Empowering young writers all across Maine

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Photography by Molly Haley, mollyhaley.com

By Dan Kilgallon, Contributor

The Telling Room is a non-profit organization located in Portland, Maine, that puts together learning programs for young writers ages 6-18. As told in their mission statement, “…we seek to build confidence, strengthen literacy skills, and provide real audiences for our students. We believe that the power of creative expression can change our communities and prepare our youth for future success.”

Students from all over the state are able to participate in activities, including field trips to The Telling Room’s writing workshop on Commercial Street, after-school programs, in-school residencies, and more. Additionally, this organization is able to offer programming during school vacation through several city-based summer camps.

Local artists, writers, and teachers have helped make writing fun for kids of all ages, bringing out the creativity of each student, even if they don’t think it is there. Julie Esch, an English instructor at Wells Middle School, has collaborated with The Telling Room through classroom poetry workshops over the last four years. “Many of our young writers continue writing into high school and send me their pieces,” said Esch, “I am convinced that their experience with The Telling Room helps to foster a love of poetry and writing that transcends the classroom walls. The kids see themselves as writers, and want to continue writing which is a wonderful thing to see.”

In that sense, The Telling Room educates writers, but also gives many students the opportunity to discover a sense of personal identity. According to Program Director Nick Whiston, “I think if there’s one piece that is going to be beneficial to kids for the rest of their lives, is that idea of getting in touch with and getting comfortable with who they are; feeling enough of a sense of self to use that and engage with other people.”

Another way The Telling Room bolsters the individuality and voice of young students is through the sharing portion of the writing process. Whiston adds, “That feeling of being listened to and sharing something you’re proud of is a huge confidence boost and is something that all of us wants as human beings.”

One example of The Telling Room’s active role in the sharing process is their collection of published student work. Since its founding in 2004, the organization has published the work of more than three thousand young writers in over 140 books. These publications range from collaborative chapbook projects to anthologies of work collected from many students over the course of a year.

In addition to publishing, the organization puts on many events in the community, bringing people together from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Last month, The Telling Room hosted a pair of evening readings at the Portland Museum of Art Bernard Osher Auditorium called “Mark My Words”. These events consisted of live reading sessions of stories from a total of 31 international, multilingual high school students involved in the Young Writers and Leaders program.

Maine high schoolers selected for this program were able to work one-on-one with a mentor over the course of several months to develop their own story for presentation. Many of these students chose to share personal anecdotes describing their journey of transitioning to life in America. The effectiveness of individual growth in this annual program became quite evident in these powerful presentations. In 2015, Young Writers and Leaders received a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama.

Earlier this month, The Telling Room hosted another event called “Show and Tell” at The State Theater in Portland. This featured performances from several different award-winning poets, storytellers and musicians. Amongst the presentations was the reading of a personal narrative from Gracia Bareti, a junior at Westbrook High School who has been involved with the Young Writers and Leaders program as well as The Telling Room’s Ambassadors Program. Overall, the “Show and Tell” event encapsulated the power of creative expression that The Telling Room is founded upon.

With the academic school year coming to a close, The Telling Room looks to continue producing high quality programming for all of their writers. Whiston said, “We are always thinking about how to make our curriculum as strong as possible, how to train our teaching artists as well as possible, and how to cultivate relationships with classroom teachers to provide the most benefit for the students.”

A final celebration of The Telling Room’s 2018-2019 programming will be held at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center on May 23rd from 5:30-7:00pm. “Big Night” is free to attend and the event will feature a variety of student writing, including work from a new anthology publication.

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