Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reaching Readers: Through Student Writing Programs

How can we reach young readers and find fresh ways to inspire them to read more? According to the Young Writers’ Program of the Hudson Valley Writing Project (HVWP) at the State University of New York, New Paltz, one of the best methods is to teach new approaches to writing. To learn more about how they do this, I spoke with Eric Savelson, a program partner who teaches at the Lenape middle school in New Paltz, NY.
Eric Savelson

Hi, Eric! How did your students get involved in this program?
The students who participate in the Young Writers’ Programs sign up with the HVWP typically during the summer and, starting last year we have run one-day programs on Saturdays during the school year. So students become involved based on their own interest, their family's interest, or a teacher recommendation.  

What do your students tell you about the experience?
The students I have worked with during the summer programs are eager to share their writing with the group and to hear other students' writing. They notice how other writers' stories can give them new ideas and have an effect on their own writing. Another common piece of feedback students express is their enjoyment of writing about what they want. [Watch HVWP students reflect on their 2013 summer program.]

Tell us one of your favorite writing techniques that inspires children to read a book.
 The connection between the two is so strong, two sides of the same coin really. One technique that inspires reading is when we are looking for something specific, like a good lead to a piece, or a metaphor, or how to capture a setting. Then we search out good examples of these in books and anthologies.

Which books or excerpts most inspire students to write?
I've had great success with poetry. When students hear or read a poem and feel that connection—when it really speaks to them—they realize they have something to say. Some of the favorite poets that students often like to imitate are Valerie Worth, Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Naomi Shihab Nye, Myra Cohn Livingston, Eloise Greenfield, and Gary Snyder.

What genres of Middle Grade fiction appeal most to your young writers?
Similar to adults, different young writers have passion for different genres. The fantasy genres are so popular right now with this age group. By fantasy, I mean series like The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. But equally popular are the many graphic novels and graphic novel series that have been exploding over the past few years, such as Bone by Jeff Smith, Smile by Raina Telgemeier, Big Nate by Lincoln Pierce, and Amulet by Kazi Kibuishi.

What have you learned from your students about the connection between reading and writing?
What I have seen in school, in the HVWP programs, and in my home (with my own children) is that readers and writers move between the two constantly. In school, we typically have a workshop specifically scheduled for reading and another for writing. But often times, students will be going back into other writers' texts to help them with their own writing. Overall, I would say that the more you read, the more you have to say, and you need to have something to say to write.  
Young writers listening to a story.
Are there an easy tip that parents and kids could use to explore the links between writing and reading? 
I think access is important to books, magazines, and comic books, so you can figure out what kind of writing speaks to you. Then you can start to notice what you like about it and imitate what the writer is doing when you write yourself. That's how we learn and develop our own voice, by apprenticing with the authors' voices we connect with and practicing. I think having an interested audience is important, also.

What was your favorite book as a child that made you want to write or teach writing, and what did you love about it?
As a young child I loved Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak's, and I still use it every year to teach writing. Many of Dr. Seuss's books provoked my imagination, also. As I became older I really enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis for the sheer fantasy and experience of going on a journey, and The Great Brain series by John Fitzgerald for what I realize now was its strong voice.

Thanks for your great suggestions, Eric! I can’t wait to check out some of those titles. For more information about the Hudson Valley Writing Project* at SUNY New Paltz, please take a look at their video on Why Students Choose HVWP Camps.

*A special thanks to HVWP Coordinating Director Diane Rawson for links and resources.

--Chris W.


  1. Thank you for this engaging interview with an inspiring educator!!!

    1. Thanks, Mary. I like how Eric uses the inspiration that Where the Wild Things Are gave him as a youngster to inspire young writers today.

  2. What a great program! Interesting to read about it.

    1. I agree, Wendy. I wish there were more like the Young Writers' Program around the country. It would make such a positive impact on students and communication nationwide.

  3. What a great interview...Great questions and Eric is so articulate about the reading/writing connection.

    1. Thank you, mystery commenter! I couldn't agree more with his idea of the more you read, the more you have to say, and you need to have something to say to write! Indeed, well put!

  4. Thank you Chris. This article really showcases the quality of teaching that Eric does and that we have at all of our Hudson Valley Writing Project Youth Writers' Programs. If any SUNY student is interested in an internship @ HVWP Young Writers' Programs there will be a representative TODAY April 1, 2014 @ Networking Fair for Jobs & Internships Noon - 4 p.m.Student Union, Multi-Purpose Room.

    1. Thanks, Diane. I'm impressed with the HVWP and its Young Writers' Programs, also. And thank you again for your helpful links and resources. They added a lot to the piece.


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