Arianne True was 15 years old when she wrote “Poem for The Name on a Tombstone,” the first piece she would perform at a poetry slam, as part of Seattle nonprofit community writing center Hugo House’s Scribes summer creative writing camp for fifth through 12th graders.

Thirteen years later, she’s teaching at the same camp, and sees her work from that age, with its particular teenage earnestness, as an asset to help her students.

“I was like, oh yeah, this is the kind of poetic stuff they’re working through,” True said of rereading her own work. “Or, this is what’s really pressing for them to write about. I remember so many of the lessons that I really loved and that changed something for me.”

Arianne True (Courtesy of Hugo House)
Arianne True (Courtesy of Hugo House)

She wants to have that same impact on her students, but has to do so through a computer screen now that the camp moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic. Classes are now being offered via Zoom video conferences and Google Classroom and teachers are trying to figure out how to build a special experience for their students from far away. The classes, which focus on a variety of forms including poetry, prose, screenwriting and more, are offered from July to August and last from one to two weeks.

Poet True is teaching two classes at the camp, a one-week session for grades 9-12 in collaboration with the Northwest African American Museum that starts July 13, and a one-week general creative writing class for middle schoolers with teacher and writer JP Kemmick that starts Aug. 10.

For the former, True and her co-teacher, poet Naa Akua, are currently set to video call students from the museum and use the collections to engage students writing poetry and prose and reflecting on the Black experience in the Pacific Northwest.

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Young-adult novelist and Scribes teacher Karen Finneyfrock said that although the particular magic of a summer camp is not possible this year, teachers are doing what they can with strategies such as frequent breakout rooms for small group collaborations and time for students to get away from their computer screen.

“It’s a different experience, but in a way, I think we’re going to learn a lot from this,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what the benefits are going to be yet, but I feel hopeful that there will be some.”

When True attended, and as is common practice for Scribes camps, frequent field trips took students to local museums and landmarks. Now, field trips involve attendees taking their peers on “field trips” of their own home and immediate surroundings, featuring the occasional appearance of a household pet.

Poet and Scribes teacher Sierra Nelson said that despite the challenge, the camp is now all the more important to give students both the opportunity to meet new people and a creative outlet.

“It’s been a very intense time of isolation and also wanting to connect, to be able to give voice or to be heard,” she said. “I think Scribes can offer that.”

One benefit to the online transition is increased accessibility for students. This year, the camp is operating on a pay-what-you-can scale to alleviate the financial burden tuition could impose during an uncertain time. Full scholarships for classes are also available by application.

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The digital venue also means it’s opened up to those outside of the Seattle area — Samar Abulhassan, who is teaching three classes during the camp, said her class includes students from Oregon and the East Coast.

Abulhassan said she’s trying to digitally create a welcoming writing community encouraging open creation instead of critique.

“We’re not looking for a finished product,” she said. “We’re really looking to showcase what the writing process feels like and looks like in actual time. We try to encourage stumbling and meandering and wandering.”

True said this exploration of the writing process is central to her teaching, and tries to replace the idea that the writing process has to be a tortured struggle with an open, supportive environment instead. It’s a shift that’s even made her look at her earlier work a little more lovingly, and she looks to continue that mission this year in her classes.

“I want them to understand that whatever they have to do to take care of themselves is great,” she said. “Getting their needs met is my No. 1 priority as their teacher, and helping them learn that they deserve to have their needs met.”