Teen writing groups. A lot of libraries have them. There are lots of ways to do them. Here are a few concepts:
Maybe a teen writing group is a space for young writers to come and share their work. Workshopping their original writing, teens can use the space as a time to get some critical feedback to improve their stories and their writing.
Maybe a teen writing group is a space for young writers to network, socialize, and collaborate with other teens interested in writing. Teens can hang out and just enjoy being with other writers, talk about writing, and make friends.
Maybe a teen writing group is a space for young writers to try out different kinds of writing exercises. A little bit more like school, but teens get a chance to write a variety of forms and genres without a grade attached to it.
Maybe a teen writing group is a space for young writers to discuss topics in writing. What makes good writing? What makes bad writing? What needs to be done in the process of writing?
Maybe a teen writing group is all of these things. Or none of them. We can all agree that writing should be involved, or at least that teen writers need to be involved. But how involved do the staff who facilitate them need to be? And which version is write for your group? (Note: I meant to write “right” but I’m going to keep that typo in because it’s kind of funny.)
I’ve been a part of starting and running the teen writing group called Inklings at my library, and I’m proud to say that it’s been going strong for about 2 years now. When I first wrote up the plan for the group, I was imagining that it would be a compilation of numbers 1 and 4. I took a few creative writing courses in college and loved workshopping student stories, so I wanted that sort of experience for the teens. But once I sat down with my co-facilitator (whom you may know as Evan) we found that we needed more activities planned, like in writing group 3, if we wanted to really jumpstart the group. After all, we weren’t sure about the writing levels of these teens (the gap between 7th grade and 12th grade becomes very apparent when talking about writing) and we didn’t know if teens would have substantial work they would want to share. And also, without activities, what if teens…got…bored? That’s kind of my biggest fear — that teens will be super bored, will never want to come back, and will deem the library as the most boringest bore that ever bored. I didn’t want that.
So the teen writing group became an amalgamation of 1, 3, and 4. At least, that was the plan.
For about a year the group was running pretty smoothly. We would always discuss a certain writing topic, like how to build anticipation in a narrative or what makes a good character. The discussions were lively and fun. Incorporating a lot of thoughtful, amusing, and sometimes weird writing activities helped ground the group and kept the teens writing during our meet-ups. We wrote poetry at the park, drawing inspiration from nature like teen Thoreaus. We wrote Choose Your Own Adventure stories using Twine. That actually morphed into a collaborative program we had with our anime club in the form of a Draw Your Own Adventure program. And the activities kept getting more ambitious and complex and (dare I say) awesome. This, of course, also meant more planning time for me and Evan, but it was a labor of love, for sure.
But although we carved out some time in the first few meetings for teens to workshop their own work, they never took us up on it. That made me [insert sad face emoji], but I couldn’t force them to share their writing if they didn’t want to. So Inklings became a more models 3 and 4 kind of writing group.
Then, at about the one-year mark, the group was getting a little out of hand. The teens were all still showing up [insert praise hands emoji], but they were talking over each other and the activities were getting difficult to facilitate. It left me feeling disappointed, as I’m sure many of us have felt when we’ve planned a program and the teens weren’t taking advantage of it.
“I have a lot of awesome things planned for you guys!” you yell into a swarm of chatting teenagers who don’t acknowledge your existence.
You know how it goes.
At the beginning of this year, after I became the sole facilitator when Evan went on to do great, big things at his new library, I surveyed the teens. Why were they coming? What did they want out of the group? What did Inklings mean to them?
It turns out, I didn’t realize what kind of group I had. For the teens, the writing group was a number 2. (A model number 2 that is…see above.) They loved being there, they loved being a part of it, and they were there for the other like-minded teens who also obsessed over assigning the perfect character name and ripping apart convoluted plot lines. They appreciated all the activities and discussion topics, but really it was the pleasure of gathering with other teens who became their friends through the group.
Once I knew what kind of group I had, it became more apparent to me that I should structure Inkings differently. I changed and tweaked our meet-ups to reflect what they wanted. Now, Inklings meetings are lively and peaceful again (by teen standards).
So what’s the TL;DR of this entire blog post?
I learned to really listen to teens about what they want out of a monthly club/meeting/program. Have your own outcomes (of course!) but you’ll achieve greater success when the teens are a part of shaping the group’s goals.
Teens change. They keep us on our toes. And that’s good!
I mean, the teens at Inklings are asking to workshop their stories now! Say what?! It turns out that sometimes change is great.
Alice Son spends her days hanging out with young adults as Teen Librarian at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, a northwest suburb of Chicago. She appreciates all kinds of technology, thoughtful syntax, and fandoms. She is a Gryffindor. You can find her collection of non sequiturs on Twitter (@alicehson).