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Playing with words

After-school program at The Intersection exposes children in the First Ward to various creative writing techniques, sheds light on literacy issues
Monday, March 19, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

On a recent Thursday afternoon, more than 20 young people filled the cafeteria at The Intersection, a First Ward youth center that hosts an after-school program for children and teenagers. At about 5:30 p.m., after dinner, most of the children headed for the Intersection’s auditorium for an hour of play.

But three of them, Ashley McWilliams, 10, Alize Shaffer, 11, and Kayla Lindstedt, 15, chose to do something else with the time: They learned how to write a haiku.

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McWilliams, Shaffer and Lindstedt sifted through a stack of notebooks to find their own, then took seats around a rectangular table with pencils in hand.

Haikus are one of the oldest forms of poetry, said Rebecca Pettyjohn, an MU English major who started the weekly creative writing class at the center about two months ago. The form of a haiku poem is simple, but composing one can be challenging. The poem consist of three lines — the first is five syllables long; the second, seven syllables; and the third, five again.

Lindstedt struggled to find words that fit the haiku structure. She counted the syllables on her fingers while brainstorming quietly. Then a slight smile came to her face, and she began to quickly write down some lines.

Later, after the three children read their haikus aloud, McWilliams said the lesson was one of the best she’d had in Pettyjohn’s class.

“We get to make sound effects and you can write about places, animals, and it’s still fun,” Ashley said. “It doesn’t have to be strong writing. You can have fun with it and be hilarious.”

American children don’t write nearly enough, said Roy Fox, MU professor of English Education and chairman of the English department. The proliferation of standardized tests has meant a decrease in the amount of writing that students are required to do, he said. What students are learning and how they are graded rely, more and more, on long lectures, worksheets and bubble sheets.

“American education has been held hostage by mass testing. It’s been way out of control for several years,” Fox said. “And if we know one thing for certain, it’s that students learn by writing, not by filling bubbles in on test forms.”

Pettyjohn said many young students have come to dislike writing — and that includes those who attend her class, which she teaches with the help of volunteers from the English@MU club. Yet, she said, she sometimes finds it hard to believe students aren’t enjoying themselves because they always seem to be having fun.

“This is the main purpose of the class,” Pettyjohn said, “to keep kids interested and get them excited about writing.”

The class is aimed in particular at exposing children in the First Ward to creative writing techniques.

According to Literary Investment for Tomorrow, the state’s literacy resource center which provides training, technical assistance and materials to educators and families, 90 million American adults have limited basic reading and writing skills.

One in six Missourians age 16 and older lack the skills to enter basic information on a job application. Children of parents who dropped out of school are six times more likely to drop out than children whose parents have finished school, according to LIFT.

A study by University of Florida researchers, published in 2003, found that children who attend preschools developed for low-income children are exposed to fewer books and have less opportunity to learn to read and write than other preschoolers.

“Literacy is hard to obtain if your parents are unemployed or your family is entrenched in poverty,” Fox said. “Money doesn’t automatically make you literate, but you might have more access to print sources, a computer, or newspaper and magazine subscriptions.”

He said that there is often less communication in households where parents are working long hours to make ends meet. Fox cites studies that state students with lower socioeconomic status trail in language development all the way through school.

On the other hand, Fox said, there is evidence that links creative-writing skills and academic success. Strong reading and writing skills are indicators of greater success on the job, he said. Employers often complain that their employees have difficulty writing.

Fox said writing is also a way to improve one’s emotional life. In the aftermath of a traumatic event, writing can help someone regain control through rational thought process. Creative writing can “impose order on chaos,” he said.

As much as Lindstedt and the others enjoyed haiku, they were less enthused by Pettyjohn’s lesson on the kenning, a figurative phrase, prominent in Old English poetry, that replaces a common noun. A kenning for “boat,” for example, would be “wave-traveler.”

But, Lindstedt said she likes Pettyjohn’s class because it is freewheeling, positive and, perhaps best of all, very different from the traditional classroom setting. “I like being in a group like this where you don’t have that many guidelines and you know the people aren’t going to pick on you,” she said. “At school, you can’t write everything you’d like to.”


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