Tucked away on a quiet side street in the Fairhill neighborhood, the Spells Writing Lab sits along the colorful 2500 block of North Alder Street. Mosaic tile and elaborate murals grace the walls of the neighboring buildings, reflecting the creativity that encompasses North Philadelphia’s Village of Arts and Humanities campus.
Spells Writing Lab, or Spells, is a nonprofit organization founded by Jill Schiller in 2009.
“It was inspired by the 826 National Program, which was originally founded in San Francisco and has since spread to other cities,” Program Director Liz Encarnacion said.
“It’s a very innovative writing program,” Encarnacion said. “Our founder had a friend who worked for one of the 826 programs and thought that this would be a good fit for Philadelphia, that we really needed Philadelphia’s schoolchildren to be really excited about writing and improve their writing in the process.”
Initially, Spells was launched as a nomadic organization doing pop-up workshops in local bookstores, libraries and other community centers. These workshops were a major success, pulling in more than 200 students from all over the city during the first six months of its founding. In January 2010, Spells was able to move into its own bricks-and-mortar facility after forming a partnership with the Village of Arts and Humanities.
“One of the main tenets of our program is to be somewhat irreverent. We try to help kids break out of the box,” Encarnacion said. “A lot of our kids this week, for example, are taking standardized testing and we find that because the schools are having to prepare so much for standardized testing, the kids are starting to lose that sense of creativity that they normally have. They sometimes need to be encouraged to just be kids again and just be goofy and experimental with their writing.”
The curriculum of these writing workshops is based around a certain theme, and the stories they develop must be multidimensional as well as engaging.
“We have one [workshop] coming up in May which is with a magician, and it’s actually about how magicians do banter,” Encarnacion said. “You can’t just do a magic trick to people and have them be excited about it. Magicians actually write their banter and their stories [that they tell] through their trick. So we’re going to be teaching the kids some basic magic tricks, and then also helping them to craft their stories with real magicians.“
Other workshops the kids have worked on include spy and pro-wrestler personas, which focus specifically on character development.
Spells Writing Lab depends heavily on volunteers to help with the programs. George Landau and his daughter Helen, of Narberth, have been volunteering at Spells since December.
“My daughter is having a bat mitzvah, and she wanted to do a community service project,” Landau said. “She loves reading and writing and wanted to work with kids to share that love of hers.”
Landau explained how volunteering at Spells has been an important growth experience for Helen as well.
“It’s been really good for her as a chance to share some of the things that she’s really enthusiastic about but also to appreciate all that she has,” Landau said. “It’s been sobering for her and she feels lucky.”
Helen spends her time at Spells helping the children with their homework as well as their creative writing.
“I really enjoy reading and writing, so I wanted to help some other kids who don’t get to do much of it,” Helen said. “They don’t get as much after-school help [as students in other schools]. It’s a good place to have opportunities that they might not usually get if they just went home.”
Over the last few years, the School District of Philadelphia has been plagued by issues such as substantial academic underperformance and severe budget shortfalls. The district did not meet the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress measure for the 10th year in a row, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 2011-2012 Academic Achievement Report.
Back in March of last year, the School Reform Commission also announced a massive “doomsday” budget cut to cover the projected $304 million deficit, forcing cuts to academic services and the closure of 23 schools, including Fairhill Elementary School.
In spite of these troubles, Spells Writing Lab acts as a direct counterbalance to the academic disadvantages that many Philadelphia students face.
“Spells is a unique organization in having this formal structure for fostering a love of reading and writing among kids,” Landau said. “There’s not a lot of it and we were really happy to find it.”
“Communication is important no matter what form it comes in,” Encarnacion said. “Any job in the future, any subject you’re studying in high school or college requires writing and communication skills. We really see that as an opportunity to help our students succeed in the future.”
– Text, images and video by Charles Brown and Rhonda Elnaggar