Local Educators Launch New Writing Program for High Schoolers

July 13, 2022

By Tara Thomas 


The Dickens Project has a long history of engaging with high school educators and students, from hosting thirteen National Endowment of the Humanities seminars and other Dickens Universe adjacent programming to partnering with the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative. This year, we launched a new high school program, The Dickens Day of Writing, to engage high school students and teachers from our own community here on the Central Coast and in the Bay Area.

The Dickens Day of Writing is a writing retreat for high school seniors hosted by the Dickens Project. Thirty-two high school seniors from Pacific Collegiate, most from Dr. Nirshan Perera’s classes, spent the day at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History engaging with educators and writing mentors in between writing, tutoring, and revision sessions. Their task was to write and revise an essay about Charles Dickens’s “Night Walks” that would later be published and entered into a scholarship contest. The contest winners received scholarships to attend the Dickens Universe, including 5 UC credits for participating in UCSC Summer Session coursework. The three winners were Natasha Mauerman, Joya Strubing, and Amir Gonzalez Camacho, from Dr. Nirshan Perera’s Pacific Collegiate class.

Dr. Perera’s involvement with the Dickens Project goes back to 2004 when he attended his first Dickens Universe (Tale of Two Cities) the summer before starting his Ph.D. in Literature, where he completed a dissertation on Dickens and Darwin under the mentorship of John Jordan. Since completing his Ph.D. in 2012, Dr. Perera has taught at Pacific Collegiate and UC Santa Cruz. As an English teacher at Pacific Collegiate, he teaches Dickens annually, “usually Great Expectations” and sometimes “David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol.” When asked how his students engage with Dickens, Dr. Perera enthusiastically responded:

I find that my students can get really into Dickens--his world-building, his comedy, his dialect and language, all make his texts really appealing and interesting. His central ideas--his social critique and focus on issues of injustice--are also tremendously relevant and speak into conversations we have about our present context. The connections we forged between poverty in Victorian England and poverty in Santa Cruz at the Day of Writing is a wonderful example of this!

The thirty-two Pacific Collegiate high schoolers Dr. Perera brought to the Day of Writing lit up when they talked about Dickens’ “Night Walks,” the semi-autobiographical essay recounting the poverty and squalor Dickens observed during his nocturnal ramblings through London. Before their field trip to the Day of Writing, Dr. Perera taught “Night Walks” in class. “We read it aloud, taking turns,” Perera said, explaining the “importance of reading Dickens aloud, if you can!” 

The students also completed a photojournalism project, developed from the Dickens Project “Dickens Day of Writing” Lesson Plan for teachers, as a part of their “Night Walks” unit. 

The Dickens Day of Writing was designed by high school and college educators. The program development began as a series of conversations between Dr. Perera, Julie Minnis (former Dickens Project board member and veteran Santa Cruz High School educator and curriculum planner), and our team of Dickens Project directors and assistants. Minnis’s expertise as a founding organizer of the Steinbeck Center’s Day of Writing assisted in providing the framework for the program, and Dr. Perera became the lead pilot teacher. A team of UCSC and Dickens Project educators and leaders designed the curriculum and special edition of “Night Walks.” The team included, in addition to Perera and Minnis, John Jordan, Renee Fox, Courtney Mahaney, Sienna Ballou, Tara Thomas, and Brenda Sanfilippo.

Dr. Sanfilippo is a long-time Dickens Project collaborator who first attended the Dickens Universe as a graduate student in 2009 and has since returned as a faculty member. When asked how she got involved with the Day of Writing, Sanfilippo told me that she had recently read “Night Walks” herself and saw its potential as a text connecting “Dickens’ time and our own”:

As a teacher, I want students to find meaningful connections between our materials and their experiences. In addition, I teach primarily for the Writing Program at UCSC and am always looking for ways to connect with the larger community. I was particularly excited because the Day of Writing brought college faculty and students, high school students, and community members together. This is the kind of community engagement that really excites me--when people bring all their backgrounds and experiences to bear and we can have really rich and unexpected discussions. I actually had a terrible experience reading Dickens in high school. I couldn't see how Great Expectations related to my life until I was much older (and attended the Universe!). Now, I want people to feel like Dickens is for everyone.

Working closely with Dickens Project Co-Director Renee Fox and Assistant Director Courtney Mahaney, Dr. Sanfilippo helped design equitable and inclusive grading rubrics and led the mentorship program at the Dickens Day of Writing. Her pedagogy is “built on accessibility and equity,” and she “spent a lot of time thinking about how we can make sure the workshops were accessible to both the students and the mentors. I tried to use empathy a lot, imagining how this experience might feel for students as well as mentors with diverse backgrounds.” Dr. Sanfilippo worked with a broad range of mentors—retired and new teachers, Dickens enthusiasts, graduate, and undergraduate students, and community members all participated as mentors.

 The mentorship aspect of the Dickens Day of Writing was an important aspect of the program and also one of the most challenging to design because of students’ apprehensions about writing and receiving feedback. Dr. Sanfilippo explained, “Learning how to create a brave environment and how to give and receive feedback in a supportive way felt really important to me. Students who are receptive to feedback and willing to ask questions tend to improve as writers, so I wanted the experience to feel positive. I also wanted the mentors to have a chance to learn about the writing process and enjoy their opportunity to talk about the work.” The result was a positive experience for all involved.

“The Dickens Day of Writing was a highlight of our year!” Dr. Perera stated, “My students came away with such excitement and confidence--it was a delight to see them so passionately engaged and interested in the material and the activities. Many of them told me how much they enjoyed and appreciated being taken seriously as writers and thinkers. Since we have been studying a lot of timed writing this year within our AP curriculum, the writing prompts felt familiar and I know they really liked the range of writing options. Many of them wrote on the personal writing topics--this connection developing between Dickens's text and their own lives was wonderful to see in the published essays. They also really benefited from working directly with a personal writing mentor at the Day of Writing--this was a wonderful aspect of the program: Individual writing mentorship!” Next year, in addition to welcoming Pacific Collegiate back to the Dickens Day of Writing, we will open the program up to all high schools on the Central Coast and in the Bay Area. To get involved, contact dpj@ucsc.edu and check out our website.

Thank you to all who made the Dickens Day of Writing special, including our wonderful mentors: Jillian Allen, Spencer Armada, Jack Barfield, Bruke Berhanu, Sarah Cunniff, Alexis Eproson, Rafael Franco-Flores, Mark Gordon, Kendall Grady, Jade Hickey, September Johnson-Goldberg, John Jordan, Julie Minnis, Janet Oelklaus, Catherine Pell, Nirshan Perera, Hayley Perez, Anneka Reiter, Tara Thomas, Samantha Trejo, and Adrian Van Herwynen.