A writing gem in North Philadelphia encourages students to be creative

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Not far from a bustling street and directly across from a heavily populated neighborhood sits a community beautifully decorated with sculptures and murals by The Village of Arts and Humanities.

Deep within their North Philadelphia community, students of the Spells Writing Lab prepare for a daily routine of writing, reading, and other engaging activities.

“I like doing my homework here,” 4th-grader Haaziq Morrow said. “I like the snacks and Frankie, my old tutor.”

Haaziq attends John F. Hartranft School in North Philadelphia. In addition to doing his homework with the help of Spells’ volunteers, Haaziq also enjoys computer time and being able to work on his own creative stories.

The mission of Spells Writing Lab is to get students excited about writing, but not by drilling them with constant worksheet exercises. Spells has a broad range of topics for their students to incorporate to keep them engaged in the art of writing.

During the summer, Spells hosts a free six-week writing camp for ages 7-14. The program runs weekdays from July 9 to Aug. 17. Students can sign up for one week at a time or for the entire six-week session. Each week focuses on a different writing theme, such as graphic novels, songwriting, spy mysteries, cookbook writing, comedy writing, adventure stories, or screenwriting

“I don’t think our kids are coming because they want to hone their writing skills. They come because it’s a fun place to be and they enjoy the topics,” said Christina Dubb, executive director of Spells Writing Lab.

“They come because they’re excited about a topic. We’re really creative because it’s not just ‘come and sit down and write.’”

Spells’ free writing workshops are usually offered on weekends and include a mix of topics "designed to attract reluctant wordsmiths." Spells Writing Lab is open for drop-in tutoring from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. During these hours, volunteer tutors are available to help students with their homework.

“They teach me a lot of stuff here,” said Dreana Williams, also a 4th-grader from Hartranft. “They help me when we have to read nonfiction.”

Spells Writing Lab was inspired by the nonprofit organization 826, which was founded by award-winning author Dave Eggers in San Francisco in 2002 and operates centers across the country.

The nonprofit offers a variety of programs that provide under-resourced students with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. After Dubb learned more about 826, she reached out to the organization to see whether there was any interest in starting a Philadelphia branch.

Dubb was given the OK, and she began development right away.

“[And then] things started moving fast for them because they were opening so many other locations,” Dubb said.

“They said that they were not accepting any new applications but that I could start my own program, and then eventually perhaps turn it into an 826.”

Dubb continued developing what would eventually become Spells Writing Labs, working and networking with other like-minded individuals who had a similar goal in following 826’s model of getting kids excited about writing.

“We were kind of a traveling writing center,” Dubb said. “We would go to libraries, community centers, and bookstores and just use their space and do workshops with kids there.”

In 2009, Dubb was able to connect with The Village of the Arts and Humanities, which was looking for a literacy component to be housed at one of their sites. Spells Writing Labs opened its doors in January 2010.

Many of Spells’ programs are free, and incorporate other artistic elements such as music, film, or the visual arts to inspire the young writers.

“We have guest speakers and filmmakers and chefs to really share experiences,” Dubb said. “And that’s something we find really fundamental to the program — that we have role models for these kids. It’s not just about sitting down and writing. They get to meet real authors, they get to meet screenwriters and ask them questions, so they can get a sense of different career options for themselves."