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Rewriting the lesson plan

Children who struggle in school can benefit from learning how to express themselves.

Looking back, my academic career could kindly be described as turbulent. More accurately, it could be called a calamity, which is more or less how my parents characterized it come report-card time.

I attended parochial schools in the '50s and '60s, back when their educational philosophy was simple: our way or the highway.

I was always looking for the highway.

Today, such a kid might be considered a late bloomer - still finding his way. But the labels applied in my parents' meetings with school authorities back then were far more ominous: I was a problem child, a troublemaker, and - the term that still rings loudest in my ears - a demon.

In high school, when it was my turn to discuss college options, the guidance counselor wrote a single word on a piece of paper and slid it across the desk to me: Military.

Those who knew me then might find it ironic that I now spend my time urging school-age kids to think about their futures.

When my career as a newspaper and magazine editor came to a predictable halt about a year and a half ago, I counted myself among the lucky ones, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do: inspire kids to write.

With the high school dropout rate in the city hovering between 40 and 45 percent, and literacy rates stuck at code red, I figured a writing program for kids could only be embraced. Buoyed by my professional rebirth, I found a generous benefactor and an ambitious, enthusiastic program manager. We opened a storefront writing center for kids ages 7 to 17 in a historic and changing South Philadelphia neighborhood.

The program would be called "Mighty Writers." I liked the name because it bestowed literary empowerment on every kid who walked through the door before he or she was even asked to write a single word. (My indolent school-age self would have appreciated the sentiment.)

In short order, we had an after-school program, a roster of writing workshops, and plenty of kids wanting to participate. We also have a simple credo: There is no straighter route to success than being able to express yourself through words.

Being around kids at Mighty Writers forced me to reflect on my academic free fall all those years ago, which I had successfully avoided doing for a long time.

In the schools I attended, discipline was paramount, and creativity was an afterthought. The rules were rigid, and if you didn't comply with them, you would be ostracized, failed, sent to detention, and often smacked upside the head for good measure. I spent many sunny afternoons in detention, and almost as many weekends grounded at home.

Try as I might, I can find no easy explanation for my bumpy academic ride. My family life was stable - no personal trauma, no divorces or deaths in the family, no one walking around in an alcohol- or drug-induced stupor. I was not under any undue pressure.

I simply wasn't buying what the schools were selling, and I paid a high price because of it.

Today, I talk a lot about the positive effects writing has on kids. It comes easy to me; I'm a believer.

Writing instills discipline and allows you to organize your thoughts. The ability to write persuasively can help you get into college, land a job, or convince somebody you're right.

Writing also helps you figure out who you are. In my case, I ultimately discovered that I needed to save myself from total academic disaster. I also discovered that I could put together a reasonably decent essay in a pinch - which kept me in school and bought me the time I needed to mature.

Every once in a while at Mighty Writers, a kid will come through the door who reminds me of my younger self. He'll show up edgy and unhappy after the school day, exuding discontent with the way he was treated by a teacher or administrator.

Boy, can I relate - and I tell him so. We talk for a bit, and then he writes about what he's feeling.

There are too few resources in the city schools to provide that kind of attention. It's one-size-fits-all. Programs like Mighty Writers do what the schools can't by showing kids a different route to success.