Photographer to the stars Tom Sorenson kicked off a day of story-telling at Alta Vista Elementary School in Redondo Beach two weeks ago, regaling more than 300 third- through fifth-grade students with tales of photographing Katy Perry and walking the red carpet.
The students looked on, mouths agape, dressed in T-shirts reading “What’s Your Story?” as Sorenson shared with them the pressing need for documentarians and screenwriters who know how to weave a good story, before heading off to three workshops apiece to learn how to write from the professionals.
The students could choose from 20 writing workshops. They could explore writing professions ranging from advertising copy to news writing, song writing to screen writing, children’s literature to memoir. Or they could choose to delve into singular writing skills, such as dialogue and scene openers.
This was the seventeenth consecutive writing conference at Alta Vista, led by the Young Writers’ Conference, co-chaired by Julie Moore and Rena Svetic. The moms founded the conference in 1996 when their children were students at Alta Vista. They paired up to plan the first conference as a way to address the need for good writing programs in the schools, Svetic with her business expertise in event management and organization and Moore with her professional contacts in the creative arts community.
Two years later, in 1998, they incorporated and started to offer workshops at schools throughout the Los Angeles area. They typically run five conferences a year, in addition to a weeklong summer program for students entering fourth- through ninth-grades. The Alta Vista conference is a community service event, run entirely by volunteer speakers and organizers. It is meant to bridge life experience between the skills attained at school and those used in the “real world.”
The organizers chose “What’s Your Story?” as this year’s theme because it gets to the essence of writing.
“(It) explores the fundamental question at the center of every successful novel, screenplay, short story, or feature article, which is – what is the story?” Moore said.
The conference was school-wide for the older grades, as students picked three workshops to attend in advance, and received a folder with their itinerary at the beginning of the day. They were provided a mid-day snack to keep the brain cells fueled, and spent one hour with each professional writer to learn about the craft and engage in writing exercises.
Moore and Svetic said that the conference was a highlight for both of their children’s elementary school years, and something they reflect back on with warm memories, so they wanted to pay it forward and continued to offer the workshop every year.
One teacher at Alta Vista raised her hand when Sorenson asked if any of the teachers attended the workshops as students. The day had left a large enough impact that she recalled it as a major experience in her elementary school days.
Beth Hinckley, a Marketing Instructor at FIDM and YWC PR Consultant, had a similar experience with her son. She has been leading a workshop for 10 years. She started after she watched her son’s workshops as a parent volunteer at Alta Vista.
“I was just amazed at what they were doing. My son was so inspired by the day,” said Hinckley.
As a college-level instructor, Hinckley sees the need for writing proficiency at all levels, and wanted to get involved in teaching younger children.
“Even at the college level, I see that so many of our students do not have a grasp of writing fundamentals, and that they don’t see how much fun it can be,” said Hinckley. “I want to do anything I can for younger kids to just start writing, and having fun, and learning how to do it, which they do from practice.”
The goal of the conference is to give kids a university-style conference experience, working with professional writers, and encourage them to learn to love writing and explore careers.
“We’re not even writing skills – we’re writing passion,” said Hinckley. “That’s our mission. We feel like if we can get them excited about writing and get them practicing and expressing themselves and expressing their creativity, they’re going to do better.”
Walking through the classrooms, Alta Vista teachers and parent volunteers could see the kids’ imaginations at work.
In a newswriting workshop led by journalist Eric Czuleger, kids learned the five w’s of journalism as they imagined a news story about a dragon hovering over Redondo Beach in need of a haircut, then engaged in interviews and stories about one another, searching for the best story of the summer.
During a dialogue workshop led by screenwriter Richard Schenkman, kids created a scene between a penguin and a flying squirrel, in which the flying squirrel teases the penguin for being a bird that can’t fly.
Hinckley challenged kids to sell a better mousetrap, tapping into product concept and design, advertising copy and jingles.
In each classroom, kids were engaged and laughing, working in teams and alone to see how writing was a powerful tool for sharing their ideas with the world. They were singing and dancing, journaling, sharing their favorite story ideas, illustrating copy – making connections between writing and creative expression.
It is exactly how Moore and Svetic envisioned it – a joyful writing experience, in which the ability to communicate and express ones’ self is paramount.
Alta Vista Principal Susan Wildes said that the conference was an important element in the children’s education. She thanked YWC for their generosity of community service, as well as the PTA liaison Kristina Zorn and the entire PTA for their support.
“Providing this enriching creative environment and having the opportunity to work directly with different kinds of professional writers engages our students on many levels,” Wildes said. “Beyond recognizing the necessity of good writing skills, students grow by experiencing the joy and satisfaction that language can bring.”