American Idol contestant, Christian Spear, is building on her start in the arts and has done Texas proud. She began as a Writers in the Schools (WITS) participant in the elementary grades under the professional tutelage of Susan Bernstein. As always in the workshop settings, an anthology is published. Spear’s poem “Sky and Clouds” included this budding bio: Christian Spear likes to write stories and poems. Her favorite color is baby blue. She is working on two novels. Spear is also a joyful product of the inspiration found in an arts culture.
That is how WITS achieves success. Associate Director Bao-Long Chu says, “Most of our work is year-long projects – up to 30 visits in the schools. We are a group of people dedicated to the craft of writing, and we get kids excited by getting them connected through a personal journey. That’s where the magic lies.”
WITS grew out of the Creative Writing Program at University of Houston in 1983. It is modeled after the original mentoring program for children, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, begun by professors Marvin Hoffman and Phillip Lopate. WITS still draws an enormous number of Masters of Fine Arts graduate students to staff its programs as well as published poets, novelists, playwrights and children’s authors.
As Chu says, “For us, it’s really about getting professional writers to work with teachers to offer another perspective. When we go into a classroom, we reinforce what they’re doing in a different way.” A plus, as WITS serves the underserved to bridge the disparity gap, the enrichment and innovative approach to the literary arts spreads to other study areas. Test scores improve.
Accomplishment seems to encourage these writers to give back to communities. Chu says, “My personal journey reflects the lives of children here. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) student from Vietnam, I benefited from a teacher who loved to teach writing.” He is also a graduate of UH’s Creative Writing Program and has worked with WITS for 12 years. Graduates of WITS have gone on to administer similar programs in Austin, Seattle and other locales.
WITS students take Writers Tours or field trips. Chu says, “We take them to all sorts of cultural events as poets and writers – Houston Arboretum to do nature writing, The Menil, Blaffer Gallery and The Heritage Society to be inspired by the art around them.”
When the school year is through, there are endless summer hours to fill. Summer Camp registration began February 1, so sign up quickly to participate. While other camps’ numbers have dropped off, WITS generally has a waiting list. They partner with Rice University and will expand their four campuses to include an additional one in The Woodlands. Nearly 800 children will become scribes and scholars this season.
Children thrive in WITS, whether they are in traditional classrooms, after school programs, hospitals or community centers. While developing skills to brainstorm, draft, revise, edit and publish, they grow personally, too. They gain a voice, a joy of reading, self-confidence, relevance and an enlightened appreciation for culture.
WITS serves Kindergarten through 12th grade children, and Chu says, “We love the work we do. We have one product, one focus for all these years. It is our belief that each child has a story to tell. Most of our successes are measured anecdotally, but what we do changes one child at a time.” And like ripples on a pond, those children give back.