E-town professor expands writing program from Pennsylvania to Colombia
A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Education found only about one quarter of students between grades eight and 12 perform at or above the proficient level in writing. With creativity, communication and writing abilities listed by Forbes as three invaluable and universal job skills, it seems 73 percent of students are already lagging behind the minority of their peers.
The Life Writes Project, cofounded by Matt Skillen and Tony Sedun, challenges students and teachers to elevate writing instruction while encouraging community service. The nonprofit organization’s roots go back more than five years, when Skillen and Sedun helped Harrisburg school students develop their writing skills. According to Skillen, Elizabethtown College associate professor of English and department chair, community members heard about the project and offered to help. So, Skillen and Sedun established the Project as a 501c3 to allow for tax-deductible donations from generous patrons.
We’re doing something that’s engaging, that’s memorable, that’s lasting. … We’re doing something right.”
Since then, the Project has flourished, finding homes in Harrisburg as well as Medellin, Colombia. As he understands the deep importance of writing education for students and teachers, Skillen said he hopes the Project can be even wider-reaching. He aims to establish programs in the surrounding states of Virginia and New York.
“The Life Writes Project showed me there’s great conversation and community around teaching,” Skillen said. “We are always looking for like-minded people.”
In the classroom, Life Writes promotes dialogue between students and teachers. Skillen encourages students to craft personal narratives, a style that is not often taught in mainstream English courses.
“We believe that it’s a very powerful form of writing,” he said, noting how useful personal narrative skills can be in identity formation, personal growth and introspection.
The Project found its implementation lead to an increase in graduation statistics for certain schools and most donations received, thus far, have gone toward compulsory and enrichment programs, particularly summer school and remedial-style curricula.
Life Writes even takes students out of the classroom and into the community. As part of the service aspect of the Project, students have previously assisted in the beautification of local parks and intergenerational writing projects in collaboration with nursing homes and retirement communities.
“We’re doing something that’s engaging, that’s memorable, that’s lasting,” Skillen said. “We’re doing something right.”
As Life Writes spreads throughout southcentral Pennsylvania, the professor said he wishes to engage E-town students even after they receive their diplomas. He encourages education graduates to apply for Life Writes grants to enable them to bring the Program into their classrooms.
Matt Walters ’15, an English education graduate, paired with Life Writes to speak about his international exchange through the Fulbright program. Additionally, Alexa Viscardi ’14, an English education grad, assisted Life Writes in development of the organization’s website.
Skillen said the Project brings a sense of unity to teaching.
“I like the sense of community that develops around a conversation about education,” he said. “Teaching is often a very isolating form of work. The bell rings, the door closes and it’s just you, the teacher, with all of your students.”
As Life Writes continues its upward trend of growth, it is only a matter of time before more teachers find each other, and students find their voices.