Rowana Miller and Cosmic Writers want to make writing education equitable

In the spring of 2020, Rowana Miller, wanted to do something for school-age kids who were looking at a summer with no camps, no enrichment programs, and limited time with friends. She also wondered if she could support college students whose summer jobs and internships no longer seemed viable. Enter Word Camp, an online creative writing program that Miller, now a senior in the School of Arts & Sciences, designed. “At first the primary goal wasn’t writing education,” Miller explains. “It was more geared toward fun and engagement during a difficult summer.”

Young child writing in a notebook at a table with a laptop.

Miller submitted her idea for Word Camp to the Kelly Writers House and was awarded the Kerry Sherin Wright Prize, which funds student-developed programs. Key to her idea was the fact that Word Camp, staffed by Penn students, would be virtual from the start, rather than try to adapt an in-person program, and available to kids regardless of their location.

It was Kelly Writers House brought Miller to Penn, after a creative writing teacher in high school mentioned it in class. After school that day, Miller went home, looked up the Writers House, and emailed Jamie-Lee Josselyn, associate director for recruitment, for more information. She was hooked.

For Miller, figuring out what she cares about most has meant trying new things and seeing where they lead. When she arrived at Penn, she realized that she could hone her writing skills in majors other than English.

Miller’s combined interests created the perfect recipe to start Word Camp and help it evolve into something more. Along with a team of passionate fellow students, Miller is moving beyond summer camps with a nonprofit called Cosmic Writers, which provides virtual and in-person writing workshops for young writers, in addition to expanding camp offerings. Cosmic Writers picks up what Word Camp Started, and runs with it.

“It’s really important to me that the workshops operate using pedagogy that is equitable, and that does not center the upper middle-class experience, because a lot of the time learning norms are centered around the norms of upper middle-class white children,” Miller explains. “So, I work with instructors to make sure they are using more flexible pedagogy and to adapt the structure of the camp to lean into the equity mission.”

Being virtual, and thus accessible to children from across the country, is a big part of equity. But Miller points out that access is not the only issue.

She says, “Writing itself is a tool for communication that is so essential to socioeconomic mobility. And I think that a flaw with how a lot of writing is taught is that it tends to be presented as a chore. Being able to teach writing in this extracurricular context gave the camp the freedom to really make it fun. And kids who are excited about writing are going to write more and kids who write more are going to be better communicators and have higher levels of literacy.”

Cosmic Writers is off to a strong start. After officially launching in late January, the organization is planning three in-person after-school workshops for the spring—two with the Kirkbride School, and one with the Walnut West Library—and a full season of Word Camp this summer.

Read more at OMNIA.