The Chicago high school students enrolled in 826CHI’s Teen Writers Studio aren’t afraid to learn from each other. “Everyone is welcoming and willing to help each other grow and learn,” says 11th-grader Stephanie R. of her experience in the program. For fellow 11th-grader Kara K., being a part of the encouraging environment at the Writers Studio has helped her become more confident in her skills and given her a community to engage in discussions over difficult, but relevant topics, like gun violence. “I always feel safe to express myself at 826CHI,” she says.
On Monday at a special event at the Poetry Foundation, Stephanie, Kara, and their fellow members of the Teen Writers Studio will release a chapbook of their poems and short stories created over the course of the 2017-’18 school year entitled I Will Hold You Like a Bible.
Chicago nonprofit 826CHI is dedicated to helping students between ages six and 18 discover their individual voices as writers through writing workshops, after-school tutoring, and field trips. Every year students come to 826CHI’s Teen Writers Studio from all across Chicago; most attend Chicago Public Schools. Students typically learn about the program through word of mouth, but many are also directed by their teachers or through their past experience with 826CHI’s afterschool programs. After completing an application, students who are selected for the program meet at 826CHI’s Writers Studio in Wicker Park every other Monday evening, where they write and participate in discussions with the goal of building a literary community.
“The students engage in different workshops and exercises that explore different skills and themes,” says Maria Villareal, the program director. “They’ll come in and I’ll either bring in an article or an essay or a poem. Then we’ll try to either imitate the style or take what the author has done and enhance it or see how we can do that same sort of technique or topic within our own style of writing.”
Villarreal says it is important for students in the program to be aware of cultural events, particularly what’s happening across the city, and to find topics and issues they are passionate about. This is largely accomplished through partnerships with other local organizations, giving students the opportunity to interact with the larger community. This past year, students attended several talks at the Chicago Ideas Week Youth program, including one with Chicago writer and actress Lena Waithe, and participated in workshops with visiting writers. One student even had the chance to lead a workshop with CHITeen Lit Fest.
“This year we took all the students who talked about wanting to know others and wanting to branch out of their comfort zones,” Villarreal says. “Part of our curriculum is thinking about who are our students and . . . who is not at this table and whose voices aren’t we hearing and trying to bring that in. We try to think about the makeup of our students and also who is missing. Who are the voices we haven’t heard?”
During the event at the Poetry Foundation, each student will read one piece. “Part of what 826 does is amplifying student’s voices and celebrating and empowering their voices,” Villarreal says. “We want to celebrate student writing because it’s so important not only to see your words on the page but to have other people hear them and for you to be able to speak them in public.”
Following the event, the chapbook will be available for purchase at 826CHI’s website and in the studio, with the proceeds going back into the program.
In the creation of this year’s chapbook, student writers pursued themes of identity, relationships, connection, and the world as they see it. Many drew inspiration from writers explored throughout the program, like Danez Smith, Hanif Abdurraqib, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Chicago authors Britt Julious and Megan Stielstra; Stielstra lalso ed a workshop at one of the Monday meetings.
Many of the students’ works are results of various exercises that involved reading, discussion, or interacting with media. “What 826 kind of does and my theory of education is, is to try to get students excited in whatever mode possible. So we brought in photos to try and get them to write stories based on the photos,” Villarreal says. “There was one instance where a student was taken aback by a photo of what looked like refugee children escaping a war zone and wrote an entire piece based on that.” Many exercises were meant to get students exploring questions of identity. “We brought in Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘DNA,’ and they were asked to think about what is our DNA, who are we, and what does that look like to others.”
One student, Kyla P., wrote a poem after Danez Smith’s “Genesissy,” an exploration of conflicting identities and the freedom that comes with discovering parts of yourself. A line from the final stanza inspired the book’s title:
And on the eighth day
I will hold you like a bible
Study you like an exegesis
And thank god that the sun finally
Villarreal emphasizes the growth she has seen in her students over the course of the year. But their progress expands far beyond their success as writers and students. “I think that students got more comfortable in discussing cultural topics,” she says. “We want to broaden their scope and experience of who actually makes up this city. It’s not just their school or their neighborhood. There are so many things going on all of the time. We want them to bring who they are into other places.”
I Will Hold You Like a Bible (826 CHI). Book release, Mon 6/18, 7 PM, Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior, 312-787-7070, poetryfoundation.org, free.