By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service
SOMERVILLE – A world where dolphins plan their revenge on evil monkeys armed with exploding spit. A tale about a Jewish girl and her family hiding in Nazi Germany. A filing cabinet with four, feisty personalities. A solemn take on how climate change could end the world.
Each of these stories comes from one of the students at the Writer’s Den, a free creative writing workshop for Somerville Public School students grades four through eight. The kids come from different schools, different backgrounds and are different ages, but they have one thing in common – they love to write.
The Writer’s Den gives these students a pressure-free space to foster their creativity outside of a traditional classroom setting.
“A bunch of kids who might have other worries in other contexts can just worry about ‘how do I tell a story’ rather than ‘am I going to get an A? Am I going to get it in on time? Am I going to get the spelling right?’” said Cara Feinberg, who runs the weekly event.
Each week, Feinberg and volunteer Allyson Sherlock, a professor at Emerson College and the Harvard Extension School, give the students a prompt to work on. At the end of the session, they’re invited to read their stories aloud in a judgment-free zone. After one student reads, the others are encouraged to give feedback and ask questions to help their peers flesh out their work.
“We have a group of kids who are really eager to hear what everybody else wrote,” Feinberg said. “I’ve watched kids…start off really hesitant to read out loud. As they do it a couple times, it’s really exciting to watch their hands go up.”
The adults who run the Writer’s Den see creative writing as more than a fun activity. Each week, these students write and hone skills that are applicable outside of the classroom. The Writer’s Den helps students grow not only academically, but in their self-assurance.
“Half the goal is writing; half the goal is confidence,” Feinberg said.
Feinberg, who started as a print journalist and now works for NOVA, PBS’s science series, said she remembers how passionate she was about writing at a young age, and loves seeing the same excitement in these students.
“It’s an age when kids are just discovering writing and they’re excited about it,” she said.
The Writer’s Den began six years ago, although its roots can be traced back about 15 years, according to founder Alan Ball. In 2003, Ball started an after school writing club which established Happening at the Healey, a successful school newspaper. Eventually, they added a magazine. And in 2013, the Writer’s Den came to be.
“It seemed right to have a group meet regularly where kids from all schools could come,” said Ball. “Lacking a better name we called it Writer’s Den, which seemed to convey the laid back, come as you are, ready for anything spirit behind it.”
Ball said creative writing serves as a great way to provide freedom of exploration and free thinking for kids outside of their school environment.
“Its value is that of art, music, dance … with the additional benefit that one kind of writing informs the other kinds, and if kids write creatively they will become better writers in general,” Ball said.
In the last few years, educators have started to take a closer look at the positive impact creative writing can have. In 2015, the University of Sydney, Australia, published findings from a program called Sydney Story Factory, an organization that aims to help boost creativity in young people.
The academic team from the University of Sydney found that students who worked with the Sydney Store Factory had better planning and organization skills, increased confidence when working with others, had better self-reflection skills and more willingness to speak with people, especially adults.
Laura Bean, the executive director of Mindful Literacy at the Greater Good Magazine, is a teacher who puts creative writing to real world use in her classroom. In October of 2018, she published her findings after practicing creative writing with her seventh graders.
“To help traumatized students overcome their personal and academic challenges, one of our first jobs as teachers is to build a sense of community,” she wrote.
Bean later noted that after a year of creative writing activities, 40% of her students moved up to the next level of their English Language Development program, compared with 20% the year before.
Confidence building and community are both vital to the program, Feinberg said. Students from many different schools in the Somerville Public School system and homeschooled kids in the area attend each week.
Feinberg said part of the benefit of the Writer’s Den is a chance for kids who wouldn’t meet each other to bond over a solitary activity, turning the thing they love into an exercise that gives students a sense of belonging.
“If you’re into sports, you get to play sports and you get to be part of a team,” Feinberg said. “It’s a place where kids who think they might be interested in telling stories can come and say, ‘I’m part of that club.’”
Jennifer Haefeli has been taking her daughter, Cata Elvander, to the Writer’s Den since just before she started fourth grade.
“She loved it from the very beginning,” Haefeli said. “We’ve actually moved from Somerville … but we drove back every week last year for her to be able to continue.”
On Wednesday at the most recent Writer’s den, Cata, now in sixth grade, shared a story about a family who escaped from a giant storm by fleeing their home that sat on a rock in the ocean.
“I like writing because it’s fun,” she said simply.
Haefeli thinks of the Writer’s Den as one of Somerville’s best kept secrets. She had tried to find writing camps for Cata in the past, but most programs were geared towards older kids. She was elated when she found the Writer’s Den on a Somerville Mom’s website.
“There’s a very enthusiastic group who goes, but I think it’s really great for the Somerville community.” she said. “It just doesn’t exist really, that I can find in other places.”
The Writer’s Den doesn’t use taxpayer money, and gives these students a place where they can do what they love and make friends along the way. Ball isn’t necessarily worried about expanding into other communities – he’d rather focus on the one he’s already in.
“I want other kids to read what our kids write,” he said. “My major challenge is to get grownups to pay attention to, learn from and respond to what these kids are writing.”
A previous version of this article improperly identified Bean’s role at the Greater Good Magazine. The article has been edited to reflect the change.