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Writing Class Changes Lives By Helping Students Find Their Voice

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It’s a story about stories…and about poetry and creative non-fiction and, most importantly, about how a writing class in Sacramento is changing the lives of students.

The class is unique in that its goal is to help students find their voice through positive reinforcement and creative expression. The focus on strengthening what is already strong or praising a phrase that stayed with a classmate provides a supportive and safe environment where students need not fear feeling torn down. This technique, modeled after the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) writing method, showcases the power of encouragement over the defeat of criticism.

“There is no judgment in this room. We embrace every kind of person with every kind of personality and we celebrate all of them so the artistry can bloom,” said Hilary Brugger, the teacher who spearheaded the creation of the class at Visions In Education Charter School in conjunction with 916 Ink, a local non-profit devoted to promoting literacy and empowering youth through writing.

A defining component of the 916 Ink methodology is the publication of a book at the end of each workshop. According to the Katie McCleary, founder of 916 Ink, publishing a book allows students to work towards something tangible and ensures their words don’t get lost. In many ways a publication of their words is a validation of them. The most recent publication by Visions In Education’s students is Stumbling through the Stars, the class’ 3rd publication which was celebrated at a book release party at B Street Theater on February 3rd.

“[The book] is a culmination of everything they do in here,” said Brugger. “It represents the community we build, it represents the voice they found, it represents everything they learned as writers. It’s their stories.”

Sit in a class or talk to a student and you’ll see that the pride of ownership of these stories is just as tangible as the book itself. “Confidence” is a word repeatedly used or demonstrated to describe what finding their voice results in.

“Confidence is everything when it comes to finding your voice,” said Tierra Johnson, a student who has taken every class since it started four semesters ago, “[It gives you] the courage to not be afraid to fail.”

Zsuzanna “ZiiZii” Smith, who like Johnson is also a mentor to other students, describes the process of finding your voice as sitting and “you’re left with yourself and yourself only…and [you] go through your mind and then you’re like ‘I didn’t know I could do this’ and ‘I didn’t know I could do that,’ ‘I didn’t know I could use those kind of words.’ You figure yourself out. And in figuring yourself out you figure out how to express yourself and put yourself down on paper and show other people who you are. That’s finding your voice.”

Both Johnson and Smith say the class changed their lives. Before joining the class, Johnson said she wanted to crawl insider herself and felt like she was wandering, but now feels “found.” Smith said the class brought her out of a difficult place when nothing else could and, through the confidence she gained, feels better about herself, which “makes everything else go away.”

Brugger emphasized that Visions In Education couldn’t offer what they offer without 916 Ink, whose partnership she describes as turning “just a class” into something amazing and life-changing. The organization also brings in professors, writers, editors, poets, and visual artists to speak to the students at every session. Helping run the class is 916 Ink volunteers, which includes local attorneys, writers, and even the Editor-In-Chief of Sacramento Magazine.

Writing right along side with members of the literary community is a game changer according to Brugger, who says students frequently float out of the classroom after receiving praise from such respected members.

When asked to describe in one word what this class has made them, students, teachers, and volunteers in the class answered:

“Braver” – Hilary
“Happier” – Destiny
“Confident” – Jennifer
“Stronger” – Ashley
“Free” – Madelon
“Inspired” – Sean
“Poet-warrior” – Karaline
“Comfortable” – Grace (a.ka. Your Majesty)
“More” – Ryan
“Heard” – Aubrey
“Peaceful” – Christian
“Full” – Hailey
“Painter” – Eric
“Better” – ZiiZii
“Liberated” – Radhika
“Brave” – Rebecca
“Thoughtful” – Evana
“Open” – Austin
“Found” – Tierra
“Free” – Magdalen
“Inspiring” – Emma Jo
“Creating” – Aleisha
“Rounding” – Rodey
“Decrepitation” – Maribella
“Pens” – Gavin
“Better” – Jarreau
“Inspired” – Krista
“Happier” – Adina

Due to the popularity of the class, Visions In Education now teaches three classes in two locations.

916 Ink currently organizes 22 youth writing workshops at various schools, programs, and libraries throughout the Sacramento region. To learn more about 916 Ink and to purchase Stumbling through the Stars, visit their website at 916ink.org. The book will also be available on Amazon.com in the near future.

Photos by Bethany Harris


About the author

Bethany Harris

Bethany joined Sacramento Press in 2013 and enjoys writing articles that uncover the happenings of the city and the people behind the stories who make them so worth telling. A native of Sacramento, she also loves photography, running, gardening, coffee, and discovering new places and new things to do--both in the city and throughout California.

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