The Magic of Words

As they peer out of school bus windows, skip rope, and page through their favorite books, children freely imagine a once-upon-a-time. They spin their own stories and dream of writing their own happy endings.

Now, in a cozy aerie in North Philadelphia, they can do just that.

Co-founded by GSE doctoral student Christina Rose Dubb, Spells Writing Lab aims to give new meaning to the phrase "magic words." Free workshops for children aged 6 to 18, taught by professional writers and educators who volunteer for the non-profit, turn writing from "must-do" to "want-to."

"We are giving kids an opportunity to think creatively on their own terms," says Dubb, who serves as Spells’ executive director. "We want kids to feel ‘I can be as goofy as I want, I can really let my imagination fly.’"

Spells, named for the mystery and magic of writing, hosted its first workshop in June [2009]. Located in the Village of the Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, Spells stands among the row houses in this artists’ enclave. The Village lacked a literacy program, says Dubb, so it was a mutual match. "It’s exactly what we were looking for because it’s a neighborhood that needs us," she says.

Dubb and her co-founders drew inspiration from 826 Valencia, a now-national children’s writing effort founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari in 2002.

"I realized I really wanted to do this and that’s why I went back to grad school," says Dubb. "GSE’s Reading/Writing/Literacy program really stood out to me. One of its foundational philosophies is that literacy is a social responsibility and a social act. It’s about interacting with the world and the people around you. That’s what appealed to me in starting Spells. In school, you get an assignment and go off on your own to do it. In the writing center, you talk, you collaborate—that’s a real key to literacy."

The Spells team is working to build strong relationships with Philadelphia’s schools by offering professional development workshops in creative writing for teachers, working with schools to create school newspapers and literary magazines, and conducting student workshops like the college essay writing sessions Spells is hosting this fall.

"Philadelphia has a really high student drop-out rate and what I think contributes toward that is a lack of individualized attention and individualized curriculum," says Dubb, who taught English in middle school and high school. "We’re trying to bring another side to education, the more fun side." With low student-instructor ratios at Spells, Dubb says, "kids really get that personalized attention and they really get a chance to speak and write about what they want, and that makes a big difference."

In addition to workshops, Spells hosts free after-school tutoring, where students pair up with volunteers for homework help and can chill in the upstairs library loft afterward. Spells already is casting its magic. "We have a really dynamic, exciting space where kids are having a great time and learning," says Dubb. "Spells is bursting with energy and kids."

For more about the Spells Writing Lab, click here.

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