Making a Difference in Congress Heights

(PHOTO: Courtesy) James Tindle, an award-winning writer and high school senior at Booker T. Washington Charter School, is a writing club veteran.

Full disclosure: I’m the senior program director for the DC Creative Writing Workshop. The article below features the story of one of our high school students who takes part in the writing club. I thought his story was worth sharing here.

Thinking of where he would’ve ended up without the DC Creative Writing Workshop’s after-school writing club, James Tindle shook his head.

The 18-year-old’s been a part of the program since 2004, when he was a 7th grader at Charles Hart Middle School, where the Workshop operates. Considering what’s happened in his life since joining the writing club, Tindle shook his head again, thinking of the direction his life headed seven years ago.

“I don’t know, but it didn’t look good,” he said. “I was a delinquent before writing club.” He fought a lot with his peers if he attended classes at all; other times, he skipped school altogether to run the streets with his friends.

Tindle ended up in writing club when a school counselor referred him to the DC Creative Writing Workshop after he got into a fight with another kid with whom he later became friends. Through the Workshop’s unique and creative programming, Tindle learned to take his aggression to the page instead of taking it out on his classmates.

Taking it to the page, the award-winning writer excelled at Hart before enrolling into Booker T. Washington Charter School. As a result of the Workshop, the high school senior’s got a bright future ahead of him as he decides on one of the four colleges that accepted him.

Tindle’s story is just one of many students making their mark in a literary renaissance going on in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often ignored part of the city.

That renaissance—which is uniting parents, teachers and students—started when Executive Director Nancy Schwalb founded the DC Creative Writing Workshop in 1995. Since then, the Workshop’s expanded from Hart to two neighboring schools, Simon Elementary and Ballou Senior High, making creative writing instruction available to nearly 600 new students in fourth through twelfth grade.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) After a group interpretation of a poem written by a famous poet, Michael Johnson hard at work on his own poem.

From September through early June, the DC Creative Writing Workshop conducts 500 classroom sessions and 120 after-school club meetings each year.

The Workshop’s writers-in-residence work with English teachers at Hart and Ballou to give intensive literary instruction to students in all grades, while Simon’s fourth and fifth graders also enjoy creative writing classes.

Sequan Wilson’s been with the writing club since he was in 8th grade. He and Tindle are among the seven young writers-in-residence the Workshop hired through its youth employment program, helping students resist the lure of the streets.

As young writers-in-residence, Wilson and Tindle assist the writers-in-residence as extra supports for classroom management and help with other administrative duties. Aware that the award-winning status makes him, Tindle and the other young writers-in-residence role models to the younger writers, Wilson’s careful not to let it go to his head.

“Truthfully, I appreciate that they look up to us,” said Wilson, 17. “But if they explore themselves, they’ll see they have just as much to offer as we do.”

Each student keeps a personal literary portfolio to document his or her progress throughout the year. As a result of the program’s expansion, club activities are open to students ages 9-19 throughout the Congress Heights neighborhood.

As a writing club member, James Tindle and Wilson worked with their friends on a variety of projects throughout the year, which included creating an original adaptation of a classical play.

This includes them reading the text of the play and rewriting it line by line before the Workshop brings in a professional director to help them rehearse and perform their work for the community.

The drama club’s updated plays by Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and Euripides, virtually exhausting the supply of suitable plays from ancient Greece.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Drama club members on the set of "R Town".

In 2010, the Workshop hired Tom Mallan, theater director and educator, to direct our students’ original adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and together they created a masterpiece. “R Town,” written by and starring 40 students from our drama program, is the first feature film produced through the DC Creative Writing Workshop’s collaboration with Mallan’s Educational Theater Company.

The movie had a Hollywood-style red carpet première at the UPO/Petey Greene Center on Martin Luther King Avenue SE and a crowd of more than 100 formally attired students and their friends, parents and siblings, teachers and administrators.

The crowd overflowed the screening room as community members watched in amazement before erupting into applause as the closing credits rolled. The Washington Post covered the event. (Our home page at has links to the Post article and both the movie trailer and the entire movie.)

Since the Workshop’s expansion, students from the three schools have attended readings, plays and other literary events, won dozens of writing awards, and enjoyed a wealth of new experiences not otherwise available to young people in Ward 8.

Many writing club graduates go on to study at New York University, George Washington University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, to name a few.

One former student went to Harvard. Another, who graduated from George Mason University and just finished his first year at Loyola University Law School, earned a paid summer internship at a Minneapolis law firm. Several former writing club members have graduate degrees or are working on them.

In James Tindle’s case, he got accepted into SUNY Purchase, the American Musical Dramatic Academy (AMDA), Barry University and Virginia Union University—choices he might not have otherwise had without the DC Creative Writing Workshop that’s kept itself afloat while other nonprofits folded.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Sequan Wilson, an award-winning writer and senior at Ballou High School, enjoys a good book after writing club.

In these hard economic times, it’s the youths who suffer when budget cuts affect funding for arts programs. The DC Creative Writing Workshop’s long history makes it the only thing constant in their lives.

It was for Tindle, who attributed his change in direction to the Workshop. “It’s all accumulated experiences—I got a chance to do poetry, act and sing,” he said. “This is where I thrive—being in this community, being around other artists.”

And while he hasn’t yet made up his mind on where he’ll go next year, Tindle’s sure about one thing: “No matter what college I go to, I want to study English, Literature and Theater.”

Interested in donating to the DC Creative Writing Workshop? Visit them online here, then click on the “Donate Now Through Network for Good” button to get involved.

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