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Writers Matter Program Inspires Young Students

By Kathryn Bergin Collegian Editor
LaSalle University

La Salle community members, students from the Philadelphia school district, hunger relief organization Philabundance and the Philadelphia Mural Arts program are currently collaborating to create a mural in south Philadelphia.

“There’s a natural connection between writers and artists,” said education professor Robert Vogel, who created the Writers Matter program in 2005.

The Writers Matter program was created to help develop strong writing skills at the middle school level. This project first started when a friend of Vogel’s on the board of directors of Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger relief organization, expressed interest in creating a mural focused on food and hunger. The Mural Arts Program was then brought into the project.

To select students, Vogel had principals from five schools that use the Writers Matter program in their curriculum to identify students that displayed excellent writing ability and leadership qualities. The 21 participating students are referred to as Writers Matter Scholars and met with Vogel, mural artist Meg Saligman and senior sociology major Suzanne Lipovsky for classes on Saturday mornings to further cultivate their writing and artistic skills. The writing and art created during these classes will be molded into a mural designed by Saligman.

Right now, Saligman has rough ideas of what the mural will look like. “Producing a mural does not involve just drawing a few sketches and painting it on a wall. So much effort goes into it, and a wide variety of people need to be consulted and approve every step of the process.  That can take time and cause some frustration, but in the end, it seems to produce the best results,” said Lipovsky, who has taken on a large role in this collaboration and currently working with Saligman.

The students went on a tour of Philadelphia to explore other aspects of Philadelphia, and also went on a trolley mural tour. To further the students’ understanding of hunger, they visited Face to Face, a soup kitchen in Germantown. In addition to weekly homework assignments, during the Saturday sessions the Scholars wrote poetry and stories and created images all inspired by hunger. The students explored topics such as why hunger exists, what are they hungry for and what can be done to stop it.

“It was interesting to see the progression of the students’ thoughts and ideas throughout this whole process,” said Lipovsky. “Their writing and art was much different in the beginning than what we saw months later. I was very intrigued by the wide variety of interpretations the students gave when dealing with the same topic.”

All of the parties involved are aiming to have the mural finished by September so that it can be unveiled during National Hunger Week. The mural will be located on a wall of Philabundance’s Hunger Relief Center at 3616 South Galloway Street. In addition to using work created by the scholars, the mural will have a hint of technology incorporated into it with two large LED scrolling text displays. The LED displays will display a theme and excerpts from the Scholars writing to create a stream of conscience effect.

“It’s interesting for me to look at student’s work visually – it is a completely new perspective. It’s been a real education for me to work side by side with an artist,” said Vogel about working with Saligman.  “She’s an incredible artist and person.”

Saligman is a nationally known mural artist who was recognized in 2006 as one often influential muralists of the decade by Public Art Review. Her mural work was some of the first to incorporate community members and she developed techniques so that communities can easily paint murals themselves, transforming the muralcreation process into a public art making process.

“The end goal for this public art is to build awareness of hunger and and how much it affects the community, especially children. It impacts kids who have goals and dreams, and hunger can be an obstacle that gets in the way of achieving those aspirations,” Lipovsky commented.

Inspired by Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writer’s Diary, Vogel started the Urban Writers Program at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School. Writers Matter works to encourage students to write freely and expressively to have their voice heard, which in turn builds their confidence. At Grover, Vogel met Michael Galbriath, an eighth grade teacher. Galbriath and Vogel collaborated to create a program model for middle schools and published Voices of Teens: Writers Matter, in July 2008.

Public and private schools in the Philadelphia school district use the Writers Matter Program in the classroom with La Salle students in the Urban Writers program serving as mentors for the students.

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