Girls Write Now – “Avoid excessive adjectives”

My final destination of the study visit was to a Saturday workshop run by Girls Write Now, part of a year long mentorship programme for ‘at risk and under served teenage girls from NYC public (state) schools. I felt like I’d travelled a long way since arriving in New York to cold wintry rain. I’d started out at IBM in Madison Avenue, visited the digital treasures of the Media Lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Central Park, been twice to Lehman College in the North Bronx, visited schools in Harlem, Belmont and Morrisania in the South Bronx and had a Sunday off in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was now in 72 F sunshine (yes back to Fahrenheit) in Midtown Manhattan in the shiny rooms of the New School with a group of young women and their mentors learning about visual narratives, storytelling, html and embedding sound.

There have been all sorts of connections between the places and people I have visited during my time in NYC. GWN is, like Global Kids and Dreamyard, part of the Hive Digital Learning Network, but I found unexpected links here too. Arriving at Girls Write Now, the first person I bumped into was Sarah Wever, the digital tutor for the day, who I had met just over a week before, presenting as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Media Lab. Sarah is a post graduate student studying MFA design and technology at Parsons‘ within the New School, which provides facilitators for the Girls Write Now projects. The next connection was that many of the materials Girls Write Now use to support writing, have been produced by the New City York Writing Project and one of the NWP teacher consultants is a post graduate at the New School who has just been shortlisted for this year’s Master’s Review in Creative Writing. Finally, the teenage daughter of the family whose house I have been staying in, in Harlem, was one of the mentees.

GWN was founded 1998 to create a writing and mentoring scheme exclusively for girls to develop their creative, independent voices and explore careers in professional writing. The organisation’s mission is to address the disparity between men and women, to increase the representation of women, especially minority women, across fields including government, finance, film and science and to support writing as a way to increase the number of women’s voices in public discourse. The mentoring programme matches teenage young women from 13 years old with mentors who are female writers and digital media professionals. I spoke to one of the mentors who is a screen writer. She mentors a young woman who she meets every week, supporting her to create a portfolio of writing and attending GWN workshops and events with her. It is a huge commitment for both mentee and mentor, which really does lead to change for the young people and also effects the lives and outlook of the adults. I had noticed this kind of commitment and in depth work with young people at Dreamyard and wondered if this long term, detailed work with young people is more common in the US and is something which we can learn from in the UK. Maybe there is more of a US tradition of young people getting involved with long term endeavours. Of course, this kind of continuous input needs secure and ongoing funding; something which GWN raises from the donors and foundations that support its programmes. And much (though by no means all) of this more creative work seems to be happening outside of school, which raises the issue of entitlement.

Each GWN workshop is genre based and today is part of a term’s work on how storytelling translates across different media. The sessions take place over four hours and include working with a guest storyteller, structured free writing activities, creating a sound storyboard and then embedding sounds into HTML. It is a demanding day.

Part of the input includes guidelines for creating an engaging story with stakes, challenges, action, resolution and a clear ending. I am drawn to some advice about word choice, which reminds me of my discussion with the writing consultants at Lehman College yesterday, about current models of writing in schools in England. In my previous post I wrote about how bemused the teachers and literacy academics were regarding the English obsession with adjectives, adverbs and similes. It is a theme which Myra Barrs and I write about in our blogging study where we talk about how children absorb sentence level criteria derived from commercial assessment schemes.

Such schemes strongly promoted certain assumptions about writing – adjectives and adverbs are good and adding more of them makes writing better; writing can be improved by adding more subordinate clauses and varying connectives; good writing should contain ambitious or unusual vocabulary…Where improving a piece of writing is regarded mainly as a question of using more adjectives or adverbs, or of ‘varying connectives’, the resultant texts are often stilted or over-decorated; the focus is all on the surface of the writing rather than what the writer wants to say.”

I was therefore interested to see that these aspiring young writers were being told,

“Be rigorous and specific with your word choice, and avoid excessive adjectives.” The GWN guidance quoted from Widrich who says,

“Stop using adjectives. They are, in fact one of the worst elements of speech and can make a listener or reader lose trust. Using single words to describe actions and objects quickly brings them to mind.”

When the girls moved over to the technology lab to create their sound story boards in HTML, I was able to talk to some of them in depth about their experiences at GWN. One young girl told me how still being new to the US and missing her mother who was back home in South America, meeting regularly with her mentor was something she looked forward to and was happy to make time for. She described the specialist writing programme she attends at school and how the GWN workshops, mentoring and activities help her with her ambitions to have a career which involves writing. I work with her as she uses her storyboard to plan her audio piece. The sounds she has chosen to embed into her digital story are heartbeats and tears.





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