Austin writing camps keep kids’ creativity thriving in the summer and all year long

Austin Bat Cave student group.jpg


Because of Jenna and other volunteers from Austin Bat Cave, my words finally feel important. Through her tending and caring, my writing blossomed into something I could never have imagined. Now that I’m in college I feel especially thankful for my Austin Bat Cave experience, which taught me skills that translated into my academic writing and make even my informative papers more engaging. The most important thing is for kids to write and express themselves. The best stories are those that make us laugh and cry, and the most memorable are the original ideas which make us stop and think, or help us see the world in a new way, and therefore both types of writing are essential. Austin Bat Cave understands that.

—Xochi, an Austin Bat Cave alum, and the first in her family to attend college


One of the things writers do, especially when they don’t want to start a new project, is read books and listen to podcasts and lectures about writing. I do it all the time. One of the notions I come across most often in discussions of the craft is, “I really don’t know what I think until I start writing,” or “The process of writing itself shapes my arguments, my characters, my plot.” Even writers who create detailed outlines before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard usually admit that the story they finish is very different from the one they started. When I decided to write a blog post about creative writing workshops and camps for kids in Austin, I learned this lesson again.

Ali Haider, program director at Austin Bat Cave (ABC), told me that when kids in their writing workshops learn to analyze how stories and poems are put together, they take that understanding on to everything else they study in school or read and see out in the world. If a student can learn to analyze and then write her own science fiction story, she can also learn to dissect an argument in a history book and write an essay about it—or critique a politician’s speech.

In the experiences offered by Austin Bat Cave and the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation’s Badgerdog program, writing coaches demystify paragraphs and sentences, and students learn how stories are built from scratch. Ali’s approach at ABC reminds me of a tinkering workshop where budding engineers might learn to take apart and put together a toaster or a computer motherboard, gaining an understanding of how things work and the power to create their own entirely new inventions in the process.

World Gone Gray
     by Kurion Terrance, an Austin Bat Cave 7th grader
When the ice starts to shiver,
When the fire starts to fade,
When all the water’s in the river,
When you finally get paid.
The world gets cold and gray,
The sea no longer beautiful,
The night is in the day,
Beauty no more, the Earth is dull.
The world is cold or heartless,
It feels like hope is lost,
The smart one from the smartest,
Can’t even help our cause.
The underdog can’t save us all,
’Cause no one seems to care,
The pretty birds no longer call,
This world I cannot bear.

At Austin Bat Cave, about 1,700 students a year get creative in writing classes at participating schools, weekend workshops, and summer camps. Groups are kept small so that the one-on-one mentoring ABC values so highly can happen. “All writers need a good guide and mentor. So ABC builds workshops around one-on-one coaching and feedback,” says Ali.

“We’re lucky that Austin is the perfect place for an organization like ours,” Ali explains. “We have about 50 volunteer mentors each spring and fall, and about 40 more during the summer. They’re really teaching artists—people who write for a living themselves or have a lot of experience in creative writing or journalism and want to give back. They have a passion for storytelling, and it’s hard for kids not to get excited when their mentors are excited.”

At Badgerdog, manager Cecily Sailer finds a similarly talented group of writers fueling her camps and workshops. “Austin is home to a robust writing community,” she says. “Many of the teaching artists in our program are graduate students in the UT Michener Center or New Writers Program or Texas State Creative Writing Program.” Badgerdog’s summer camps and workshops are held in libraries, schools, and community centers all over the city.

Ali works with volunteers to prepare a curriculum that’s fresh each semester and interdisciplinary, brainstorming projects that encourage kids to make paintings, podcasts, or compile zines to showcase their stories. “We want to have projects each student can walk away with, and we want to reach different kinds of learners, so variety is important. Plus each school and each group of students is unique, so flexibility is key.”

Are there any constants in all the variety? “The one-on-one time is something we give all students because we know it’s important and something most teachers don’t have time enough to do. Feedback is important for the growth of a writer. The other constant is that we make sure each student has a notebook to keep—and we provide them if the school can’t afford them.”

Breath Notes
    by Emma Baumgardner, a Badgerdog middle schooler
I shape my way with movement
emerging in my throat
and slowly thread the needle
of song.
Bursting to breathe
open my lungs
sound takes moments. Standing
I move to the will of the way
my tongue clicks.
Lips hum,
body sways,
head resonates, bubbling.
And voices cling together,
linking arms,
thumbs pressed against index fingers.
Melody paints piano keys,
never grounded.
Lights pinch our eyes
Laced with sweat,
we burn
with the moment
of performing.
Teeth engulfing our sorrows
like we have wings.
Fourteen of us
living on the stage.
With our passion for music
curling around our chins
and stretching to our ears,
we smile.
We’re not going to be finished
as long as we carry
the note.

In Badgerdog’s many summer writing camps, each classroom has no more than 15 campers. A typical day might start with a free-writing exercise with sharing time afterward. Kids have structured lessons related to some aspect of fiction or poetry, followed by some time to stretch and relax and have a snack. Reading together and playing language games usually rounds out the day.

Even if campers start out as reluctant writers, Cecily says the welcoming, fun, and supportive environment inspires them. “The lessons are less about ‘You will like poetry!’ and more about asking what patterns they notice or why they think the writer decided to repeat herself. We approach learning more as an investigation, an inquiry, rather than a top-down hand-off of knowledge.”

Badgerdog’s philosophy is to offer kids options, not rules. “We show them how writers break rules effectively, and encourage them to take risks. We celebrate weirdness and new ideas, and take the pressure off the writing process,” she explains. “This go-for-it approach helps reluctant writers discover they have talent and interesting ideas and builds their confidence.”

Cecily also explains why Badgerdog emphasizes reading aloud as a way of sharing what the students have created. “Writing becomes immediately more meaningful when it’s read and enjoyed by someone else. It becomes even more real, it lives outside the page it’s written on and inside the imagination of another human being. Reading your own work aloud helps you hear yourself. It’s validating. You take ownership of something you created and then people tell you what it meant to them. It’s about connection and increasing the power of your work. What if Steve Jobs designed the iPhone and then put the plans in a box at the bottom of his closet? What if Prince played all of his songs alone his bedroom?”

I asked both Cecily and Ali if they have any writing tips for parents or kids who aren’t able to attend a camp. Cecily said, “Do anything that interests you enough to keep you writing, whether it’s journaling, writing down all the stuff your brother says, creating an imaginary place where you’re the boss of everything. Like any other skill, practice counts. Playing what if can be another helpful approach. Write for awhile about some absurd scenario. What if toasters spit out pizzas? What if traffic lights started flashing purple? What if your dog was actually helpful? Trying to imagine something unreal forces you to think of details, which is what makes writing powerful for the reader.”

Ali believes in always starting slow. It’s daunting for anyone to sit down in front of a blank page and try to conjure a story, so ABC mentors begin by building relationships and doing world-building and character-building exercises. Parents and their kids can do that too. “We do a lot of work with the building blocks of writing, and that’s more fun than just drafting a story from scratch. At one school students start by making maps and globes about the  worlds they will write about, and the next step is thinking about their characters and all their quirks.”

If you’re ready to stop reading about writing and sign up to WRITE, check out the programs, and consider donating to help them keep thriving.

Shelley Sperry