Monday, January 25, 2010

Fairfax High School - Teachers' Feedback

Hi Adam,

Just so you know, Enrique (resident Zombie screenwriter) has seemed to really "wake up" a bit after the workshop. The other day, he was actually participating too much in class discussion! Since I primarily work with the kids with learning disabilities, I just wanted to share again how absolutely impressed I was that two of my students with learning disabilities (Enrique and Michael) both had their screenplays picked and read by the professional actors. Working with the population I do, it is sometimes hard for my students to have academic (especially writing) success because these students usually have really struggled for years with reading and writing.

Jamie and I are encouraging many of the kids to apply for the scholarship (we're even offering extra credit). She will be in touch with you regarding the scholarships.

Thank you again. I think you are doing an wonderful thing with the workshop.



Hi Adam,

Thanks for the additional scholarship information. Quite a few students are getting their transcripts so they can complete the application. I will deliver them in one bunch one afternoon next week. I will also bring some reflections each class wrote about the workshop.

This was a terrific experience for our students. The success that Enrique had, in particular, is lifting his sights and hopes for school.

Thank you very, very much,


Jamie O'Halloran Whitmarsh
English Department Co-Chair
Fairfax High School

Friday, April 24, 2009

Letter from Crenshaw

April 24, 2009

To: Writers Guild Foundation
Adam Huss
Fred Rappaport
John Warren
Kendell Shaffer
Kirby Timmons
7000 W 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Visiting Artists,

This letter serves as expression of sincere gratitude for your contributions to the students of Crenshaw High School. The Writers Guild Foundation High School Workshop was a huge success because of your efforts. As professional writers, you exposed students not only to the craft of writing but also to your profession. Collaborative projects such as this broaden the academic scope of educators’ work and deepen student learning.

Students of urban schools have unique stories, and this program extended them the opportunity to validate their experiences. Additionally, through the process of expressing their stories, students exit the workshop with a fuller acceptance of their journeys. Final products yielded scripts ranging from the gritty reality of abandonment to the creative fantasy of a talking guitar spreading havoc in the life of a teenager. These biographical narratives and extraordinary tales are not only entertaining, but they offer themes from which the authors and their audiences will gain a more mature consciousness.

The culminating event brought these students and their scripts together with professional actors, where their dialogue came to life; it was rewarding for the students, writers, and teachers. All involved appreciate your efforts in coordinating the event. Know that the students are directing their scripts for production in order to share with other students and staff on campus. Additionally, these scripts offer the first contribution to a library of student writings for use in future drama classes.

Thank you again for your dedication and enthusiasm in your work with Crenshaw students. The Crenshaw community remains hopeful that the Writers Guild Foundation will extend similar opportunities in the future.


Greg Calvert, Drama Teacher

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Derick McConico, Crenshaw High School Student

April 2009, to instructor Fred Rappaport:

Hi Fred, this is Derick McConico and I was involved in one of your WGF workshops about 2-3weeks ago. I must say that I had a lot of fun working with you and others from the program. It helped me tell a story that some people might not relate to unless they can go through it. I learned to write a screenplay and format it in a way that didn’t make me mad and want to give up. I think this program has a positive effect on kids that want to be someone and not follow the negative stuff around them.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Venice High School, January 2009

This is the feedback we received from a recent workshop with Greta Enszer's 9th grade English class at Venice High School.

"Many organizations tout working in public schools in the inner city--but WGF not only commits to a thorough writing process with its participants, but extends the relationship after the program has finished to foster young writers. Kendell's generosity of spirit brought out hidden potential in my students, surprising themselves as they discovered joy in screenwriting. --Greta Enszer, Teacher

"Well, the writing workshop was pretty fun after all. The actors made it pretty amazing--who knew it could be so funny. That day was probably the best day of last semester." --Lizz Romo, Student

"It was an enjoyable experience and also great to see one's creation come to life." --Ivan Hernandez, Student

"The workshop was incredibly enlightening. They taught me a lot about constructing movies and it was very inspiring. The workshop teachers are very involved and are very helpful. It was a great experience." --Nathan Lhar, Student

"The screenwriters workshop opened new doors in my mind and let me express myself." --Sergio Martinez, Student

"The screenplay workshop was a passage into reality and self-discovery." --Holly Minnoy, Student

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The reviews are in!

