Concerned about the skills of our region’s future workforce? Be a part of the solution by partnering with this writing program for under-resourced youth.
On April 29, Nia Gates, a teen intern with Big Class, a local youth writing program, traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 2017 People’s Climate March. Gates read her original poem, “Hold Your Seats, The Tree Speaks” to an audience of 200,000.
“Having the opportunity to travel to D.C. and share a part of my world with the rest was an absolutely amazing experience,” she said. “I would have to say my favorite part of the day was the chance to meet the fellow artists and speakers who also stepped onto the stage either before or after me. I am an 18-year-old girl from New Orleans and I was able to travel hundreds of miles to march and perform with people who see a future of liberation just like myself.”
Gates was afforded that opportunity, in part, because of her involvement with Big Class. The writing program began in 2010 at Lincoln Elementary School in Marrero when Doug Keller and Heather Muntzer facilitated a series of successful writing projects for 43 first-grade students. Word of these projects soon spread throughout New Orleans and other teachers began reaching out to Keller to do the same kind of work in their classrooms.
“We were doing writing projects that helped give under-resourced youth opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills through project-based learning and volunteer support,” said Keller.
In the fall of 2014 the idea took flight, as Big Class entered into chapter development with “826 National,” a network of creative writing and tutoring centers that shared many of Keller’s ideas about how to get children excited about writing. Internationally acclaimed author David Eggers and award-winning educator Nínive Calegari founded 826 National, which through its seven other centers helped 30,000 students discover their voices last year.
“My son, Hector, was a tentative writer until he started at Big Class in second grade,” said Katy Reckdahl, a local parent. “After working with the volunteers at the Big Class afterschool program, his writing became fearless and strong, like him.”
Today, Big Class offers a wide variety of free, innovative programs for children ages 6 to 18. It also helps teachers get their students engaged in writing. Services are structured with the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.
“The process of writing helps youth learn to think critically and find their voices,” said Kathleen Whalen, Big Class board member and project director for Safe Schools NOLA. “We live in a time when these are essential skills. Having spaces where youth can learn to think, create and express their ideas is not just good for youth, but an essential building block for democracy.”
One of the organization’s most visible endeavors is its Pizza Poetry Project, which celebrates National Poetry Month in April and the power of youth voices. Poems are collected throughout the year from the program’s school and community-based workshops. They are then published, placed on pizza boxes and delivered around the city. Participating restaurants also donate 20 percent of their profits to Big Class.
Other Big Class programs include an in-residence program that cultivates year-round writing and in-school projects which engage students over several weeks as they work toward a final project that is then shared with the community.
Big Class also runs “It’s LIT,” a mobile youth writing center and sno-ball stand. The center invites youth to connect with writing in new ways: they can collaborate with chefs and write about food; they can write about water next to the river; they can trick or treat and write about zombies; and they can attend art exhibits and write reviews. Recently, It’s LIT set up for Bayou Day and youth wrote about water in exchange for popsicles.
Big Class’ long-term writing projects are also finally blossoming into books. The organization’s spring releases include a collection of personal narratives written by 11th-graders and a book of trickster tales written by third-graders.
“All of our programs are challenging and enjoyable, and ultimately strengthen each student’s power to express ideas effectively, creatively, confidently and in his or her individual voice,” said Keller.
Big Class is growing; recently the organization signed a 10-year lease for a youth writing center in the 7th Ward that is scheduled to open in late 2017 on St. Bernard Avenue near Claiborne Avenue. The center will serve as a hub for literacy and host students, teachers and community members year-round, offering programs during and after school, as well as weekend and summer programming.
Top Left: Local children age 6 to 18 — including students like third grader Armari Pierre — are becoming engaged writers thanks to Big Class. Top Right: (Left to right) Kiara Geiger, Terr’nique Delair, Jordan Claiborne and Tommy Nguyen (front) at the publication party at Cafe Istanbul for “History Between These Folds” a book by eleventh graders at Carver High School. Bottom: Eleventh grader Anginique Andrews does a reading at the publication party for “History Between These Folds” at Carver High School.
Architect Charles Jones with One to One Design is working on the 4,000-square-foot project. “We are a contemporary practice and we like working with contemporary, forward-thinking clients, so Big Class is a perfect fit for us,” he said.
