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At workshops, students use art to find passion, help community

Student drawing a portrait of a woman with long hair.
Photo: Fabiola Cineas

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

After standing in the circle for nearly 10 minutes, Jabari Patterson finally stepped forward and timidly said, “I am sick when I do look on thee!”

His effort was inaudible, so he said it again, a little better.

Then, with encouragement from the crowd, he belted out the line, spoken by one of the lovers in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I am sick when I do look on thee!”

The onlookers could feel his presence.

Now in its third year, the Boys Write Now series brought boys in grades 7-12 from across the city together Friday at the National Museum of American Jewish History for workshops designed to promote art and writing. (A companion event, Girls on Fire, was held Saturday.)

The workshops covered topics of high interest: the intersection of writing and video game design, narrative visual arts, poetry writing, theater performance, and sports newscasting.

Boys Write Now’s local organizer, Sam Reed, said he is trying to counter the impression that the arts, writing, and poetry aren’t for boys.

"What I observe is that my boys who are into poetry come to me on the side, like, ‘Hey, Mr. Reed, please check out this poem I wrote.’ So I had to find a way to invite them to be bold about it and submit it in the contest and let the world see it.”

Reed said his goal is for students to submit their work to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

“High-level work is coming from these young people,” said Reed, a 10th-grade humanities teacher at The U School.

He uses the workshops to inform what he does in the classroom, because "the things that can spark kids outside of school are the things that can spark them inside of school,” said Reed. “I want [them] to have multiple avenues into art.”

Peggy Marie Savage, a 5th-grade teacher at Richmond Elementary and co-founder of Girls on Fire, said she sees the programs as a way to “bring classroom into the community and community into the classroom.”

Geraldine Edens, Jabari Patterson’s grandmother, was on board with that.

“I brought them here so that I can motivate, stimulate, and excite,” she said. Besides Jabari, a 9th grader at Edison, she brought another grandson, Eden Patterson, a 4th grader at Wissahickon Charter School.

“We wrote limericks before we came here today, because I wanted to get them prepared for the poetry workshop,” she said.

Edens said she was proud to see Jabari, who has a learning disability, find support to speak up in the circle.

Avenues into art

When it was time to choose a group, most boys flocked to video game design, where they learned about how games can be a form of expression.

“Most people who aren’t in this field just think that video games are a waste of time,” said Holland Culbreath, the group’s facilitator. “I wanted the boys to recognize that video games can be a way to tie interests such as music and art. I want them to take away a perspective on how they can take their interests and actually create something.”

Culbreath attended Central High School and is a recent graduate of Cheyney University, where he studied computer science. He got involved with Boys Write Now because his two younger brothers, who will be starting high school at Science Leadership Academy in the fall, had attended in previous years.

Boys who attended the combination sports reporting and theater performance workshop had a chance to act as fledgling sportscasters.

With only a few minutes to prepare their report, the boys stood before their peers and delivered, with gusto and appropriate posture, coverage of a sports event.

They immediately received constructive feedback from their peers and the facilitators.

“The points about confidence and posture were important, and I’ll be able to use this in everyday life,” said William Perry, a 12th grader at SLA. “Plus, it’s cool that I got the chance to learn from a peer.”

The workshop was co-facilitated by teaching and performance artist Lamont Dixon and a 10th grader at St. Joseph’s Prep, Simon Williams, who is a fellow in Reed’s program’s leadership-training arm.

Williams runs a sports blog called SBC Hive with his friends and was keen on sharing his tips on writing and public speaking.

“I have a passion for sports and theater performance, so being here working with others is making me a better writer and speaker and a better sports fan.”

Girls on Fire

On Saturday, Boys Write Now’s sister workshop series, Girls on Fire, was held at the Free Library.

“Eeeehhh-Ohhhh-Ahhhh-Oooo” echoed through library’s Skyline Room as the girls introduced themselves through a vocal exercise.

“Talented, creative, intelligent girls tend to dumb down their talent in a classroom,” explained Savage. “And sometimes teachers just lean toward the students who are the most outgoing. So here there is a space for them to be seen.”

The girls also attended workshops that blended art and writing, on topics such as memoir writing and jewelry making.

“I love writing and I’ve even gotten awards for it before, but I’ve fallen off of it lately. So I came today to get some motivation,” said Mariah Snead, a 12th grader at the private Christian City School.

Her stepsister, Breyelle Guptom, an 11th grader at Mastery Hardy Williams High, attended the workshop about art in South Africa.

Facilitator Joyce Millman, professor at Moore College of Art & Design, showed the girls art that she collected from a recent trip to South Africa. After a discussion, the girls created their own social justice art.

“I studied apartheid in my history class last year, so I already had an idea of what social justice art is,” said Guptom, who created a piece about women’s rights. Maia McAllister, a rising 8th grader at Masterman, focused on marriage equality.

At the jewelry-making workshop, participants used materials such as duct tape, paper, glue, and paint chips. They were tasked with making something from a list of adjectives describing someone they knew.

“What we’ve done here is translate language into form and color,” said Liz Gilly, an art teacher in Phoenixville and the workshop’s facilitator.

She led the workshop by modeling a bracelet based on Nobel Peace Prize-winning teenager Malala Yousafzai.

“I’d never thought of making jewelry from cheap things,” said Alimah Kasumu, a 9th grader at Abington Junior High. She worked with Central senior Taylor Dow to create rings and bracelets based on musical artists Ariana Grande and Janelle Monáe.

Other workshops had participants write poetry and news stories.

Caché Studivant, a sophomore at The U School and a leadership fellow who co-facilitated the poetry workshop, said that the experience with Girls On Fire has helped her shed her quiet persona, experience new ideas, and communicate more.

Stacia Parker, a workshop leader who teaches at Parkway West High School, said students were learning to explore their unique voices while helping the community.

“In today’s society, people tend to focus on superficial things, like their hair and body, but here they have a space to find their voice.”

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