National Writing Project

Writing Project Sites Get Involved in The Best Teen Writing

By: Art Peterson
Date: May 12, 2010

Summary: One of the highest honors that teen writers can receive is publication in The Best Teen Writing. Writing Project sites are becoming increasingly involved in evaluating the writing in their region as affiliates of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, which publishes the anthology.


For the teen writers included in each year's edition of Alliance for Young Artists & Writers' Best Teen Writing, you might say that publication in the anthology is a bit like winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Rachel Ryan, an eighth grade English teacher at New Glarus Middle-High School in New Glarus, Wisconsin, saw firsthand what an honor it was for one of her students, Kaitlin Jennrich, to be published in the anthology.

One day Kaitlin's entire family showed up after school while Kaitlin was still at basketball practice. Kaitlin's mother was clutching a copy of The Best Teen Writing of 2009 that contained Kaitlin's story "The Burning."

"We knew, of course, that the story had been a prize winner, but this was the first anyone knew that the story was going to be published," said Ryan.

Kaitlin says her story, a rather horrific but pointed account of deranged student setting off a lethal fire at a school, was inspired by nothing more ominous than her irritation "at seemingly useless fire drills."

A good story is all in the telling, though, as Virginia Lee Pfaehler, a 19-year-old who was the General Writing Portfolio Gold Medal winner for the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers for 2008, knows. Pfaehler evaluated such pieces to be included among the select 48 in The Best Teen Writing of 2009.

Those who participate say that the sessions are among the best writing professional development they've ever experienced.

She describes the exhilaration of reading through hundreds of pieces of writing in eleven categories, "essays on how to cope with a parent's death and how to lead yourself out of silence; poetry pining for lost innocence and celebrating dietary diversity; humorous looks at the SAT and at female images in the media; dramatic scripts that pluck emotion from the most immutable hearts."

Choosing the Best

The 2009 selection process started with 81 regional affiliates of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which range across a variety of organizations from entire school districts to arts councils to Writing Project sites. The affiliates assess approximately 20,000 writing submissions for such elements as originality, technical skill, and "the emergence of personal voice."

Since 2003, the Prairie Lands Writing Project at Missouri Western State University has served as a Regional Affiliate for the Alliance. Now, for the past two years, the Missouri Writing Projects Network —the state's consortium of four Writing Project sites—and the Missouri Association of Teachers of English have joined forces to form the Missouri Writing Region.

Jane Frick, director of Prairie Lands, said that the site brings together 25 to 30 teachers, grades K–16, on a couple of Saturdays every January to read and rate the pieces.

"Those who participate say that the sessions are among the best writing professional development they've ever experienced," says Frick.

Frick sees a benefit to students and other teachers in the state as well. "In the two years we've had our Missouri Regional Affiliate for the contest, we've been able to honor more students and their teachers at the state level for their good writing and teaching rather than just the sixteen from the region who have gone on to be national winners." Just take a look at the 2010 Missouri Writing Region winners .

This year more NWP sites and networks, including the California Writing Project, Chicago Area Writing Project, Philadelphia Writing Project, Hoosier Writing Project, and Southern Maine Writing Project, are among Alliance affiliates in the 94 different regions .

Diversity of Voices

The Alliance's dedication to honoring a diverse population of student writers and their teachers is in line with the principles of the National Writing Project. Consider the work of one of the 2009 award winners, New York high school senior Eunju Namkung, who received the top award in the personal essay / memoir category for her piece "Broken Gourd."

Eunju, the daughter of Korean immigrants who do not speak English, explained to NPR's Linda Wertheimer that "Broken Gourd" is the English translation for a Korean expression that means "kind of like a schmuck, not doing exactly the right things, kind of straddling different worlds, not paying attention to the conventional world, as my mom would say it."

Recognizing the anthology's cultural richness, NWP Executive Director Sharon Washington was enthusiastic when asked to contribute a preface to The Best Teen Writing of 2009.

She wrote, "The National Writing Project appreciates the Alliance's commitment to value and seek diversity. We believe this anthology is strengthened by the vast array of cultures and experiences that the young authors bring to their writing."

The Best Teen Writing of 2009 was distributed to attendees at the 2009 NWP Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and ten copies were mailed to each NWP site.

This year the Alliance of Young Artists and Writers will again be sending out the message to thousands of the talented young: "Pursue your dream. It's OK."

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