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Philadelphia Nonprofit Champions Critical Thinking, Builds 'Mighty Writers'

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To write with clarity, you have to think clearly first.

That's the mantra of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia that offers students an after-school program as well as evening and weekend classes.

Students who take part in the program are encouraged to debate the issues of the day, such as U.S. immigration policy or allegations of police brutality. Many times, speakers are brought in to address these issues from various sides. Then the students sit down to write.

"Knowing how to express yourself clearly in an email, an application for high school or college, in talking about issues that matter to you, thinking clearly is paramount," said Tim Whitaker, the program's founder and executive director. "That's what we're all about."

Mighty Writers also gives students opportunities to write about things that are fun or to write about serious topics in unique ways.

For example, students in one group created comics about how their families arrived in the United States.

A day at MIghty Writers.jpgWhitaker started the program in 2009 after a long career in journalism that included positions with publications such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Weekly, and The New York Times.

Students from 7-17 can participate in Mighty Writers, which is offered for free. The program is funded primarily through foundation support with most of the rest coming from individual donors. The program receives a small amount of corporate support to round out its funding.

After-School Program

Mighty Writers provides an after-school program called Mighty Academy at four different sites in the city for elementary and middle school students Monday-Friday from 3-6. One of those sites serves bilingual students. Participants spend the first 45 minutes of each day doing their homework. Then they work on writing prompts that cover several different genres of writing. These sites also host evening and weekend workshops that include learning how to spot fake news, writing ghost stories, and creating plays.

Mighty Writers also offers a special program for students in high school called Teen Scholars, which is designed to prepare teenagers for college-level writing. They also take the students on field trips to colleges and to various places for cultural enrichment such as the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture. These students usually meet in the evenings or on the weekends.

Students have to apply for Mighty Writers programs, and slots are reserved on a first-come-first-serve basis. There is a waiting list.

The program is staffed with a combination of volunteers and paid employees. Each site is led by a program director and program manager.

Khalia Robinson is the program director for the Mighty Writers West site. She started out as a volunteer in fall of 2013 and was hired the following summer.

As part of her job, Robinson comes up with lesson plans, facilitates lessons, and promotes the program in the community.

'A Comfort Zone'

She says some of the students are quite advanced, while others struggle to read on grade level, but the program succeeds because of the support the students give one another.

"Because we make it a comfort zone and a safe space, and we teach everybody to uplift each other, nobody feels out of place," said Robinson. "There's always a positive energy when they come in to Mighty Writers. They don't get that at home. They don't get that at school. They don't get that in the neighborhood sometimes. They have a voice [here], and it's heard, and it's put to use."

Robinson says the program also fills some of the gaps that are missing in many of today's schools.

"The schools took out recess," said Robinson. "They're taking the arts out, so there's no way for the kids to learn creative and deductive reasoning. It's horrible for them, especially creative thinking kids."

Whitaker agrees.

"I think writing is overlooked by school systems," said Whitaker "It's typically science and math and standardized tests and maybe some writing after that. That seems to me to be backward. If you're a math whiz or a science whiz and you can't express yourself on paper about what you've discovered in math or science, it's not going to do you any good."

Mighty Writers serves about 2,500 students every year and has around 300 volunteers.

Photo: Students who participate in Mighty Writers are encouraged to think deeply about issues and then put their thoughts on paper. Photo collage courtesy Mighty Writers


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