Ottawa Writers Festival builds a Republic of Childhood out of reading and writing

Students at Glashan are hard at work on their Republic of Childhood project.

Just after starting the Ottawa International Writers Festival 20 years ago, the organizers launched a program that brought writers into schools in the national capital region.

“It wasn’t something that I, as a student in the 1950s and ’60s, had experienced,” said Neil Wilson who founded the festival and now serves as the development director.

“We wanted to create a buzz about books and reading with teachers and school-aged children. But about two or three years ago, we realized this wasn’t enough. It was icing on the cake and not that nutritious.”

So the festival organized meetings with senior officials at the Ottawa-Carleton Board of Education and suggested something more hands on.

The idea has a name …  The Republic of Childhood and it has connected students in Grades 6-8 with writers to work intensively on writing. There is also a short festival, starting Nov. 20  featuring panel discussions and a blitz by 15 writers into schools across the community.

This first Republic started in September with the adoption of three schools and one branch of the Ottawa Public Library, Wilson said. In all more than 80 children are involved.

The schools are Glashan Public School, Fisher Park/Summit and Connaught Public School. The library is the Rosemount branch.

“We found four writers and over four weeks they have worked with a group of middle school kids on the mechanics of writing. It was really a master class for these kids.”

The writers involved are speculative fiction author Charles de Lint; Hugo award winning writer Amal El-Mohtar; the respected author for children and adults Alan Cumyn and Ottawa’s English language poet laureate Jamaal Jackson Rogers.

Wilson says it was de Lint who pushed for something more than a meet a greet. He didn’t want to end up just teaching the basics. He wanted to work with students who already had a demonstrated desire to write. And that’s what they all got, Wilson added.

The result of their hard work will be collected and turned into chatbooks, he said.

The other more public phase of the Republic of Childhood begins on Nov. 20, Universal Children’s Day as declared by the United Nations. It is also the anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

There will be two sessions each day, an early one that will feature the writings of students from each school and a later panel discussion on issues facing young people with experts in the field.

Along with the local authors, also included in the lineup are:

Joel Bakan, who is the author of the book Corporation which has been published in more than 20 languages, and has been made into a documentary.

Jo Becker, who works with Human Rights Watch, has a book, Campaigning for Children that focuses on contemporary children’s rights.

Mary Branley is writer and poet from North Sligo, Ireland. 

Jael Richardson, a writer based in Toronto and the artistic director for the Festival of Literary Diversity.

Cherie Dimaline is a Métis author and editor. Her most recent book is The Marrow Thieves.

S.K. Ali is a teacher based in Toronto who writes about Muslim culture and life. 

JonArno Lawson, who is a winner of a Governor General’s award for the book Sidewalk Flowers. 

And on Nov. 30, former governor general David Johnston and Tom Jenkins of OpenText, a major information management company, will meet with 700 young people at Fisher Park/Summit to talk about innovation.

Wilson says the festival hopes the Republic will become an annual event and will grow to involve more schools and students.

“I’ve sat through all the session,” he says, “and I love to watch writers interact with students. When the lights go on, it’s incredible how curious, adventurous and fearless kids are.”

Wilson says that the challenge facing the writers festival and the school system is keeping  creativity and imagination going so that students can benefit through university and into the working world.

“There are a lot of challenges in the school system. What do we teach? How do we teach? How do they innovate?

“Writers of the calibre we are using for this first Republic are so gifted. Having them come in to work with the kids and the teacher, It’s something we can offer to foster and encourage these young writers.

“And when these kids know that every Monday they will be working on something real they listen up.”

An important part of all of the planning that has gone into the Republic of Childhood is an effort to reflect the diversity that exists in the classrooms of these schools.

“The Festival brings in lot of diverse voices. We work hard on that.”

Wilson believes that it is important for the students to see a role model who resembles them.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.