****FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE****
FEBRUARY 14, 2022
EAST WINDSOR, NJ - It’s been widely reported that student test scores plummeted during the Covid-19 pandemic, erasing gains made in previous decades and setting students back in ways that will reverberate for years to come.
But in one small town of Hightstown-East Windsor, New Jersey (pop. 27,442), a group of students’ scores in reading and writing bucked the nationwide trend and went up significantly. Third-graders’ state test scores in this group rose 36 percent more than the rest of their grade; fourth-graders' scores rose by 29 percent more.
If that weren’t enough, these children did something even more remarkable: they wrote and published books.
Hundreds of Hightstown-East Windsor students, some as young as seven years old, wrote and published original stories, borne completely of their own imaginations. 442 of them wrote at least one book; 116 wrote two; 77 students published three. In January, they’ll start writing their fourth.
What do these students have in common? They all participated in an after-school program called Written Out Loud. Founded as a Yale seminar in 2007, Written Out Loud is an innovative new program that treats writing as a team sport. The program was founded by a newcomer to the world of education, filmmaker Joshua Shelov (he wrote the screenplay to the 2005 Elijah Wood film Green Street Hooligans). Shelov witnessed first-hand the joy and productivity of team-based Hollywood writers’ rooms. He intuited that original stories, co-written “out loud” by small groups of kindred spirits, sitting around a table, could provide the kind of environment that could inspire young, energetic minds to actually fall in love with writing.
Shelov began experimenting with his out-loud, small-group writing methodology when he created a seminar at Yale University called Storytelling For The Screen. The technique clicked: the small group of 10 undergrads made immediate strides in their writing productivity by adopting the “Hollywood writers’ room” mindset.
Shelov then began offering the program to younger kids: middle and high-schoolers in his hometown of Fairfield, as well as neighboring Bridgeport. Once again, the technique worked. “My son has been writing for 45 minutes straight,” said Mary Lake, a local Fairfield parent, texting Shelov immediately after her son’s Written Out Loud session. “He’s never been able to focus on writing for more than ten minutes at a time.”
The program truly took off when the pandemic hit, as Shelov pivoted the methodology into a remote learning program for kids across the country. Suddenly, creative 9-year-olds in Oregon could meet and collaborate on an original story with their creative counterparts in North Carolina, Minnesota, and Canada. Kids who otherwise never would have met each other found themselves co-authoring books–and their sequels–with newfound kindred spirits. Guiding them along the way were Written Out Loud’s “Story Directors,” a trained team of creative teachers, many culled from Ivy League drama and film schools. These directors make the company a modern patchwork of non-traditional educators.
The social-emotional gains that Written Out Loud students made through this intimate, co-creation process were as clear as their increases in writing productivity. “At Written Out Loud,” said one middle-school student, “I feel more like myself than anywhere I’ve ever been.”
Strong word of mouth during the pandemic caused Written Out Loud to begin breaking out of its small niche. Parents of suddenly-passionate writers began telling their child’s teachers and principals about the program. HC Crittenden Middle School in Armonk, NY adopted Written Out Loud for their entire eighth grade. On April 11, 2021, Good Morning America picked up the story.
That’s when the news hit East Windsor-Hightstown.
For four years, Sandy Small has been the district’s assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction. It was Small who first had the “eureka” moment when she realized: it wasn’t her students’ distance from their teachers that would cause the most developmental damage. It was their distance from each other. This was a crisis without a solution for Small, until she happened to see Shelov on Good Morning America talking about this new approach to writing called Written Out Loud.
“I called Josh the very next day just to make sure he wasn’t an axe murderer,” said Small. “As soon as I realized that he and Written Out Loud were for real, I signed up our entire summer school for the program, grades 2 through 8.” Small was laser-focused on a single variable: restoring the social-emotional connection between the students. “I just had to get them talking to each other.”
Written Out Loud’s approach does precisely that. Their curriculum contains mostly white space, inspiring kids to talk and co-create shared worlds instead of lecturing at them.
“Sometimes when you write stories, you have to write about a specific topic that other people give you,” said Rishi Selvaraj, an East Windsor student. “At Written Out Loud you can write about whatever you want. And the best thing is other people’s ideas–you can combine your ideas to make them even better.” Week after week, session after session, the East Windsor-Hightstown students began achieving Small’s deepest goal: forming new friendships. “I didn’t know anybody when I first started,” said Hansika Tamilasaran, another East Windsor student. “But after a while I started making friends and then we combined some of our ideas to make a really good story that all of us liked.”
This constant intercommunication increases young people’s confidence, and inspires them to understand that through collaboration, anyone and everyone can write. One proud East Windsor parent, Jason Licht, had this to say: “My son had never been a confident writer. When he was in elementary school, writing would bring him to tears. The Written Out Loud experience has left him with excitement and enthusiasm for writing. He enjoyed the creative process tremendously.” Another local parent, Madison Swiatek, noted that her child “not only verbally told [her] stories, but also started writing with friends outside of the class! It’s amazing!”
Today, even with dozens of books under their belt, the students of East Windsor show no sign of slowing down. The pandemic has seen them become not just published authors, but every parent, teacher and community’s dream: habitual writers and confident storytellers, armed now with a consistent writing habit, a fellowship of like-minded teammates, and the courage to give voice and definition to their wildest dreams.
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“Why Kids Can’t Write,” NYT Aug 2017
EdCuration blog, “Creative Collaboration Boosts Students’ Confidence on Journey to Become Published Authors.”
EdCuration podcast, “Students of all Levels Become Published Authors and Get Fired Up about Writing.” May 5 2022
on Apple podcasts