Today was the first time I was able to see a (somewhat) typical GWN workshop. As a summer intern for a program largely coordinated with the run of the school year, I have worked mostly administrative tasks: cataloging the reflections on workshops past, preparing portfolios for filing and witnessing the graduation of this year’s mentees. Even though I am new to GWN, I have seen mostly endings.
But today—the first installment of our Girls College Bound Essay Writing Clinic, open to all NYC high school girls—I saw firsthand how vital a resource GWN programming is to a community of girls just starting to find their voice. My own understanding of the program, before then only of words on paper, came to life.
Our first GCB Clinic welcomed over 30 girls into the office, most of who came alone and to GWN for the first time. They had registered online of their own volition—knowing that this had something to do with college prep, but little more. In chairs arranged in a neat semi-circle in the GWN workshop room, the girls who arrived early sat silently completing the “Icebreaker” warm-up. The workshop began slowly, timidly; girls were apprehensive to speak, especially when asked to share a response from their warm-up activity, followed by (gasp!) what must have seemed like a barrage of pointed questions from our two facilitators, Erica and Mary. It’s a position I know I would have steered clear of at that age and still, some seven years later.
The “Icebreakers” went on to inspire essay drafts, composed in a half-hour session of free-writing. Surprising to me, everyone actually wrote; in my own college application process, before families had multiple computers, I sat in front of my family desktop for hours staring at a Word document writing one or two lines for each of the five topics I was wavering between. Sure, I’m naturally indecisive—but that all of these girls, in a new space with new people, were able to knock off a first draft of an essay meant to define who they are… incredible.
During a lunch break in between, facilitators (I included) “infiltrated” student ranks under the guise of casual conversation, to put people at ease in preparation for sharing their work. We then split up into small group sessions. Each small group leader was responsible for facilitating active listening and dialogue in a group session with about four girls each. The essays were dynamic and eclectic, and also clearly a product of the examples presented in the early part of the workshop. Like the examples, the ones I heard were casual, personal narratives, often peppered with dialogue and evocative details. They were all in the early stages of development. The drafts were full of great starting point experiences, but lacked an overarching narrative (one that provided clean, retrospective insight). Topic-wise they were all over the board: in my group, I heard a personal, wrenching account of 9/11 followed by a comedic essay outlining lessons the author took from the Joker character (“Why so serious?”) from the last Batman movie.
In the group session the students, previously mute, listened and gave feedback with maturity and insight. They offered not criticism, but thoughtful notes on what they heard, what they felt was missing, and what they viewed as the “core” story of each others’ drafts. These skills, of listening, analyzing, and giving and taking feedback without judgment (or on the receiving end, defensiveness), most people don’t learn until college.
It is remarkable how quickly GWN staff and volunteers are able to facilitate in depth, meaningful, and often extremely personal dialogues on writing with high school students—and in this case, only three hours into knowing them. It’s exciting to be involved in this process, and to know that these workshops are only a preview of the work I will see leading up to the new semester. Here’s to new beginnings.