WATERLOO — A getaway, a passion, a mindset and most importantly a community. All are ways students have described the process of writing to the organizers of a startup writers’ workshop for tweens and teens in Waterloo.

While writing is still one of the so-called “three Rs” students learn at school, assignments rarely give youths an opportunity to develop their voice and express their sometimes challenging, sometimes controversial but definitely unique thoughts.

That idea of giving youths a space to hone their voices is what led two literacy coaches to begin the Waterloo Writing Project in August.

Led by Kevin Roberts and Alyssa Bruecken, the Waterloo Writing Project gives students — currently fourth- through 10th-graders, but any student is welcome — a place to try new styles and create at least one piece for publication during a session.

“There’s a lot that can get put on these students, or get put on the community, put on the schools from outside, and writing is a way for those students to actively counter that, or actively tell their own stories, actively shape their own communities, actively impact their school,” Roberts said. “Performing or publishing is your active response to some larger questions that you have.”

The location of the project, at 800 Broadway St. in Waterloo, the former site of Rose Hill Church of God in Christ, is important. The project, however, is not limited to Waterloo students or those from its east side.

The students meet from 4 to 6 p.m. Sundays. Any student is welcome, as are volunteers, particularly those willing to share and develop their own voices with the students.

People interested in getting involved with the project can fill out a form on its website at www.waterloowritingproject.com/.

During those two hours each week, students learn about different kinds of writing — they’re learning about spoken word this session. They write pieces, talk about their stories with mentors, write some more and then share those stories.

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Each meeting concludes with a “fire read.” Students sit in a circle and place their writings at the center to be read aloud and discussed by others.

“I think a very important buzzword is STEM right now, that yes, science, technology, engineering and math are incredibly important. But if you can’t convey an idea, then you can have all these ideas in your head, but you need to communicate,” Bruecken said. “The more effective you are (at communicating), the better you’ll be able to sell your ideas.”

She said the program doesn’t just develop young minds but also inspires older ones. Bruecken said the “inspiration is palatable” in the volunteers who work with the students.

Roberts echoes that. “You can go through all week with whatever job you have and then you get to spend these two hours with new perspectives and new voices … with really cool kids; that’s what so energizing about it,” Roberts said. “It has been a lot of work, but after reading the students, 6 o’clock comes around, the day’s over, (and) you’re just so much more fired up to do it again.”

Bruecken and Roberts have had a long-time passion for educating and working with youths. Bruecken teaches at George Washington Carver Academy. Roberts left law school after an internship working with juveniles to pursue a job in education. He worked alongside Bruecken for four years at Carver Academy.

Both shared a desire to make a space for students outside of school and home to craft their voices and ultimately turned that dream into the writing project. They are applying for nonprofit status and hope to expand the project from beyond Sundays to an after-school program and host field trips.

The program they developed is based on a nationwide initiative called 826. It was founded in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari and operates in seven cities. The mission of 826 is to offer “inventive programs” to provide students with an extra resource to expand their creativity and improve their writing.

The Waterloo Writing Project’s third session will end with a performance of the students’ work June 5 at the RiverLoop Amphitheater. A summer session will begin shortly after, and the group’s leaders are willing to provide rides for students to participate in the project.


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