Our latest high school screenwriting workshop was a success, with numerous scripts being "produced" in class by live actors. So what did our budding writers think?

"I learned a lot and I actually like scriptwriting more than story telling. Now I know the basic structure of films and how stories are put together".

"Giving students more time would actually improve the writing process of the workshop".

"The jokes were extremely funny and that's what I enjoyed most".

"It really benefited me because if I ever want to consider writing screenplays as a career, I know how to start and where to go".

"I learned that I can actually be creative and write my own story. It brought out the creativity I never knew I had".

"Make the workshop longer so we can concentrate on creating better scripts".

"I now know what goes into scripts".

"I learned that writers can make lots of money".

"The workshop helped me understand what happens in films. Like the beginning, middle, climax, twist, act 1, act 2, act 3, conflicts between characters, and more".

"I would like to know more about the process of getting paid".

"I truly loved everything. I wish there could have been more time! What I liked most about the workshop was that I had a chance to write a story and have people appreciate it".

Thursday, February 5, 2009

From a WGF Workshop Grad

It's me your old student Jose Hernandez from Hollywood High. I remember you told me to let you know about everything. S___ is a great editing teacher, thank you for introducing him to me.

Let me tell you that Hollywood High is doing the yearbook in a DVD and guess what? I am the one in charge of it. So far I am the best camera operador, we shoot events or films, I edit them, and not only that I am the producer of every single film, I get to choose who to hire to shoot, who to hire as a grip, and all the rest.

Right now we are working in a cooking show and we are going to publish it to an organization that gives awards to the best High School cooking show been film.

Oh I almost forgot, let me tell you that I am getting certify by the Apple company of computers as a professional Movie Editor on Final Cut Pro. I am taking classes by an Apple Certified Trainer, and hopefully I'll get certify by the end of March.

I am also President of the Cinema Club at Hollywood High, and I am applying to CSUN to become a great Movie Editor and then become a Movie Director.

I'm sorry I wrote a lot to you this time. I hope I receive a note from you back. I have to say that thanks to you I've been able to do all this, you planted a seed on me, you opened the lock, again thank you so much.

With Joy, Jose Hernandez.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Through Our Instructors' Eyes

Tyisha attended a South Central high school known as one of the worst. Before class began, Tyisha’s teacher took me aside to warn me about her… If she gave me a problem, I could have her leave for the duration of the workshop. And indeed, on that first day, she did…

Carlos had a dream to play professional soccer. But during his second year of high school, his grandmother died, and his parents decided to return to Mexico for the funeral. As illegals, it was unlikely that they'd be able to return to the US. Carlos decided to stay…

Malik’s high school was renowned for its population of students who have been kicked out of other schools. He told me, flat out, that I wouldn’t want to hear what he had to say. His stuff was for Comedy Central, not some bogus school-sanctioned program…

Maria wrote a “story” about a girl whose parents were in a gang, but against her joining a gang. She was having a very hard time making sense of that and she chose not to accept it…

Tyisha, Carlos, Malik, Maria… their names have been changed, but their stories (which continue below) have not. They are, or were, students in Los Angeles area high schools who have learned the elements of storytelling from Toni Ann Johnson and Monique Matthews, through the Writers Guild Foundation’s High School Screenwriting Workshop.

The Writers Guild Foundation High School Screenwriting Workshop is a two-week course in screenwriting conducted in some of the worst schools in the nation… those in the Los Angeles public school system.

After deconstructing some popular films and television shows to learn basic dramatic structure, each student is asked to complete a short screenplay based on stories drawn from their own lives. On the final day, SAG volunteer actors perform select students’ scripts before the entire class -- and sometimes before the larger student body.

Toni Anne Johnson and Monique Matthews, both WGA members with a background in teaching, helped develop the initial syllabus – which meets crucial English language arts standards and is in fact a literacy tool -- and taught the first workshops using it. They continue to teach the workshops, three years later. Here they talk about screenwriting in the real Los Angeles:

Why did you decide you wanted to help develop and teach the workshops?

