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University, South Side Initiative Help Local Youth ‘Write Their Lives’
School may not have been in session, but learning was happening at the South Side Communication Center this summer. On a weekday afternoon, sisters Na’eema and Jameira Harry sat at a table, thumbing through magazines to find images that would reflect how they see themselves. A short time later, they sat at a sound mixing board with headphones on, working on rhythms under the direction of Syracuse University doctoral student Blair Smith.
The Harry sisters, a junior and 8th grader in the Syracuse City School District, respectively, were among several local students who took part in “Writing Our Lives,” a four-week workshop collaboration of the South Side Initiative and Marcelle Haddix, Dean’s Associate Professor and director of English education programs in the School of Education. The workshop was held for four weeks in July and geared toward students ages 12-18, although no student who wanted take part was turned away.
Haddix and Syracuse University graduate students worked with the youth on music production, creating rhythms and beats and writing lyrics; using social media to create memes and/or websites; and writing TV scripts, screenplays and mini documentaries. Students held an exhibition of their work on the final day.
The workshop evolved from a larger Writing Our Lives conference that Haddix has held annually in the district since 2009. She started the conference and other programming after experiencing dissatisfaction with the abilities of some students in the community to read and write. “I wanted to be part of the solution,” she says.
Haddix has offered other afterschool programming in the district, but this is the first time the programming has been offered in the summer. Conversations between Haddix and Linda Littlejohn, associate vice president of Syracuse University’s South Side Initiative, brought forth the idea of an organic collaboration for youth on the South Side.
“There is a group of children who fall through the cracks when it comes to summer programming. They may be too old to attend programs like Say Yes, that are geared toward elementary students. And, they are too young for youth summer employment,” says Haddix. “We wanted to provide a safe space for those young people to learn about and try different writing genres and to continue developing their academic skills.
“Professor Haddix and I have had several conversations about the necessity for incorporating the use of technology into culturally relevant curriculum that is aimed at strengthening both the writing and critical thinking skills of the young people who participate in activities at the South Side Communication Center,” says Littlejohn. “It’s especially important to provide interesting educational activities for the kids during the summer months. I very much appreciate the dedication and competency of Professor Haddix’s students this summer, and look forward to adding this as another regular educational activity at the center.”
For this year’s summer workshop, as she has in previous offerings, Haddix drew on the experience and expertise of Syracuse University students. Her co-teachers were Tyeisha Thomas, a junior in the School of Education; Blair Smith, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education and Delicia Greene, a Ph.D. student in the School of Information Studies.
For the Syracuse students, this summer’s workshop offered the chance for them to use their expertise in teaching while gaining valuable insights important for their own studying and research. Smith is exploring how her personal journey of making music fits in with her scholarly work. Greene, a doctoral student in library and information sciences and education, is researching the learning that takes place in out-of-school spaces and how that can inform what happens in formal school settings. Thomas, who has worked with youth since age 14, is studying learning spaces and social media.
“The Syracuse University students who get involved with Writing Our Lives are looking for opportunities to give back to their communities,” says Haddix. “They comment that programs like these provide real-life applications of some of the theories and ideas that they’re learning about in the classroom.”
This year’s fall Writing Our Lives Conference is scheduled for early November. For more information, visit http://writingourlives.syr.edu.