emoment with carl

Few hurdles can be as daunting to a young student who’s struggling in school as learning to write more effectively. Even young children can be aware they can’t write well. They too often fail to improve and only become more discouraged. Yet writing can be an essential skill for many careers; writing also unlocks one’s ability to understand one’s self and connect one’s life to others.

Working in a summer program in Hershey with students who were struggling in school, Elizabethtown College English Department Chair Matt Skillen discovered the power of stories. During a twenty-day immersion program, Matt and Tony Sedun, a middle school teacher, had their students write about the tragedies and triumphs of their lives, share their stories with one another, and thus learn to revise, rethink, and rejuvenate their writing. The program ended with a public exhibition of the students’ stories at a local community center where parents, neighbors, law enforcement staff, and school administrators celebrated the students’ success. Twenty days earlier, students thought they were failures as young writers.


Matt and colleagues in K-12 schools took what they learned from the experience and built “Life Writes," a program that they brought to schools in Harrisburg. Currently, Life Writes has a large, expansive network of teachers across the country encouraging students to learn writing through the sharing of life stories. They have added many innovative projects, such as bringing together middle school students and senior citizens to share their life stories and write together. Partnering with the Harrisburg City Parks, Matt and his colleagues helped beautify public spaces while teaching about nature writing. After a teacher from Medillin, Columbia met Matt at a national conference, the program went international. E-town student Matt Walters '15 accompanied the Life Writes team to Columbia and helped teach collaborative poetry writing to teachers who sought to endow such story-telling and writing skills in their students. With a website, donations via Amazon Smile, and more E-town students, alumni, and K-12 teachers volunteering, Life Writes keeps growing. 

Hanna Mackay, a middle school teacher in Derry Township, recently shared her experience in bringing the Life Writes approach to her school and exhibiting her students’ work: “Sharing stories, beliefs, and dreams with others helps us more fully understand ourselves, each other, and the world all around… This exhibition reaffirmed my belief that adolescents have powerful, real reflections in response to those powerful, real experiences. I am a believer in building empathy among adolescents and their wider communities, and I am certain that story-telling is a worthwhile avenue that can help guide us in that direction.” 

Check out Matt’s work and Life Writes at http://www.lifewrites.org/.

Life Writes Teacher Tony Sedun teaching the Tripthych Narrative Project as part of his summer school class.

Enjoy the moment,

Carl J. Strikwerda,

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