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Robin Reagler: Word Whisperer

As Executive Director of Writers in the Schools (WITS), Robin seeks to bring out the unique stories, thoughts, and experiences in all Houston children; to teach them the joy of making something; to encourage brave expression of their personal truths; and to lead them to the discovery that they all can be writers.

HFM: Tell us a little about your family life: Married? Kids? Ages?

RR: Yes, I am married. My partner Marcia and I have two daughters—Pearl, age 12, and Carrie, age 10.

HFM: You are a published author of books and poetry. You also served as a writing teacher for the Houston WITS program, an organization that works hand-in-hand with educators and professional writers to teach students the craft of writing. Why and how did you get involved in this organization?

RR: WITS brings together all my passions—writing, education, and children. I began teaching with WITS in the 90s when I was a graduate student at the University of Houston. As I neared completion of my dissertation, I taught all the sixth graders at Grady Middle School, where students come from a broad cross-section of Houston families. At Grady I discovered that WITS teaching benefitted all these students, regardless of their origins or incomes. Seeing the students succeed is all the motivation I need to do this work, with the hope of someday providing a WITS experience for every child.

HFM: In essence, WITS places writers in Houston classrooms to help inspire kids to write, and to inspire them to create. How does this collaboration work?

RR: Often WITS writers inspire children by appealing to their sense of play. Because inspiration is personal – we are each inspired by different experiences – WITS writers find ways to encourage students with lessons that provide a combination of structure and free choice. So a WITS writer might have students describe a favorite food using all five senses. Or students might tell a story about a time they were extremely surprised. Through long-term work, students learn techniques and tricks that professional writers rely on. By the end of the project, students feel confident enough to say: I am a writer.

HFM: What do you enjoy most about teaching kids to write?

RR: I love teaching writing to kids because they consistently astonish me. Their stories convey the world as they see and know it. Each story reflects its author’s strength, curiosity, and wisdom. Yes, wisdom! Children understand a lot more than we tend to realize.

HFM: Which do you prefer: teaching writing or writing?

RR: It’s hard to choose! Writing and teaching writing fulfill very different needs in my life. Teaching writing is intense, joyful, honest, and sometimes a little sad. Each story is different and reflects its author’s unique, authentic experiences. Writers must be brave to share their words, and I love the way the classroom becomes a community as we learn more about one another. Writing is also rewarding in that it gives me a chance to create. I love making things, and for me, writing poems adds happiness to my life.

HFM: You also worked in WITS program development, and eventually became executive director of the Houston organization. What are your primary goals in this position?

RR: My goal is to make WITS a part of the K-12 education of every Houston student. We offer WITS in summer camps, in-school and after-school programs, free public workshops, art museums, hospitals, and community centers.

HFM:  We live in a time when even toddlers are rarely seen without a hand-held electronic device. What impact has this preoccupation had on children’s interest in reading/writing or on their ability to read/write well?

RR: Every generation faces innovations that at first seem to challenge literacy. But at the same time every generation seems to value clear communication, good storytelling, and the desire to persuade others of what is right. The ability to read and write make these things possible.

It is important to consider what motivates students as they become readers and writers. Electronic devices can easily become a part of learning and literacy. These days kids are doing amazing things with technology—writing novels, blogging about issues that matter to them, and making videos. When students are motivated by their own intrinsic concerns, they will make learning a priority. Communicating clearly to get an A on a research paper might motivate one student; another might want to invite a special someone on a date to the prom. The skills required to do these two tasks are not as different as you might think.

HFM: Rather than fight the digital media craze, WITS is embracing this trend to facilitate the organization’s goals of improving students’ reading and writing skills. Can you tell us about your new video gaming concept?

RR: A video game is a story. The players are characters in that story, and players must overcome obstacles and face challenges in order to advance in the game. Our newest program, WITS Digital, allows students to translate their stories into games that their classmates can play. We find that students are excited about seeing their words come to life as a game.

HFM:  Why is it important that kids step out from being more than just consumers of media?

RR: If you want to play tennis, you can’t simply watch a video about how to play tennis. You have to practice. You learn by doing. By creating media (games, videos, stories), students learn how that medium works. What makes the audience laugh? Were parts of the story confusing? It is crucial that kids get a chance to be makers, to be accountable.

HFM: How can parents and teachers bring the program to their schools?

RR: Parents can ask their school administrators if they have the WITS program. If the answer is no, contact WITS to help make the connection. Camps offer students a fun learning environment too. They are offered at many different locations throughout the summer. To get a sense of what WITS is all about, check out our free public workshops or visit our website witshouston.org.

HFM: With so much emphasis being placed today on STEM, what would you like parents and kids to understand about the importance of writing and language proficiency in having a successful career and a rewarding life?

RR: While the STEM subjects are important, most careers also require effective communication. A recent article in INC. Magazine reports that corporations spend over $3.1 billion annually to teach remedial writing to employees. Students who are strong writers and readers will be better prepared for any career.

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