The school day just ended on the first day back after winter break. In the library at Julia Green Elementary School, a new after-school club — the Pen & Paper Club — is about to hold its first meeting. Roughly two dozen children, whose ages range from kindergarten through fourth grade, file into the room. Each one is welcomed by Kristen House.
House is the brains behind the Pen & Paper Club, a new creative writing club that launched Jan. 7 throughout select Metro Nashville Public Schools. If you’re wondering whether there’s significant demand for such a club — other activities may seem “cooler” to kids than creative writing — you should know that more than 130 MNPS students from kindergarten through 12th grade have already signed up. House had to train additional instructors because the demand surged beyond her initial expectations.
Nationwide, the current state of creative writing in public schools is pretty dismal. With diminished resources and a continued emphasis on standardized testing, teachers find it increasingly difficult to spend time focusing on writing skills, especially creative writing.
While the state reports that student performance on the 2012 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests improved in nearly all the state’s 136 districts, House believes there’s a better way to teach reading comprehension than standardized tests.
“Right now, language teachers teach language like a foreign language,” she said. “They teach kids vocabulary words so they can bubble them on a test and identify the definition by matching. I think that is ludicrous. You don’t experience language in the real world that way at all.”
While the advent of Pen & Paper Clubs is a significant step in the right direction, for House, it’s just a baby step.
“I want to revolutionize the way that we think about teaching language in this country,” she said.
And the revolution starts now.
House grew up in Nashville, and she always had an affinity for writing. She graduated from Belmont University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in English. After earning her master’s degree at University College in Cork, Ireland, she returned to the U.S., teaching English at various schools, including her alma mater, Belmont.
“I saw, from the college level, that even though the students tested very well in the language section of their SATs, they could not put a sentence together,” House said.
She realized the problem had to be addressed earlier: She had to reach students at a younger age.
“I couldn’t fight the system from within the system,” she explained. “I had to get out of the system and be unencumbered so I could experiment with my own company and hope that parents would come along with me.”
And that’s exactly what House did. After parting ways with Belmont in 2011, she launched A Novel Idea, a four-week summer camp teaching junior high and high school kids how to write a novel. At the end of the course, each child received a paperback copy of their book, as real as any book they’d find in a library or a bookstore. When her camps filled up quickly, she had to expand.
This summer, she’ll lead the camp at the Frist Learning Center at Cheekwood. She’ll also offer adult classes this fall, including a fiction writing course and a memoir writing class.
While the move to Cheekwood, among the beautiful grounds and the creative sanctuary of the new Literary Garden, is significant, it’s House’s infiltration of the Metro Nashville Public School system that could set her on the path to achieving her mission.
Last year, a parent who had put her three children through the A Novel Idea summer camp suggested House hold regular classes inside public schools, just like any other after-school club.
“She called Jesse Register, the superintendent of Metro schools, and she set up a meeting,” House recalled. “Over the course of the next several weeks, I developed this curriculum for the Pen & Paper Club.”
Writing isn’t an activity that fosters the same kind of team-player mentality as some other after-school clubs or sports. “You don’t have a writer team, like for people who play basketball or volleyball,” House explains. “I thought, what an incredible thing, to be able to create a club that works like intramural sports.”
House then spoke with the principals of the Hillsboro Cluster of schools and got an overwhelming response. Principals started calling from other schools, and last week, 15 schools launched a Pen & Paper Club.
“Kids don’t really write papers anymore, not until high school, and even then it’s really limited,” House said. “I’ve had parents tell me that their kids in eighth grade haven’t written more than 500 words at a stretch. It blows my mind. And they like to write — they’re just not given the opportunity.”
Yet rather than criticize teachers or the educational system in general, House is sympathetic, and sees herself as someone who can help supplement the curriculum and provide what children aren’t offered in the classroom.
“I totally get it: Teachers have so much going on, they have so many more regulations, and there’s so much testing involved in education,” House said. “They don’t have enough resources, they don’t have enough time, there are too many kids in a class, too many tests to prep for. They don’t feel that they have the flexibility to do enrichment anymore.”
But in the Pen & Paper Club, which meets one day per week, there is plenty of time for enrichment. “The kids are going to get all kinds of practice writing, and writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry and doing interviews,” House explains. The club is comparatively priced to dance or karate lessons at $97 per month, and House offers scholarships — which she funds through paid club memberships — for children who cannot afford to join the club.
A quick observation of the inaugural meeting of the Julia Green Pen & Paper Club reveals that children instantly relate to House, who addresses each child like a business colleague. No patronizing, dumbed-down conversation here — everyone is treated as an equal.
The youngest children, the kindergarteners, are seated near the front of the room. A 5-year-old boy named Brae, who says he joined the club because he loves to read, pulls his current favorite book from his backpack.
He immediately opens the book and starts reading it aloud. From across the table, a second-grader named Roger announces that he likes to read fiction, but he also likes nonfiction and mysteries.
More children walk in, finding places to sit. The room is bursting with energetic chatter and excited laughter.
Amidst this happy storm, House calls the meeting to order.
“There’s only one rule: There are no bad ideas here,” she says. “If you have an idea, you should feel free to raise your hand and share it. All ideas are awesome.”
Robin Cayce, principal of Julia Green, quietly observes the group before leaving them in House’s care.
House has made the program incredibly easy for the school to adopt, the principal explained. “She had her organizational structure in place, and all she needed was a space,” Cayce said. “We got word out to our parents, and everyone was so excited about it that it immediately filled up. It naturally fell into place. She’s just so passionate that it’s contagious.”
In addition to boosting those ever-important test scores, Cayce believes the Pen & Paper Club can help increase participants’ confidence.
“I think that’s a big part of it, confidence,” Cayce said. “And I hope it helps test scores, too — that never hurts.”
For House, she’s often asked if her camp and the new Pen & Paper Club are just for kids who want to be writers when they grow up.
“Absolutely not,” House insisted. “Writing is the one true indicator of success,” she said. “Writing is just a physical manifestation of the thought process, so if you write well, you communicate well. Those who communicate well tend to be more successful.”
Even the name “Pen & Paper Club” has significance: For a generation who knows nothing of the world before the Internet, and shorthand texting and emails — and the stress that comes with being part of a digital social network — the club represents a return to the simple tools that allow your mind to travel anywhere you want it to go.
“Technology starts out to help, but it ends up being a crutch, and then a real ball-and-chain,” House said. “If you know how to use a pencil or a pen, there’s nothing to limit you. You can write on the top of a mountain or in the middle of the ocean. That’s a freedom that they’ve never known.”