Big Class will open as a retail space. Following 826’s award-winning model, the storefront will provide a unique portal for Big Class students as it also serves as a source of revenue. To comply with a commercial zoning regulation, when 826 National started its center in San Francisco, it opened as a pirate storefront. It sold eye patches and pirate hats up front while young writers did their wordsmithing in the back.
Big Class’ storefront will be The New Orleans Haunting Supply Co., which will supply all manner of ghostly supplies, including scary costumes, T-shirts, and other goods and services celebrating the non-corporeal. The rest of the space will include offices, meeting rooms, classrooms, and radio and video facilities.
Kyley Pulphus, program director for Big Class and one of its teachers, says that the beauty of Big Class is that it offers children a sense of control over their future.
“This program is teaching our kids how to use words in a way that can affect change,” said Pulphus. “Now they are becoming the powerful ones because reading gives you access, but writing gives you power.”
Give money to Big Class’ capital campaign. Naming rights are available
Throw a pizza party that features the children’s poetry
Sponsor a book fair of Big Class’ young authors’ books
Offer scholarships for poets in your company’s name
Offer a volunteer training at your place of business and then volunteer by working one-on-one in schools, leading a workshop after school, or copyediting a publication
Find ways to get the children’s poems seen. For example, if you’re:
A retail business, add a poem with a purchase
A restaurant, add poetry to your tables
A business that sends out a newsletter, add a poem to your publication
Cash and in-kind donations toward the new building
(Left and Right) At the publication party at the Jazz & Heritage Center for “Down by the Crawfish Party” a book by third graders at Phillis Wheatley Community School, students Josuan Flores (Left) and Melvin Bennet (Right) enjoy seeing their work in print.
SUCCESS OF SERVICES
Since 2010, Big Class has served more than 3,500 youth through dynamic, innovative, free writing programs.
volunteers have supported the young writers’ efforts
In 2015-2016 alone:
served by Big Class
publications have featured their writing
of their students identify as writers, even though over half of these students stated they did not consider themselves writers before participating in our programs
of students across all programs report an increase in their confidence in writing
of students in out-of-school programs reported that Big Class helped them improve their ability to think of new ideas
of parents in out-of-school Programs reported positive impact in their child’s grades
of students reported feeling high levels of engagement in their learning
Big Class’ mission is to cultivate and support the voices of New Orleans’ writers ages 6-18 through creative collaborations with schools and communities.
Big Class Values
We believe that creative writing encourages students to break down barriers and imagine the full range of what is possible.
We believe in facilitating and amplifying youth voices, particularly those most marginalized by current social conditions.
We believe that powerful youth become powerful adults.
We believe in the creation of safe, supportive spaces for black, brown, and queer youth.
We believe in collaborating with students, families and communities in developing learning environments inclusive of multiple ways of being and knowing.
We believe in cultivating a sense of possibility that allows for creativity, joy, humor, and weirdness.
532 Louisa St.
2016-17 Big Class budget is $300,000
Participated in Big Class’ fourth annual Pizza Poetry Proect: Reginelli’s, Theo’s Pizza, Pizza Delicious, Mid City Pizza, G’s Pizza and Garage Pizza
Boh Brothers Construction Company donated orange cones for a project called Pot-hole poetry.
BIG PICTURE ON BIG CLASS
Major Fundraising Event: A Dark & Stormy Night, a spirited evening of cocktails and ghost stories where local mixologists compete for the best haunted cocktails in New Orleans. It features music, food and fun. An exact date has not been set for this year’s event but look for it in October around Halloween.
Nia has been in Big Class’ Youth Advisory Council for the last two years. She recently was invited to read her poem “Hold Your Seats, The Tree Speaks” in Washington D.C. She’s attending Morgan State University in the fall.
Akilah started with Big Class when she was 10. She’s now 14 and a freshman at NOCCA. She just won two Scholastic Gold Medals for her poetry.
Kentrell has been published in multiple books since starting with Big Class two years ago.
Alaila has been in Big Class programs since 2012. She’s been published in two Big Class books.
A Good Match
FOR COMPANIES WHO…
Are passionate about our region’s future workforce, especially in regards to the ability to communicate effectively. No business is too big or small.