Kalamazoo RAWKs On: A Non-Profit Organization Inspires Kids to Read and Write

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Kids Lined Up

Kids line up to share their poems about why they like pizza. They hold a captive audience with their creativity. Photo Credit / Morgan McCue

It started, as most things do, as an idea. When the Kalamazoo Promise was announced, two women came together with the belief that it was a critical time to help students prepare for college and let them know they have a voice.

Anne Hensley, a published writer, and Emily Kastner, an English teacher for South Hill Academy, and a biology/integrated math teacher at El Camino High School brainstormed and came up with Read And Write Kalamazoo, also known as RAWK.

Hensley and Kastner started with a small grant from “My Neighborhood Association,” a nationwide program created to improve neighborhoods. With the grant, curriculum for the classes could be planned. They then went to different organizations to ask for support and created fundraisers for their program. The next step was going out and promoting their organization.

“We really wanted to increase the power of words in the community and amplify youth voices in the community,” said Hensley.

RAWK has grown from a few summer workshops and two staff members to hosting multiple sessions for all grades. They also have a volunteer program, a board of directors and their own RAWK library.

“We have built this network, this community, of support that’s invested in the mission and the power of words,” said Kastner.

The goal of the program is to inspire youth to have confidence in their writing and intellectual thinking along with allowing the kids to have experiences that they will carry with them for their whole life.

RAWK works with students to enhance their writing skills. They publish the students’ pieces in anthologies, books with students’ poems and writings, at the end of the program. RAWK also encourages writing through fun and creative events. For example, RAWK took a group of students to the Nature Center where they wrote a nature journal of things they saw or experiences they had.

There is also a program at Maple Street Middle School called the RAWK Writers Room. During the school day, half of a teacher’s students will be taken to the RAWK classroom and given literacy support and creative writing projects. RAWK also teaches smaller classes at Maple Street that serve 5-7 students and publish their works. After school programs are also available.

There is also a magazine RAWK produces called “RAWK Mag.” It is written, illustrated and published by teens – for teens.

“You gotta realize the importance of a team to make things happen and make things successful,” said Kastner

Brigetta Bernhard, a Loy Norrix junior, participated in RAWK between 7th grade to her freshman year. Bernhard was a part of the week-long writing workshop at the middle school level and then went into the high school program. She is not a part of RAWK at the moment but the friends she has made through RAWK are still a part of her life. Bernhard also uses the skills she’s learned in her everyday writing.

“I loved it. I thought it really developed my writing skills,” said Bernhard

Students who want their work published but are not a part of the program can submit their works on their website, RAWK Kalamazoo Read and Write.

Summer sessions are also available to all ages. Students will write throughout the summer and their works will be collected to publish an anthology.

RAWK additionally blends other activities with writing, such as creating metal bracelets with poems the kids have written on them.

“While the idea is big, being clear on your mission and what you want to do is a big first step,” said Kastner to address others who want to start a business or organization.

RAWK is still growing in numbers and there is always room for you to join their ranks. They accept any willing and creative mind ready to create their own masterpieces.

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