Communities that are making a mark– and a name for themselves with the next generation– often contain folks who are willing to color outside the lines, redefine and create new possibilities in old or well-established systems. Traverse City’s National Writers Series has taken this idea and turned it into one of the most unique, and copy-worthy, ideas happening in public education today.
The Front Street Writers program, a partnership between Traverse City Area Public Schools and New York Times best selling author Doug Stanton’s brainchild, the National Writers Series, is currently providing up to 30 students at a time a chance to experience creative writing instruction in a way that rivals most colleges and private arts academies.
Hanging out with Stanton and new National Writers Series executive director, Jill Tewsley, in the program’s downtown Traverse City space recently, the pair of literary gurus couldn’t stop grinning as they watched class in-session.
“Meeting writer Jim Harrison, right here on Front Street, when I was a young man, it shaped the rest of my life,” recalled Stanton. “And then I went to Interlochen (Arts Academy), and had an incredible education. It literally changed my life. But it’s very expensive (Stanton was only able to finish because a benefactor offered to help fund his final year). We wanted to replicate the feel of a place like Interlochen for public school students in our area, to feed back into the system rather than try to start something new or different.”
The space itself screams innovative and cool. The furniture, all donated by Steelcase and Jonathan and Marissa Wege, is hip and functional, able to roll throughout the small warehouse-size room to meet the needs of the whole class or cohort groups. In addition to the typical class sessions– students arrive at Front Street Writers for the last hour of their day and have some lectures that go until 3:45– the building remains open for students to study, do other homework, or workshop together until 6 p.m. every night.
“We really want kids to feel like this is their creative space,” Tewsley said. “We want it to be a place of community for them.”
The National Writers Series, which has helped define Traverse City’s culture as one that values literature, has always been rooted in helping young writers further their craft. As of the 2012-2013 academic year, more than $20,000 in scholarships will have been awarded to college-bound high school students.
“It was in 2010, just after we’d awarded our first scholarships, that I just sort of told this sold out crowd at City Opera House about an idea to create a downtown, free creative writing program like the one I’d been so fortunate to experience,” Stanton said with a laugh.
“It was perfect timing,” he added, “Because the president of the Board of Education, Gary Appel, happened to be in the audience. He came right up to me after the evening’s program and a partnership was born.’”
Stanton, who co-founded the National Writers Series with his wife, Anne, and friend Grant Parsons, on somewhat of a whim, said the spark for Front Street Writers manifested very much in the same way.
“When we started the National Writers Series, it was in part born out of the frustration that no one was talking passionately about art any more at the dinner table,” he recalled. “It was politics all the time. Politics has turned into entertainment in America, but it wasn’t always like that. There is a tremendous amount of writing going on in Traverse City and in Michigan, and I was peeved.”
With a half-shrug and a smile, Stanton said he hopes having more book-oriented events has helped remind people of the importance of stories, and the role of literature in creating community and culture.
“But from the beginning, all of our events have been about supporting literature and literacy. I think it’s important for people to understand, when they attend one of our events, not only do they hear great stories and conversations, they support the long-term sustainability of the educational components too.”
With so much scholarship money already given out to students in the five-county area surrounding Traverse City, it makes sense to know the president of the Board of Education was quick to connect Stanton with the superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools.
“We have been supported in this idea from day one. It just sort of snowballed into existence,” Stanton said. “We wanted it to be an outgrowth of what we’re doing on stage, and here we are now. It’s happening.”
Everything is a “first” for the program, and Stanton expects it will grow and morph in many ways as time passes. Right now, students are co-taught by Traverse City Central teacher and media specialist, Kerrey Woughter, and Leigh Gallagher, the current Writer in Residence.
“Leigh is fantastic,” Stanton raved. “She’s doing a phenomenal job.”
Gallagher, who was given the Zell Postgraduate award at the University of Michigan in 2011, has a long list of additional honors and published works. She represents a key element of what sets this program apart; a working writer will lead students through rigorous workshops that parallel freshmen or sophomore-level college creative writing classes.
“Our Writers in Residence receive a $10,000 stipend per semseter, as well as a place to live,” Stanton said. “This is paid for by the National Writers Series. It does not cost the public schools anything, but students do receive school credit for participating.”
During this first semester, students are studying fiction and poetry. Second semester’s focus is on non-fiction. Students can stay for both, or opt to participate in a single term.
Another pinch-me-I’mdreaming element of Front Street Writers? Masters classes taught by authors on the National Writers Series schedule.
“So far, every author has said ‘yes,’” Stanton said.
The opportunity to expose young writers (and readers) to successful authors is an enormous gift, and not only for educational reasons. Like the National Writer Series itself, which has built its model from a spirit of entertainment, the masters classes will provide students with a vocabulary of literature. They will provide conversation starters. They will provide discussions based on stories and words.
“We’re just getting started,” beamed Tewsley, who also serves as the co-director of the program with Kerrey Woughter.
Tewsley comes to the National Writers Series with an impressive book industry resume, including her decadelong career with Borders nationwide event-marketing program. She’s loved books since discovering Horton Hatches the Egg on her fourth birthday (she still has her well-worn and loved copy).
“I’ve done countless book events, and what happens at the National Writers Series, why it is so successful, is because it is a conversation on stage. It’s not just an author reading a passage most people in the audience will already have read. It’s dynamic.
“I want to take what this organization is already doing well and expand it,” Tewsley said. “I want the National Writers Series to be connected with libraries and book groups and anyone who has a vested interest in books. Stories are so important, and it is amazing to watch our students come in the door and experience the kind of creative writing program I wish I could have had as a kid.”
Like everything positive happening in the Traverse City area right now, both the National Writers Series and the Front Street Writers program started as ideas, but came to fruition with help and support from the community. The list of volunteers for Front Street Writers is long and varied– from students to Michael Delp, who ran Interlochen’s Creative Writing Department for years– and there’s no doubt new names will continue to be added each semester.
“Everyone is talking about how there needs to be more innovation in public schools. This sort of community partnership is a perfect example. I think it could be replicated in other cities, and with a little creative energy, in many other disciplines. All you need to do is choose a path, find the smartest people already doing the things you want to do well, and make it happen.”
To support the mission of the National Writers Series and Front Street Writers program, visit www.nationalwritersseries.org