Over three years ago I excitedly filled out an application to volunteer at the local library. I had always been fond of libraries in general, and greatly looked forward to the prospect of becoming more involved than an average patron. I was full of little ideas to suggest to my supervisor hoping they were in the realm of possibility. The majority of these ideas revolved around the concept of making the library a place where teen writers could come for support, as well as providing a venue for displaying their work. However, nothing ever came of my ideas, and I soon stopped even trying to make them become reality and eventually even ceased to volunteer.
However, in October of 2002 my luck changed. The library’s newly hired Youth Services Librarian, Spring Lea Henry, started a Teen Advisory Group. At that first meeting, I asked her if it would be possible for me to moderate a group devoted to teen writing at the library. She said that she loved the idea and that she would see what could be done.
Within a few months we had scheduled the first session. However, when I arrived, I was disappointed to see only five people, including myself. Despite low attendance, the meeting was rather productive. We agreed to meet on the first Wednesday of every month, from four to seven. With each meeting our group grew by one or two new people, who were usually friends of regular members. Today we have a stable group of about fifteen people.
Over time, the group has tried many different things, and through trial and error we have established a rather effective system. For the most part I lead the meetings. I plan the activities and most of the printed work our group produces. Spring Lea is also always present, acting as advisor to the group, providing random, but useful input; using her English background to help us improve our writing. Our roles have developed over time, and a beautiful cooperation between teen and librarian has been reached.
The meetings themselves have also evolved over time. Originally the meetings would vary a great deal from one to another, but after a few months we decided to begin each meeting with general business and anything that needs discussed with the whole group. This usually takes only a few minutes, and we then move on to some kind of writing exercise. Our activities range from simple descriptive pieces, to complex narratives with difficult requirements. Everyone is given the parameters of the exercise, and about half an hour is allotted for writing. Everyone then reads their piece and receives any constructive critiques the rest of the group may have for them. Once all the members have shared their exercise, the pizza usually arrives.
Ordering pizza is one of the best things a person can do to develop a stable writing group! Food is a powerful way to attract teens, especially when the meeting is three hours. Pizza is a particularly good choice because it is popular, filling, and feeds a lot of people. Snack food just won’t cut it. Money for the pizza comes out of the library’s program budget, but if there is no budget for such things at your library I would suggest asking every member to chip in a few dollars to buy it for themselves. Eating pizza is a very important part of our meetings in that it gives a bit of a break to the teens, helping them stay focused for the rest of the meeting.
After most people have finished eating, we move on to sharing. Most members of the group write a good deal outside the meetings, and want to get feedback on their writing. If the group is small, it is not too unreasonable to have each person read nearly ten pages. However, as our group has grown, this required far too much time, and the amount had to be reduced to three pages. When people have a piece longer than two or three pages, they are encouraged to read the best part and the worst part. The group then gives critiques to each person after they read, using the sandwich method. This simply means that they give the person a positive comment, then a negative one, followed by another compliment. This makes criticisms much easier to swallow.
Finally, if there is still time left at the end of the meeting, we usually do the only activity that we have ever repeated, the "Round Robin." In this exercise, each participant starts a story then passes it to the person on their right, who continues the story for five minutes, then passes it on. This is repeated until each story returns to its original author. We usually separate into groups of four or five, depending on the amount time remaining. This activity has become quite popular and can produce hilarious stories involving everything from the social interactions of colors to werewolves and vampires. Most meetings follow this timeline fairly closely, depending on who is present, and peoples' moods each day.
It is very important to understand that each group of teens will be different, and so each group will be different. Things that work well for one set of people may not work at all for another. However, there do seem to be some concepts which are more universal. For example, regardless of the group it seems very important to avoid creating an atmosphere similar to that of an English classroom, and business is conducted in as casual a way possible. Many of the teens who attend are very reserved, and it seems that the relaxed atmosphere helps them come out of their shells and interact with the rest of the group.
Moreover, it is very important to realize how much something as simple as a writing group can effect people. I have seen teens vastly improve their writing skills in a short period of time because of the support and help they receive through the group. But more than that, it can provide a social context in which teens can express themselves in a totally unique way. Writing is one of the greatest forms of human expression, and it is something which is important to many young people. Providing an environment in which teens can share and excel in this form of expression is something truly worth while and meaningful. I encourage everyone to do their best to create or promote such a writing group at their own library.
Douglas County Libraries has established an online forum as an extension of the library services. For more information on starting groups such as this contact the library's Youth Services Librarian, Spring Lea Henry.
Nick Barstad was born in Colorado Springs, where his dad was a Professor at Colorado College. It is from his dad that he learned to love books. He was home schooled by his mom until high school, which gave him a very strong connection with his family. For high school Nick attend Ponderosa High School in Parker, CO part time. He continued home schooling for the remainder of his classes. In high school he focused most of his time on art and writing. During his junior year Nick began working at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. This afforded him an opportunity to encourage the arts in his community. Nick intend to continue similar projects this fall, when he will be attending the Kansas City Art Institute.