Staff and volunteers at training
Staff and volunteers at the “Vol/loquium: Violence in Student Writing” training at 826CHI.

Picture this common scene from nearly any 826CHI program: you are working with a student on a story, bouncing ideas back and forth. The story could be something made up from their own imagination, or it could be a personal memory they want to explore on the page. Just when the story gets to the point where conflict begins to bubble up, the student makes a suggestion that you think is a little too violent.

As a volunteer, you might have been in this situation before, and for many of us, it’s difficult to navigate the use of violence in a student’s writing.

In the past 826CHI had strongly encouraged students to consider alternatives to violence, and asked younger writers not to use it at all in their writing. However, the staff has revised this policy to a “Yes, and…” approach that creates a safe space for students to honestly engage with violence if they choose. In January, a Vol/loquium training brought together staff and volunteers to discuss this topic and some strategies to be better writing mentors.

Participants writing on the board.
Participants held discussions in small groups about their experiences working with students and shared their thoughts with the group.

Here were a few takeaways from the training:

  • Acknowledge. It’s important to first acknowledge the appearance of violence in a student’s writing. At this point, you typically should not negate a student’s choice. Rather, you should provide your honest feedback as a reader. What you have to say is valuable! If you think something is gross or scary, share that response with the student. Or, if the student writes a personal scene with violence in a memoir piece, affirm the student.
  • Reflect. Take a moment to pause at a scene, and ask the student to think about each of the characters involved in it. If the student is writing about a violent character (a copy of a comically violent superhero, for example), ask how that character could be hurting the people around them. Even a brief exercise in empathy can deepen a story.
  • Ask questions and make suggestions. Violence can be a quick way to move a story along, so it’s often among the first ideas in a brainstorm. However, the first idea is not always the best one (true for any writer). Is it important, for example, for the hero of an adventure story to shoot missiles at the villain’s evil henchmen out of his butt? Probably not! It’s also impractical, because a hero would never turn his back on his adversary. Be collaborative and playful.
  • When in doubt, seek additional help. If a piece of student writing is concerning to you for any reason at all, please pull aside and notify any 826CHI staff member.

Of course, we often work under time restraints that can limit our impact—we might only have 30-40 minutes with a student one-on-one or in a small group. Mentorship is an art, and the more time you can dedicate to practice, the better you can be, even with those limitations.

This Vol/loquium training is part of an on-going dialogue about violence in student writing and our roles as writing mentors. If you have anything to share, leave a comment or email VEST at vest@826chi.org.

Writing at the board

“Vol/loquium: Violence in Student Writing” was the second part of the special two-part series “The State of Stories,” a training that focused on civic engagement, violence in youth writing, and our work as writing mentors. The first part, “The People’s State of the Union,” was co-sponsored by the organization of the same name.

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