by NATHANIEL NELSON
Last week, through the morning and afternoon of Wednesday and Thursday, the Winona State University (WSU) campus was flooded with wide-eyed, notebook-clad students running from classroom to classroom, taking in writing courses and book seminars. However, these weren’t college students, but instead, prospective young writers from across Southeast Minnesota.
WSU hosted the 26th annual Young Writers’ Conference last week, inviting hundreds of students from dozens of school districts to attend and work with established authors, writers, songwriters, illustrators, and more to learn about and develop their love of writing.
“The goal is very much arts-based,” said Joan Sax-Bendix, associate professor of early childhood and elementary education at Winona State University. “It’s really to get the gift of writing to area children and students.”
More than 350 third- through fifth-grade students attended the conference on Wednesday from 17 districts and, on Thursday, 255 middle schoolers walked the hallways of Minne Hall going from class to class and learning about the many ways one can use writing in their lives.
This year, 14 different authors came to the university to teach three separate sessions throughout the day. Sax-Bendix, who has been a part of the conference since it was taken over by the WSU College of Education five years ago, explained that each year, between 14 and 20 different authors from the Midwest make their way to Winona to teach.
“We bring them in from around the Minnesota-Wisconsin area, and many of them have been here the entire time. We try to bring in a mixture of different kinds of writers and genres, including poetry, theater, children’s books, and songwriting,” Sax-Bendix said.
Henry and Robert Cushman, both seventh graders from Wabasha-Kellogg Public Schools, sat near the back of the classroom in Amanda Grace’s songwriting course on Thursday afternoon, where Grace worked with a group of more than 20 bright-eyed middle-school students hoping to write their first song.
This was neither Henry nor Robert’s first time at the conference, having come as elementary students several years before.
“I came here a few years ago and I really liked it; I thought it was fun,” Henry said.
Throughout the class, the students blurted out possible lyrics left and right, slowly building from their opening line, as Grace helped compose a tune to go along with them.
For Henry, the songwriting course was his favorite of the day. He had also participated in a poetry course and a class on storytelling, but the songwriting class was where students really came out of their shell.
“Students are really quiet most of the time, and we had a lot of fun in that class and it was the one where we spoke the most,” he said.
Robert also enjoyed the songwriting class, but his favorite of the day was storytelling. “I’ve just always liked storytelling in general,” he said.
“Writing is one of the areas of the curriculum that has been given less and less time in the classroom over the last few years, and this is a way to celebrate that for students who have that gift and love to write,” Sax-Bendix said. “The biggest thing is we want the students to not only be entertained, but also entertain through their own voice in the writing.”
Shelly Coulter, a children’s book author from Kansas City, Kan., taught storytelling classes throughout the two-day event. Coulter is best known for a series of books about her nine-year-old daughter Niyla, the first of which, “Niyla and the Butterfly,” was published in 2017. She explained that she started by sitting down and writing tales about her daughter, but she had no expectations of becoming a published author.
“I didn’t even know they were books, I just thought they were stories,” Coulter explained.
Since publishing her first book, Coulter has spoken at a number of schools, but this year was her first at the Young Writers’ Conference. Her storytelling course was focused on teaching students how to tell their own tales, both through writing and by voice, and how to use their individual style and tone to “reel audiences in.”
“You have to understand what you’re doing and the foundations of what you’re speaking about to inspire others and empower others,” she said.
On both days, students took strongly to the course, weaving yarn after yarn and recounting their stories to the class. The storytelling course, and the conference as a whole, helps students understand the art of writing and what it means to be an author and, for some, sets them on a career path in a way normal education just can’t, Coulter explained.
“For a lot of them, what they got was a confirmation and an affirmation on what it meant to embark on this journey,” Coulter said. “They wanted to tell these stories, and this gave them a chance to tell them in front of people they knew nothing about. They had no fear.”