By Keren Taylor
Think back to when you were 13. Was there a woman who inspired you to be creative, empowered you to be strong, and encouraged your sense of self-worth?
Well, that is exactly what we at WriteGirl are doing for teenage girls through our unique creative writing and mentoring program. I want to share a couple of our most valuable lessons for anyone dealing with the minefield of helping a teenage girl develop into a confident, creative and empowered young woman.
Lesson #1: Create a completely positive environment.
Teens, no matter how confident they may appear, are fragile and easily bruised. We do not ever offer criticism or even critique at our group workshops – only positive feedback. We leave the more challenging and complex task of critique to the one-on-one sessions our girls have with their mentors.
At workshops, once girls see that they are not going to be judged, that their creative words will not be diminished or even deemed as having “room for improvement,” they open up, share their writing, listen and support other girls in the same way.
As Cheyna Gant, a 16-year-old WriteGirl mentee, says, "WriteGirl is just somewhere you can express yourself freely. They don't judge you and you can get your point across any way you want to."
Parents can adapt this idea. Create a designated time or event each week where you just offer positive support – no advice or suggestions or probing questions – just encouragement and praise.
Lesson #2: Foster an environment for creativity and self-expression.
Teenage girls often need help in developing their own voice, their self-confidence and their vision of their future. Every month, we bring together 120 women and girls to engage in what we call “literacy in disguise.” While the girls experience the program as a fun, creative outlet, we layer in a great amount of rigorous writing instruction. In our seven-year history, 100% of our seniors have not only graduated from high school, but all of them have enrolled in college.
We know that we are competing with the speed and sensation of TV, media shows and games. We know that a teens’ social life and interactions are vital, and sometimes we have to remind our students about our no cell phone/no texting policy at workshops. But when we hear the room filled with conversation or totally silent with their pens in motion, we know we’ve gotten their full attention.
Another hallmark of any WriteGirl event is our use of color, textures, nature, sound, music, art, movement, food, and even scents.
Writing in a classroom setting can be a dry, daunting activity for anyone, so we strive to create experiences that are surprising and stimulating to all the senses. It takes some planning and preparation – finding the right props, pictures or music, but it is all so worth it when we see how inventive and free the girls become while holding a pinecone in their hand, or sitting on pillows listening to Rachmaninoff.
Parents can incorporate similar activities at home to encourage playfulness and creativity:
-- Placecards at the dinner table with intriguing quotes or questions
-- Complex words randomly taped to random objects just for fun
-- New and unusual music with breakfast
-- Silent TV time where the viewers invent the dialogue
-- Special personal notes tucked under a pillow or into a backpack
A note of caution: These kinds of little surprises or games can have profound effects in not only inspiring laughter or conversation, but sometimes in unleashing much more significant emotions or reactions.
Jasmine Gomez, a 15-year-old WriteGirl mentee, says, “WriteGirl lets me share my thoughts and feelings...things that I'm usually afraid to say. WriteGirl was a great experience because it helped me learn how to voice what I feel. That's something we all need to know how to do -- especially as girls.”
So go there. Break away from the usual routine activities. Be open to new conversations and interactions – and see where it takes you.
Keren Taylor is executive director and founder of WriteGirl. For those interested in learning more about the specific activities WriteGirl uses to teach writing, the organization publishes a guide, Pens on Fire. WriteGirl will have a booth at The Women’s Conference 2009, and you are encouraged to stop by!