Writers in the Schools Executive Director Robin Reagler on helping kids know who they are and can be through storytelling
Interview by Kathryn Streeter
Robin Reagler first joined Houston-based Writers in the Schools (WITS) as a writer in 1990 and has worked in every facet of the organization, from teaching to program development to administration. She leads WITS in its Houston endeavors and also heads the WITS Alliance, a national consortium of 38 literary education groups. Robin earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Hear what she says about the inspiriting work of WITS on behalf of Houston children.
What is the genesis of Writers in the Schools?
Writers in the Schools (WITS) was founded in 1983 by Phillip Lopate and Marv Hoffman, who saw an opportunity to extend the talent of the graduate students at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, one of the most prestigious writing programs in the nation. UH poets, fiction writers, and essayists went into classrooms to share creative methods for classroom engagement and skill building. Today WITS hires over 200 writers to partner with K-12 educators to create dynamic learning environments in which every young person comes to the realization: I am a writer.
What’s the big deal? Why is storytelling so important in the lives of our children?
It’s important for all of us to get a chance to tell our stories because that is the way we present our absolutely unique selves to the world. Stories appeal to all of our senses, and we are hardwired to remember them. They help us understand who we are and what we hope to become. Young people learn best when listening to, reading, and writing their own stories. The stories written by our students serve as a kind of map to their futures.
What worries you most about kids today? What gets in the way of growing their capacity for creativity, storytelling?
As educators and parents, we all want the best for our kids. That goes without saying. What actually constitutes “the best” is a big question. Sometimes in our efforts to help our children succeed, we remove activities that are not obviously related to career success. Activities that involve creativity and play are just as important as test prep and research continues to show that students who participate in the arts and sports are stronger academically.
How can kids benefit from WITS? Where will the program show up in their academic experience?
Through WITS, kids begin to understand that their stories do matter, and they discover the power of their own voices. Because our programs are long-term, students develop the creative and analytical skills that apply to their schoolwork, regardless of their pathway. The WITS classroom encourages feedback and collaboration, innovation and the imagination. Through publication and performance, children grow in self-confidence, articulating their ideas and feelings, preparing themselves to take ownership of their lives.
How can Houston parents best support WITS? Currently, what are your greatest needs?
WITS works in over 100 schools and community sites throughout the Greater Houston area, but our work is never done. So many low-income students go without the resources they need to succeed. Parents can help us impact more young minds and hearts by donating to WITS. Every $50 helps WITS provide high-quality creative writing instruction to a child for an entire year.
As you stand back and comprehensively scan the accomplishments of WITS, what brings you greatest joy, satisfaction?
In my 20 years as the Executive Director of WITS, I’ve gotten to see first-hand how the program makes a huge difference for kids, regardless of their goals. I’m proud that we’ve grown the program and are able to serve 52,000 students each year. Perhaps the greatest joy, though, is in knowing the individual success stories. For example, a student who once struggled with the challenge of homelessness now works as a finance director at a major bank and volunteers at a shelter in Boston. That kind of true story inspires me to continue this work!
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