On the Write Track

Jennifer MacLeod, co-founder of the Writers’ Exchange, at their East Hastings location. Home to writing workshops, family literacy programs, and even more after-school fun.

An innovative program for kids on Vancouver’s Eastside turns play into learning — and creates published authors out of its participants.

By Anicka Quin (MPub '03)

It’s December 18, and an unassuming storefront on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street is buzzing with dozens of kids and their extended families. Chief party instigator Jen MacLeod (BA’06) brings out steaming pans of turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing — the works for a festive dinner — as kids ranging in age from six to 13 challenge their parents to games of Stackwords and Boggle. The excitement is tangible, and although it is nearing “the big day,” it isn’t Santa that has these kids charged up. It’s a book launch.

Sarah Maitland, here with participants, co-founded the Writers’ Exchange.

More importantly, it’s their book: each of these children has written a story that appears in The Pencil and Eraser That Never Gave Up. One by one, they’re gently cajoled into taking the mike and reading the short story that now appears on the printed page. Nine-year-old Hannah* drags her mother up with her for the occasion. “Let’s go on page 7,” she says, then waits an appropriate period of time like a pro speaker. “Is everyone there? Okay, this story is called, ‘Pokémon!’” She reads her story, beams at the crowd, and then tears back to her seat.

It’s just the kind of scene 34-year-old MacLeod imagined when she and co-founder Sarah Maitland launched the Writers’ Exchange in 2012. All the kids at the evening event face a barrier to learning that might normally make it a battle to get them to school every day. But MacLeod and Maitland have created a space that makes learning a joyous activity, and most importantly, that celebrates the work each child produces. As eight-year-old Emma says that night, not only does she like the Writers’ Exchange better than school, “I like it better than anything.”

You can see the influences of MacLeod’s background in the Writers’ Exchange program as it exists today. The inspiration for those chapbooks that the kids proudly share with their parents stems from MacLeod’s and Maitland’s past jobs in publishing. (MacLeod took a course in magazine publishing at SFU as part of her English degree, inspiration enough to seek out a gig at a magazine; after graduating, she landed a job at the skateboard culture publication Color Magazine as the circulation manager and managing editor.) Working with kids has always been a part of her life, too: while she was at Color, she volunteered with Night Hoops (MacLeod was on SFU’s varsity basketball team), playing basketball with at-risk kids on Friday and Saturday nights to give them a positive option to the streets.

A “mini-book” created by Celest. With the help of wonder-volunteer Joe, kids were provided blank books, images from magazines, glue, scissors, pens, and lots of encouragement.

She left Color after four years, uncertain about what was next but knowing it was time to try something new. On a trip to San Francisco, she booked a meeting with Dave Eggers’s youth literacy centre, 826 Valencia, to explore an internship with them, and was inspired by the work they were doing there.

“When I got home, Sarah Maitland got in touch with me,” says MacLeod. Maitland had just launched a literacy program, dubbed the Writers’ Room, out of a room in Queen Alexandra School in East Vancouver, and a few shared acquaintances thought they should meet. “I started volunteering there,” says MacLeod, “and there were two kids in Grade 1 who got me hooked that first day. I thought, those kids need me here and want me here. It’s that magic connection that we get with our volunteers.”

So MacLeod and Maitland started imagining something bigger. While the Queen Alexandra program was a success in its own right, it helped kids only at one school. Buzz was starting to build around the work they were doing – providing one-on-one instruction and play for the kids who needed it most – and teachers at other schools across the city had begun to request programs. The pair began a fundraising drive, and in the summer of 2012 the Writers’ Exchange was born. (Nearly half of their $200,000 budget comes from private donors; everything the program offers is free for the kids.)

Since then, what began as one room in one school has grown into in-class programs at five schools, as well as free after-school programs at both Queen Alexandra and at the Writers’ Exchange headquarters on East Hastings. They’ve built a roster of nearly 300 volunteers, and this year, thanks to a last-minute donation, they were able to bring on a behavioural expert to provide extra support to kids who need it most.

