PEN In The Classroom Community Interview with Adam Somers

Adam Somers is the executive director of PEN Center USA. Below, he provides insight into the value of PITC residencies and the future of PITC.

Why is PEN In The Classroom (PITC) an important part of PEN’s programming? How does it fit into PEN’s mission statement?
There are two main tracks of programming at International PEN and at the centers: freedom of expression and, in one way or another, supporting the literary community. Individual centers may emphasize one of these tracks over the other, but, almost without exception, all PEN centers are involved in both tracks of programming.
PITC is often taken for granted as being an outreach literacy program, because it usually takes place over twelve weeks in a middle or high school, but from my perspective it is a pure freedom of expression program. The idea is that if you go through high school and you are never made aware that you have a voice or given a chance to explore your voice, then, perhaps, your freedom of expression has been encroached upon as much as any writer imprisoned for peacefully expressing themselves. Some people have accused me of being melodramatic by describing PITC in terms of freedom of expression, but I believe the description is correct. Seen from this perspective, PITC is positioned within freedom of expression and, therefore, within our mission statement.
What is the ultimate goal of a PEN In The Classroom (PITC) academic residency? Community residency?
The ultimate goal of a PITC academic residency is for each student to discover and explore his or her voice as a writer. An academic residency is focused on voice and craft. It has several goals: to discover one’s voice, re-write and edit a piece for the anthology, and perform your piece in a final reading. An additional goal is for the writer/instructor to model for the students the idea of being a writer as an adult occupation. One of the anecdotally reported impacts of PITC is to help students become more involved with their academic work. After completing the academic PITC residency, many students report that they now “get” school.
The ultimate goal of a community residency is storytelling. A community residency is designed to generate stories. It takes place in a community center rather than a classroom. For example, the most recent community residencies have taken place on an Indian reservation in San Diego and at a veteran’s hospital in East Los Angeles.
The Bridge is a new program under PEN In The Classroom. Can you talk about the evolution of The Bridge and its benefit to high school students in Los Angeles?
The academic PITC residencies can be seen as a sort of “shotgun” approach, in the sense that you don’t usually know if any of the students are really interested in writing. Everyone in the class receives the benefits of PITC, but only a few kids will have a switch flicked and get excited about writing. What has been so bothersome is that once that switch is flicked, they don’t have very many places to go to build on what they learned during their PITC residency. The Bridge is designed to address that problem.
The application process for The Bridge program is competitive and requires students to submit an application and a writing sample. A selection committee reviews the applications. Only 10-12 writers are accepted into the program. The Bridge meets during the summer, in four-hour sessions, once a week for six weeks, produces an anthology, and culminates in a very well attended final reading.
Can you describe what it means to break the school-to-prison pipeline and how PITC helps to do just that?
Studies have shown there are disproportionately higher drop-out rates among African-American and Hispanic young men, in particular, from a variety of causes such as zero-tolerance policies in schools, which results in many of these young men going from high school into the juvenile justice system and, ultimately, into the maw of the Prison Industrial Complex. This is the school-to-prison pipeline. Any type of program or intervention that reduces the drop-out rate and gets these students through high school and into college helps to diminish the number of young men delivered, by way of the school-to-prison pipeline, to jail.
As I mentioned earlier, we get a lot of reports from students saying that after PITC they “get” school. This means a renewed interest in school that translates into higher graduation rates. The intention of PITC is to reveal voice and introduce students to the power of words. The impact of going through a PITC academic residency can put a student back on track to graduate, whether or not he or she has any desire to be a writer.
PEN has partnered with UrbanWord NY to launch UrbanWord LA and provide a program called Creatively College Bound (CCB) to high school students in Los Angeles. Can you describe CCB and why you decided to bring this program to LA?
The Creatively College Bound (CCB) program was created for high school juniors and seniors who want their creative critical voice to advance their pursuit of higher education and complete the college application process. Over the course of 12 weeks, instructors use creative writing prompts and critical literature seminar work as inspiration for higher education, to prepare professional, high-quality college applications and essays. The writing/college prep workshop covers every step of the college admission process. The focus is on writing powerful and creative essays that can serve as personal statements, admission essays, and answers to prompts for scholarship applications. The course also includes a vigorous scholarship search and various other components of the process such as obtaining fee waivers, collecting letters of recommendation, creating CVs, and more. CCB is an invaluable opportunity for under-resourced, at-risk youth to explore higher education, knowing that PEN Center USA will encourage and advocate for them.
CCB is a more direct attack on breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, and I felt it added an important new dimension to PITC. I have witnessed CCB in action, spoken with students that are in college as a result of CCB, and met the college officials who support these students when they arrive at college. I’m looking forward to seeing CCB in operation in Southern California.
How would you like to see PITC evolve over the next five years?
I expect the traditional PITC residencies to continue facilitating the discovery of voice in middle and high schools in California and perhaps spreading out to other locations in the western states. In terms of evolution, the program has been refined over the last few years into a very professional program, and I expect some fine-tuning, but no major changes. We are just getting started with community residencies and there is a great deal of storytelling to be tapped into. I expect steady growth in this area. For CCB, I am looking forward to establishing this program, along with the academic and community residencies, as a staple of PITC.
Did you have a writing mentor when you were growing up?
My mother.
What piece of advice would you offer to young writers?
Just to start and keep on writing.