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Writers Help Local Teens Get Creative

August 27, 2008
By Kara Rogers

The Northwestern University Graduate Program in Creative Writing and the Evanston Public Library teamed up this summer to get local teenagers excited about writing.

The creative writing workshop, intended to inspire and cultivate teens' imaginations, was the first collaboration of its kind between Northwestern and the Evanston library.

The idea for the partnership originated with Sandi Wisenberg, a lecturer in the Creative Writing Graduate Program at Northwestern's School of Continuing Education. Wisenberg, an essayist and fiction writer herself, explained that her students wanted more teaching opportunities, and they were willing to teach for free.

"I thought the library would be a safe, friendly place that was familiar to people in the community. I thought it would be good to partner with the library, too, as a way of offering something to Evanston," Wisenberg explained.

With room for just one creative writing workshop at the Evanston library this summer, Wisenberg asked graduate students who were interested to organize their teaching ideas into proposals. She then worked with librarians to choose the proposal that not only appealed to them but also suited the needs of everyone involved. The one that was chosen belonged to Northwestern Creative Writing Master's student Elizabeth Herbert, who formulated a teaching plan for teens based on exploring point of view in fiction.

"Every class I teach makes me look at my favorite stories in a new way, because of the thoughts and feelings of my students," Herbert said. "I want to help my students look at their own writing in a whole new way, too. That's what is so exciting about this opportunity at the library -- teens can engage in reading and writing outside of their regular classrooms, in a way that's really fun and unique."

Among the stories Herbert chose to illustrate point of view were "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski, written from the perspective of a mute boy; "Wicked," by Gregory Maguire, explored from the point of view of a witch; and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" by Mark Haddon, written from the point of view of a young boy with autism.

"Elizabeth has a very creative approach and a wonderful sense of fun," said Young Adult Librarian Christine Chandler-Stahl, who worked with Wisenberg and Herbert to plan and coordinate the teen workshop. "There are many demands on teen students during the school year to write a certain way and to use a certain format," Chandler-Stahl explained. "I feel very fortunate to be able to offer a creative writing class that frees up teens to let their imaginations soar and to rekindle the deep joy in writing."

Herbert, who has also taught for Northwestern's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, an educational and social organization for senior adults, knew that after nine months of school, many teens weren't likely to be interested in taking a summer class. But teens did sign up, and Herbert embraced the opportunity to encourage her students to think about characters and stories that exist outside their everyday experiences.

Stirring an interest in reading and writing in young adults is a big priority at the Evanston library. "We live in a vibrant, university town with many talented people," Chandler-Stahl said. "Tapping into that talent through the hub of the library benefits all of us, and we are very grateful."

As for the future, Wisenberg hopes to collaborate with the Evanston library again next summer, perhaps offering creative writing and grammar classes for adults, too.

The creative writing workshop was held on Wednesday evenings from 7-8:30 p.m. in the fashionable teens-only Loft of the Evanston library. This summer the program ran from July 23 to Aug. 13.

(Kara Rogers is a freelance writer based in Chicago)