In-class programs at inner-city schools last four to six weeks and are directed by the teachers to complement their curriculum, with students producing a book at the end of the unit. “One of the teachers wanted to work on a human anatomy unit, so we made a human anatomy colour and fact book,” says MacLeod. “The kids did the drawings – they each picked a part of the body they wanted to write about. They wrote down a couple of fun facts. And at the end we had this amazing book.”

Annastasia Forst, managing director of the Writers’ Exchange, with participant.

Each book – with kid-created titles like Everyone Is a Crazy King to The Funniest Why and How Stories You’ll Ever Read – gets its own launch party where the kids are celebrated for their work and encouraged to read their pieces aloud. Those books become prized possessions of the kids in the program, says MacLeod. “I ran into one kid last summer, and he told me he hid his book in a safe place so he can read it when he wants.”

Each child’s reason for being here is different. All are from Vancouver School Board–designated inner-city schools, and all face some kind of barrier, explains MacLeod. “Some kids have a really rough time of it at school, and hate it there,” she says. “I think our program is different from being at school. We listen to the kids, they feel safe, and the volunteer mentors are a great resource for them to have one-on-one time – to just spend some quality time and relax and not feel pressured.”

Some kids, like 10-year-old Dragon, face learning disabilities that make it difficult for them to function in a typical classroom with 30-plus students. “He’s quite special needs, and they handle him amazingly,” says Dragon’s mother, Stacey, who lives in the nearby neighbourhood of Strathcona. “He and Jen – they found a way to work together. Because they’ve been together for a while, they’ve learned what isn’t working, how to make a new plan. Safety plans so he doesn’t freak out and run across the street. They’re just really understanding and accommodating.”

At the Writers’ Exchange after-school programs, the hours are structured enough that kids know what to expect: after a walking school bus picks them up, they’re given a snack and some playtime when they first arrive, then time to do their homework with a volunteer, and finally, a planned activity. It’s that last part where the program shines for its ingenuity, and, as MacLeod puts it, “tricks” kids into reading and writing and learning, and to be excited about it.

Tables are covered in blank paper so kids can doodle, draw, and write wherever they like, and each day the kids try something new that is literacy related. It might be using rods to “fish” out words from a pond, and turning those words into a story. Or it might be travelling around the city with their volunteer mentors to produce a tourist book from a kids-eye view (appropriately titled Kids Can Write Travel Guides, Too). A “skate club” teaches kids to skateboard safely while they work on a ’zine. MacLeod brought in a top skateboard photographer to take photos of the kids, and included those shots in the magazine.

Freelance editor Melissa Edwards has been volunteering with the program since September 2013 and has seen firsthand the impact the program has on kids. “I was working with two girls, and we were writing stories about time machines. When the older kid said she wasn’t interested in participating, the younger one said, ‘Really?! Why not? You get to make up your own adventure!’” she laughs. “But then the older kid decided she would write about going into the future, and go to every single birthday to see what kind of cake she was going to eat. She got really into it despite herself. She wrote this amazing story that I would never have thought of in a million years. She just needed the freedom to come up with it.”

The fact that the program is run by volunteers means a lot to kids like Dragon, as well as to his mom and his brother, Legend, who is also involved in the Writers’ Exchange. Stacey says the volunteer aspect makes a big difference in how she and her kids engage with the program. “Because they’re volunteers, it makes it a whole different thing, especially to deal with someone like my son,” she says. “It’s understandable for people who get paid to hang out and do their thing and get them engaged. But these guys do it voluntarily, and that’s the best part of all of that.”

Getting kids excited about learning is the top-line goal, but as one teacher in the program points out, it’s not the only impact the program has on the over 900 kids who have participated so far. “What the Writers’ Exchange does with these children in terms of simply spending time with them is far more significant and powerful,” says teacher Karen Nesmith, “and indeed it’s the very thing these children need.”

For more information on the Writers’ Exhange or to donate, go to <http://www.vancouverwe.com>

Photography by Grady Mitchell