Spells Writing Lab is one-of-a-kind. Founded in 2009, their mission is to develop the creative and expository writing abilities of school-age children through free, fun, and imaginative writing programs and teacher development opportunities. All programs are free and include classroom visits focused on creative writing, weekend writing workshops, a six-week summer day camp, after-school writing programs in partnership with local libraries and schools, and professional development opportunities for teachers. Truly a magical place, Spells has been described as a “Writing Gem in North Philadelphia” by the Huffington Post.
So how is Spells so successful? We spoke with Liz Encarnacion, the Program Director. Liz has always enjoyed working with children. Book editor by trade, she often does volunteer work, especially related to kids. She knew several people who were founding Spells, so she joined very early on and was highly valued for her expertise in book publishing.
Reading education textbooks and consulting with teachers about ideas, Liz is constantly learning. She also brings her own professional view, which can differ from the traditional educational standpoint. She likes to work with the kids and treat them as authors – the same way she would with adult authors. “It’s very similar to working with young authors and adult authors. Only difference is that young authors are more willing to take criticism.”
Liz encourages working one-on-one with students, customizing the help, and becoming mentors. There’s a wide variety of students. It can range from those who have panic attacks just thinking of writing, to kids who are super interested in writing and need enrichment or inspiration.
Last year when Spells Writing Lab was awarded one of Spruce Foundations’s 2020 grants, they had earmarked the funds for the development of several programs. This included expansion of a yoga and college essay writing program in partnership with a teacher at the Franklin Learning Center. However, when COVID-19 presented itself, Liz knew they wouldn’t be able to engage with the students safely in person. Also it wouldn’t have the same impact virtually. She recalls, “Spruce was very quick to say, ‘Feel free to use money to shift your programming. You don’t have to follow the letter of the grant application exactly’. This really helped free us up, because we were pivoting so quickly to virtual platforms.” Although this program may not happen this year, Spells has the flexibility to revisit its expansion for next fall.
Instead they were able to reallocate resources and refocus their efforts on how to continue their current catalogue of programs in the midst of a pandemic. One way Spells was able to pivot was with the publishing of children’s chapbooks. Every year they visit Philadelphia public schools to take the class through the creative writing process. It starts off with a warm-up activity with each kid writing two sentences, and then they pass the story to someone else, who then continues the story. It’s very approachable to even the most hesitant of writers because it’s such a small ask. Another workshop uses a time travel helmet to take the kids to a different time and place. The kids have to think through what a hypothetical letter sent back to present time would look like, improving their descriptions of setting in their stories. Once the kids write their stories, they publish these books in the form of a bound paperback chapbook. Liz describes the moment they receive the books, “The kids are like, ‘I was published!’. They are so excited to get their books.”
By the time COVID-19 appeared the school year was nearing its end, so fortunately they only had one school that they had not yet produced the books. However, usually the kids receive the books in-person. Bolstered by the funds received by the grant, Spells was able to mail each published book out. Moreover, each envelope was individually decorated with the aid of a group of volunteers. Liz says, “I had some of them doing pieces of art that I want to hang on my wall!” Incredibly, one volunteer crafted 130 handmade watercolor bookmarks as well.
This isn’t the only example of how masterfully Spells was able to shift its traditional way of doing things. As part of the reapportionment of the grant funds, they were able to rapidly develop and implement live-streamed writing workshops when schools suddenly closed down in the spring. Called “The Write Club”, this was a new series of virtual creative writing activities aimed at children ages 7–12 as a resource for families who were suddenly homeschooling and were looking for online enrichment. They provided PDFs with detailed instructions and templates before each session, and a teaching artist would carefully demonstrate how to complete the activity while answering any questions from the families who were watching. In a time of uncertainty and unrest, these workshops provided an invaluable opportunity for the kids to escape and use their imagination in creative new ways. Families were overwhelmingly appreciative and delighted with one parent writing, “It was wonderful! I’m almost in tears with gratitude. The kids need this so much.”
What’s next for Spells? Well it’s sort of a waiting game to see what the school districts decide, but they are still working incredibly hard to continually translate the rest of their programs virtually. No matter what happens, they have repeatedly demonstrated that they are experts at adapting to the situation to best benefit the kids. Here at Spruce, we couldn’t be more proud of the amazing work done by Liz and all those at Spells Writing Lab.