Dickens Day of Writing

April 20, 2023

A student from Santa Cruz annotates their copy of Night Walks

Wandering London Streets from the Classroom

In its second year, the Dickens Day of Writing is a writing competition and retreat that serves as an opportunity for high school students to win scholarships and cash prizes by practicing college-level literary analysis.

This February, on Dickens's birthday, high school students gathered round in classrooms across the nation: from Santa Cruz and Palo Alto, California to Atlanta, Georgia to Cleveland, Ohio. These young minds spent a day reading "Night Walks", an essay by Charles Dickens about an attempt to cure insomnia by taking a stroll through Victorian London in the wee hours. Post-reading, students were put under a time crunch to create a critical or personal essay on the piece, exploring some connections between literature, society, and themselves. During this time students were able to revise these essays under the guidance of school faculty and volunteer mentors.

Read below for reflections from each location on this retreat by the teachers who helped this special day come to life.

Atlanta - Clark Cloyd

Photo by Clark Cloyd

The Dickens Day of Writing arrived at The Paideia School this year thanks to a generous invitation from John Jordan. 

Twenty-seven students, representing all four grades in the high school, participated in this first foray in the event. Some of the students had spent four weeks in a Short Term class studying "Hard Times" before reading and discussing “Night Walks”; others had an opportunity only to examine the essay.  All, however, gathered in the high school library on February 7 to put pen to paper and record their responses to Dickens’ imaginative and provocative account of encountering the unfamiliar in his nocturnal peregrinations. Writing under the confines of restricted time was itself a rather unfamiliar exercise, challenging in the best way, as students had to marshal their thoughts, both analytical and imaginative, with rigorous efficiency. Critical commentary from faculty guided formal revisions of the drafts. The variety of responses made for lively reading but made judging difficult. Ultimately, a sophomore and two seniors (two analytical and one personal approaches) prevailed as the top three essays.

The trial run offered plenty of encouragement to expand the Day of Writing next winter.  We look forward to engaging more students and faculty – and more enthusiasm for Dickens! – for the 212th anniversary of Dickens’ birth in 2024.

Cleveland - Christian Lehmann 

Our experience in Cleveland was slightly different from the other groups since I had to organize it around a class I’m teaching on A Tale of Two Cities. For logistical reasons, I could not do a whole day, so instead we broke it up over the course of a few smaller meetings. First, we got together to listen to an audio-recording of “Night Walks.” I showed the students how to use the footnotes, the map, and the introduction to help their understanding of the essay. On our third meeting, they were given the prompts to the essays and planned it out and wrote for an entire 50 minutes. And on our fourth meeting, they worked on revising the essays. I then met with each of the seven participants and they had the chance to do a further revision after our discussion. 

Photo by Christian Lehmann

The final titles for the essays were as follows:

  • “The Demystification of Houselessness”
  • “The Difference”
  • “The Journey of the Tired Douchebag”
  • “Houseless and Alone”: Analysis of the Narrator of Charles Dickens’ Night Walks
  • “Unnamed PoV”
  • “Insight from Midnight”
  • “The Mysterious Wanderer: Who is the Narrator in Night Walks? 

We were all very excited afterward to receive the generous swag bag and notebook. Students proudly carry their bags in the halls and around town! Our event, although not matching the format, was successful, and I look forward to implementing it in the full one-day format next year!

Santa Cruz - Nirshan Perera

About thirty 11th and 12th-graders from Pacific Collegiate School and Khan Lab School participated in this year's Dickens Day of Writing at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, CA. My seniors at PCS were also a part of the inaugural Day of Writing in 2022 and, like last year, they all spoke about the event afterwards as a highlight of their year! For us, the Dickens Day of Writing has provided a space to showcase and celebrate their growth as writers and thinkers. My students love the way the event centers them as thinkers and gives them a structure and space to be taken seriously as writers. Though we engage in a lot of writing and critical reading tasks during the year at school, the space that the Dickens Project organizes, the structure of the event, and the relationship they have with their assigned mentor, means so much to them.

Photo by Doriana Hammond

I am always proud of my students but it's a pleasure to see them in their element, making powerful connections between Victorian London and Santa Cruz, CA, through the programming. I am really looking forward to reading the writing produced by the event! We were delighted this year to also be a part of the expansion of the event to other sites! Connecting with the groups in Cleveland and Atlanta was magical--I hope we can continue to build on this as the Dickens Day of Writing is an amazing event.


 A big thank you to Bard Early College, Khan Lab School, Pacific Collegiate School, and The Paideia School for supporting the Dickens Day of Writing!