Prescott College writing class shares its passion with the community

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

After a three-year break, the Writers in the Community class at Prescott College returns to give Prescott residents a voice through the written word. In this service learning practicum, students facilitate creative writing classes with people in the greater Prescott community who rarely have access to such training.

Pairs of students lead workshops for agencies serving a variety of participants, ranging from the disabled, the elderly, and juvenile delinquents, to homeless youth and women, and those recovering from addiction. “You get to let all your thoughts out of your head and put them on paper,” said one participant from the Juvenile Detention Center.

According to participants’ teachers, after taking the Writers in the Community (WIC) workshops in 2002, a group of learning-disabled children raised their scores not only on their writing skills, but also on their self-esteem.

Prescott College instructor Melanie Bishop, who has taught the WIC course since 2002, expressed this as her goal. “That’s what I’m interested in – raising self-esteem.”

Most of the participants have been through difficult, often traumatic experiences, and writing can be an effective tool in coming to positive resolutions. PC students involved encourage participants to express their stories and emotions, reminding them that they have a voice worth being heard, Bishop explained.

In preparation for the workshops, Bishop assigns her students a group to teach for the entire semester. The students then construct lessons and discuss methods for handling potential challenges. After diligent planning, they teach at their respective sites twice a week to facilitate the writing workshops.

“I’ve always felt blessed to be in a position that allows me to turn young adults on to the power of written expression,” said Bishop. “Now, through this class, my students go out and pass that joy of learning on to 75 other people in this community. It feels like the very best of education.”

The WIC initiative may also have benefits for the Prescott College students taking the course. Besides getting a valuable teaching experience, Bishop said students are forced to identify what they love about writing and reading and “how they can go about sharing that passion with somebody else.”

In addition, they often find it rewarding to serve the community and get to know people they would not meet in other circumstances. “It’s also a goal to have Prescott the college mingle with Prescott the town,” said Bishop. “Most of these populations I would not have the opportunity to intersect with, nor would my students.”

Bishop remembered watching her students facilitate a workshop at the Veterans Hospital in 2002, and realized that in the 12 years she had lived in Prescott, she had never set foot inside the building. Bishop recalled how the “pacifist-leaning students” did not expect to have much in common with the war veterans. By the end of the semester, they had made friendships with the veterans that extended far past the WIC experience.

“Because we don’t know these people, we may initially feel frightened,” Bishop said, referring to the groups that WIC work with. “But you meet them and they’re just people. You join around the love of language and literature and you get to introduce them to that.”

At the end of the semester, many participants want to continue receiving the writing classes. “Almost everywhere we have worked they have begged us to come back and they have asked ‘can this be ongoing?’” said Bishop.

To the disappointment of many students and community members, the WIC course is only offered every three years. Bishop envisions an ambitious student running the program year-round as a non-profit organization, covering expenses for participants, including childcare, transportation, food, and writing supplies. It could then be ongoing and open to all students with training, so that everyone could volunteer as facilitators.

The writing classes involve more of the community than just PC and the participants. Various businesses, such as New Frontiers, Albertsons, Safeway, Target and Wal-Mart have shown their support by donating food, supplies and services.

Whether it is businesses, college students or volunteers, their hope for this program is to develop a more interactive, supportive, and healthy community. “I wanted to provide my students with the experience of leaving a mark on somebody’s life. And I wanted to bring my students into the community, and myself too,“ said Bishop. “Students end up feeling they’ve received much more than they’ve given.”

If you want to donate funds, supplies or services to the project, please contact Melanie Bishop for more information: mbishop@prescott.edu.

Participants in the 2011 WIC workshop:
– Juvenile Detention of Yavapai County.
– Prescott House (men’s facility for post-rehab).
– Spring Ridge Academy (therapeutic girls boarding school, grades 9 through 12).
– Turning Point (homeless shelter for youth).
– Prescott Area Women´s Shelter-PAWS (shelter for homeless women).
– New Horizons (support group for disabled adults).
– Open Door/Coalition for Compassion and Justice (support group for the homeless and the working poor).
– Good Samaritan (elderly living facility).

This article appeared in the March 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.
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