Teachers In New York City", a year-long, multi-faceted program. The various aspects of the initiative include four information sessions for teachers about the program and its benefits, six writing workshops attended by both teachers and students throughout the five boroughs and, ultimately, the publication in April 2001 of both an anthology featuring outstanding student writing and a resource guide informing young writers and teachers of opportunities and programs available throughout New York City. Adler says, "We felt the grant really gave us a chance to have more direct contact with students and teachers and, also, to bring together the vast resources that are available in New York City in a way that has not been done before."

The writing workshops, held at six Starbucks throughout the city, are to be attended by teachers and students together. These workshops cover topics from poetry to essays to rap music, and are taught by representatives from various writing projects and workshops."Pathways to Success" takes into account not only the needs of inner city youth but of inner city teachers as well. Urban problems like over-crowded classrooms and lack of supplies, combined with the more general educational pressures faced by teachers such as the pressure to achieve standardized test scores, have placed New York City teachers in a very difficult situation. Adler says, "We want to give them as many tools as possible to help. By establishing a program that rewards excellence, we give the teachers a motivational tool that is a little beyond what they have available in their classrooms." She adds that the workshops give teachers "additional teaching resources in the form of teaching artists who run the workshops on the specific forms of creative writing." For example, "Putting Your Words in Their Mouths: Writing for Stage & Screen", the second workshop of the series, was led by Avery Corman, author of six novels including Kramer vs. Kramer and Stephen Adly Guirgis, playwright, actor and writing mentor of The Knowledge Project.

Having prestigious speakers and teachers lead the workshops inspires both students and teachers. Adler explains that children of junior high school and high school age do not generally look to their parents or teachers for validation or sense of worth. "It’s not enough just for teachers or parents to have expectations. Kids are looking for some kind of external validation that has more meaning to them." While this validation comes in part from peers, it can also come from adults taking their time to teach, encourage and applaud children.

In addition to the "writing artists" that lead the workshops, the anthology of student works is an inspiration for both students and teachers. For young writers, the possibility of being published is a motivating factor. And Adler says, "We found that when we get teachers together to read the students’ work, it raises everybody’s expectation level about what New York City kids can do."

To be published alongside the anthology next April is a comprehensive resource guide for both young writers and teachers. The guide will serve as a centralized source of information about writing projects and programs throughout the New York City area and will be distributed to high school English teachers and at participating Starbucks.

Through the joint efforts of The Starbucks Foundation and the Alliance, "Pathways to Success" was created in protest of the perceived trends of school violence and underachieving kids. As B.J. Adler says, "This program allows people to focus on what’s right, what’s exciting and what’s good – and what could be for many kids."

For more information on the "Pathways to Success" program, visit www.starbucks.com.


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