The 2024 Dickens Day of Writing Continues to Inspire Young Writers

March 28, 2024

By Beth Penney, Friends of the Dickens Project Board Member 

Students with English teacher Clayton Caroon. Photography by Doriana Hammond of West Cliff Creative. Click here to access a photo galley from the event.

The third annual Dickens Day of Writing, sponsored in part by the Dickens Project, took place at the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz on February 7, attended by high school juniors and seniors from three Santa Cruz County high schools. The Day of Writing event was also held in San Mateo, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Dunwoody, GA. Students were provided with a Dickens essay to read and then tasked with writing an analytical essay about the work. They were then assisted by faculty and local volunteer mentors and given suggestions about revising their work.

The purposes of the Dickens Day of Writing are myriad. Students were offered cash prizes and the possibility of a full scholarship to this year’s Dickens Universe; instructors also received honoraria and discounted registration. Student work is published in an anthology after the event. But the real focus is to introduce high school students to college-level critical thinking and writing, and, of course, to Victorian literature and Dickens. And, according to the event’s website, Dickens’s “Night Walks” essay, which was selected as the reading, “examines the endemic of homelessness in Victorian England, to cultivate greater awareness about social justice issues like homelessness and housing instability.”

Local teacher Nirshan Perera says the event “helps students grow in their confidence as writers and thinkers through an all-day writing workshop centered around the work of Charles Dickens.” A faculty member at Santa Cruz’s Pacific Collegiate School and a lecturer in UCSC’s Oakes College Writing Program, Perera, also a long-time Universe attendee and member of the Friends of the Dickens Project Board, helped to organize the first Dickens Day of Writing and participated in the first event in 2022 with a large group of his high school seniors.

Perera says he never has trouble getting his students to participate in writing about Victorian literature. “Once they see the anthologies and hear about the experience from others, my students are really interested. It is, for many of them, a highlight of their year: I've heard this from many kids. I think the agency it instills in them is huge--the writing that comes out of the event is wonderful.” The aftermath is positive, also; Perera says his students “gain a new sense of confidence in themselves as writers. Their writing is taken seriously and celebrated in the event—the relationship with the mentors at the conference is wonderful.”

Clayton Caroon of Aptos High School also participated with his students. He called the Day of Writing a “valuable and educationally enriching experience for students.” He also commented on the advantages of the multiple schools involved in the project. “It was exciting to see students from across Santa Cruz County coming together to collaborate with each other and writing mentors,” he said. “The program offers a supportive and innovative writing environment for students to explore and develop greater understanding of their own ideas and the works of Charles Dickens. It was exciting to see students learning, growing, and writing together, and the dynamic synergy between students, mentors, and program staff was amazing.” Caroon plans to continue to participate in the future, saying, “I'm excitedly looking forward to bringing students to future Dickens Day of Writing events

One of the mentors for the Dickens Day of Writing, Mark Gordon, a retired librarian from the New York City Public Schools now living in Santa Cruz, is also a longtime Dickens Universe participant and member of the Friends Board. Gordon, who has participated as a mentor from the start, says it is “surely a highlight experience for me. There is such warmth and excitement in the space. My students, both from a school that had not participated before, were smart and deeply thoughtful. They admitted that they had no idea what would happen, and assumed it would be just ‘academic stuff.’”

Which, of course, it was, but it was presented in a way that didn’t feel much like the usual classroom writing lesson. Gordon says students in Santa Cruz “found the experience exciting and self-revealing. I am moved by how they responded to the idea of houselessness, feeling it is both a deeply moral issue and one that they can relate to personally.” He also commented on the mentoring itself, saying, “They were surprised that I did not correct their drafts, but instead engaged them in questions about how the text connected to their deeply personal feelings, and how they could link those feelings back to the text in their essays. I can't wait to read what they finally submitted when the book of student essays is published.”  

Gordon welcomed the inclusion of the schools outside California, saying, “It was also absolutely lovely to see and greet the students at the schools in Atlanta and Cleveland via Zoom who were participating in their own DDOW. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see DDOW spread throughout the land!”

Perera also commented on the expansion of the program to high schools in other areas of the country. “I think it is wonderful that we are growing the DDOW across the country,” he said. “It would be amazing to see it continue to spread beyond Santa Cruz, adding host cities and perhaps growing internationally.” Such growth might also draw more high school teachers to Santa Cruz for the annual summer conference. “I would love to connect with more high school teachers at the annual Universe,” he said.

For more information on the Dickens Day of Writing, go to