This week CCSESA puts the spotlight on the Young Writers Program, which provides the students of Santa Cruz County with one-on-one attention to help them harness their voice and improve their communication skills.
The Young Writers Program gives students in Santa Cruz County the time and guidance they need to tell their stories along with the confidence that comes with seeing one’s writing in print.
Director Julia Chiapella describes the Young Writers Program (YWP) as “a place where students are able, through the writing practice, to discover not only the tenets of good writing but also their own voices, which are unique and singular.”
Students working on their story at the Chamber of Heart and Mystery in downtown Santa Cruz at the Museum of Art & History.
Chiapella, one of the founders of the non-profit organization, is a former teacher and freelance journalist as well as a poet and writer.
“Writing is a complicated process and beginning writers need a lot of feedback, encouragement and practice,” she said. “So much of a person’s success is predicated on being able to communicate well. We create places where students can experience the mentoring that can lead to success.”
The program began in 2012 with the In-Classroom Project, which takes place in 4-12 grade classrooms all over Santa Cruz County. Chiapella said the projects “tend to focus on a personal narrative, which is an important aspect of the Common Core Standards and an excellent way to get students engaged in the writing process.”
She said students draw on their own experiences and apply them to a larger context, which allows them “to both extrapolate and synthesize their own information, and apply it to the writing process.”
For example, high school students have written on the topic “Surviving: Our Stories, Our Truths.” Focusing on lessons they’ve learned, students wrote about experiences ranging from pregnancy to getting a flat tire that catches on fire, Chiapella said.
Another project, called Hablamos Juntos, or “Together We Speak,” is a collaboration with the online museum, Museo Eduardo Carrillo. Students are given a copy of a piece of the museum’s artwork, created by Latina/o artists. This artwork then serves as the inspiration to write their own narratives. At the end of the year, the narratives and the accompanying full-color artwork are published in a hardbound book.
A Word Lab student uses the Magic Lantern Theater in the Chamber of Heart and Mystery to inspire her writing.
Since its founding, the Young Writers Program has expanded to include several additional projects, including: 
  • The Dedicated Classroom Project provides eighth graders with space in a metal shop that’s been converted into an innovation center. With its comfy chairs, the area gives students the space to reflect and write outside the classroom. This year the project is focusing on poetry, with the theme “The Roots of Our Happiness: Where We Come From.” Student work will be published in a book at the end of the year.
  • The Word Lab, housed in downtown Santa Cruz at the Museum of Art & History, serves 44 elementary and middle school students who can select their own genre: poetry, fiction or non-fiction. To get to the Word Lab students walk through The Chamber of Heart & Mystery, an “Imaginarium” designed to inspire creative writing by exploring the mysteries of the human heart. Their writing is also published in an anthology at the end of the year.
Mission Hill Middle School students and Young Writers Program Executive Director Julia Chiapella at the Year-End Reading at Bookshop Santa Cruz.
Chiapella said YWP students have published 26 books, three posters, a newsletter and a magazine since 2012.
When students see their work published, “it elevates their sense of self. We hope that will apply to a whole realm of contexts, both academic and professional,” she said.

Students are surveyed before and after participating in the program. Those surveys show that the program increases opportunities to revise and strengthen their writing, and to work in small groups with a mentor to develop and organize their writing. As a result, students feel more confident about all of their schoolwork.
Branciforte Middle School teacher Wendy Thompson has worked with the Young Writers Program for four years. She said her students come from diverse backgrounds, “and each one has a unique story to tell. Sometimes these stories can’t be unearthed without guidance and time. The YWP provides both of these crucial elements for my students.”
Chiapella said volunteers who, along with teachers, are the “backbone” of the program, have contributed more than 3,000 hours to YWP.
San Lorenzo High students with their Young Writers Program book, Adult Starter Pack.
Brian Goulart, a student at U.C. Santa Cruz and volunteer for YWP, said the program provides students, “a space where they can loosen up their writing and their minds; where they don’t have to be bogged down by writing for school.”
He said when students are told they can tell their own stories, “many of them light up and all their dreams spill from their heads onto the page. Even the ones who don’t get into it right away eventually find something powerful within themselves – their own voice.”
Chiapella said YWP has also had successful projects each year in the county’s alternative schools.
YWP, housed at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, is organizationally supported by the COE and fiscally sponsored by the Santa Cruz Arts Council.
Chiapella describes the Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools, Michael Watkins, as incredibly supportive. “He’s a strong supporter of alternative education settings and understands how powerful it is to be able to write well. He had the vision to say ‘Yes, let’s try this’ when we went to him with a proposal.”
“This is a community effort. That’s what makes it so powerful,” said Chiapella. “Writers don’t exist in a vacuum. We need someone encouraging us, and students need that more than anyone else – someone to say, ‘That’s great! Keep going.’”
Volunteer Jessica Cohn with a young writer.


• Visit the Young Writers Program website to learn more about its projects for students, the staff, the volunteer handbook and more.
• The Museo Eduardo Carrillo website includes a link for educators, and more about the Hablamos Juntos series.
• Learn more about “Why Writing Matters” from the California Writing Project.

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