Twice a year, middle school kids around Savannah accomplish what many of us adult writers yearn for: becoming a published author in just three months and reading their work onstage to their adoring fans.
It’s all part of the plan for Deep, the local nonprofit dedicated to bringing literacy to Savannah’s middle school kids. Deep Speaks, its biannual literary reading, is always one of a kind.
“This event is one of the most diverse cultural events in Savannah,” says Dare Dukes, executive director of Deep. “Some of the young people reading their stories will never have been downtown before.”
Here’s how Deep works. Writing fellows work with local middle school teachers — this year, 14 of Savannah’s 19 middle schools participated —to select kids for the program. They choose a healthy blend of interests, from kids who already love writing to kids who despise it. Volunteers hold writing workshops with the kids once a week for eleven weeks, and at the end, each kid submits his or her four best pieces for publication in a four-book anthology. Then, of all those pieces, 39 are anonymously voted on by the kids for presentation. Those 39 pieces will be read at Deep Speaks, at the Savannah Theatre on Feb. 2.
The entire process mimics that of a professional writer and gives kids the chance to find writing fun again.
“Kids are asked to write a lot in school, but the grammar and writing rules are so scrutinized,” Dukes says. “We meet them where they are and help them find their joy in writing. Once they connect, the other stuff falls in line. We do the grammar stuff in revision.”
Which, by the way, most of the kids hate. “Almost all kids resist the revision stage, so the challenge is getting them to see the value in that process,” Dukes notes with a knowing tone – who doesn’t hate revision sometimes?
Deep keeps the workshops small — about six kids in each one — so they receive more personalized attention than they would in school workshops. That specialized help is crucial to building the kids’ writing skills and allowing them to tell their stories without obstacles. Small sizes also help the kids open up to a smaller group, which gets their stories out there.
“All the kids have their own growth trajectories. We find ways to encourage them to write in a way that reconnects them to their joy of writing.” Dukes says.
It might seem limiting that Deep is only for middle school kids, but it’s the best time to reach them because of their development at that age. Studies have shown that during adolescence, kids develop the ability to think abstract thoughts and to develop their own moral philosophies, making middle school the perfect age to start writing for fun.
Of course, kids in other grades are just as capable of churning out great stories, but Dukes isn’t ready to expand that far yet.
“There are plenty more kids I’d like to reach in Savannah, but the only thing holding us back is capacity,” Dukes says.
In addition to working in nonprofits and as a musician, Dukes has been writing for twenty-plus years. Like Deep kids, his love of writing was prompted by a teacher who saw his literary prowess.
“I was in 5th grade, and I remember one day he told me he thought I was a really good writer,” Dukes recalls. “That always stuck with me, and when I was in my mid-twenties, I started a novel.”
Dukes and the rest of the Deep team have high hopes that the program can spur positive change in a community that desperately needs it.
“[Deep is] important in the community because Savannah has an extra-high poverty rate. 28% of the population lives at or below the poverty line. And low-income people are often not part of the civic and cultural discourse. Deep helps them learn literacy, learn to write with skill, confidence, and courage. It gives them a sense of place and lets them know that their perspectives matter.”
Deep Speaks will be held on Monday, February 2 at 6pm at the Savannah Theater (222 Bull Street). The event is free and open to the public.