As a kid growing up in St. Nicholas Projects of Harlem, New York, I loved escaping to different worlds via television and film… but I had no idea that there was an architect – a screenwriter - orchestrating each line, each setting, and each obstacle my heroes and heroines faced. When I found out… whew! My life changed. I dedicated every moment, every thought, to this process of writing… I wanted to share what I learned with others…

What have been some of the highlights? Best times?

Toni Ann:
The first bright spot for me was with a student named G__ in the first workshop. He had seemed incredibly indifferent when we first got there, and by the end he had written a marvelously engaging script about himself and his girlfriend. The look on his face when the actors read his work was something I'll never forget --and it's what hooked me on teaching the workshops.

I've experienced this over and over-- the joy on the kids faces when they hear and see what they've written -- it's very satisfying.

The final performance at Manual Arts [in South Central LA] was spectacular, too… The work that came out of those workshops blew me away. And my students were so gratified by seeing their scripts performed. You could see that this was going to be a memory for them … It's so amazing to be able to give that to someone!

My primary reason for helping to develop and teach these workshops is to give a voice to people who generally don’t feel that they have one. So, each time we can get a student to really share is a tremendously invigorating and deeply satisfying experience.

With each workshop I always get a new best time… Invariably it comes in the form of a “coyote:” a student, generally thought to be a behavioral problem, who tries their best to give me a hard time in any way they can. The reward is witnessing this coyote transform into one of the strongest, most dedicated writers of the class. Very often these students have felt shut out and voiceless for so long that they feel the only way to be heard is through being destructive. When they realize that I actually want to hear what they have to say… they unleash with vulnerability and passion so moving, lively, and entertaining that it renews my passion for screenwriting.

What have been some of your greatest challenges? Worst times?

Wow, each workshop feels like living a feature film screenplay…You’ve got to go through all types of obstacles… Most teachers are pulling teeth to get papers of 3 – 5 pages, so a 10 – 15 page script seems impossible.

Toni Ann:
Going into a high school was terrifying. I felt like a high school student myself, worrying about whether the other kids would think I was cool enough. But then I calmed down and remembered that I did have something to offer them…

[High school teachers] have too many students, with too many issues and have to be not only an educator, but a social worker and disciplinarian too… It was a bit discouraging, at first, because it felt like we were encouraged not to set the bar too high. But because I was only teaching one class, I could focus a lot of energy on the students I had, and so I was able to get through to those kids in a way that a teacher with a full class load just doesn't have the time to do…

Our materials tended toward the mainstream. Most of our kids are Latino or black. They are not going to come out and tell us, “We'd like to see ourselves reflected in your teaching materials,” but that is, indeed, their sentiment. They let me know that they appreciate that I am interested in films about people like them.

What have you learned from your experience with the workshops that you did not know about teaching? Or about yourself?

Toni Ann:
…how vulnerable teenagers are and how responsive they are to encouragement… Teens can exhibit a lot of bravado and, because they look grown-up, they can put on a good front of impervious coolness, but it's a defense mechanism. They are so in need of love and encouragement…

I also learned that I really love teenagers and that I enjoy teaching. I like it so much that I've gone back to school to get an MFA in creative writing, which will enable me to teach.

Has your experience with the camps crossed into other areas of your life?

Toni Ann:
So much! I now jump at the opportunity to work with kids. Since being involved with the workshops, I feel a responsibility to give time when and where I can.
I had parents who encouraged my interest in the arts and exposed me to things that would make an impression on my developing artistic sensibility. I am now in a position to offer that to my students.

It has taught me to stay present. It’s really hard to expose anyone to the fundamentals of the three-act structure and actually have them produce their own screenplay in less than two weeks, but it can be even harder to work with teenagers who may be more concerned with being a teenager and managing grown up responsibilities (many care for younger siblings, work, and support parents) than anything else…

Ultimately, kids might immediately say that they love not having to focus on “regular school work,” but I think they most love having someone come in who not only listens to them, but actually believes they have something worthwhile to share with others.

Tyisha’s story continues…
…I told her that her behavior was unacceptable and if she wanted to stay, she would have to obey class rules. She huffed and puffed, but showed up mostly every day. Near the end of the workshop I called Tyisha at home to see where her screenplay was. Tyisha’s grandmother answered the phone. She told me that Tyisha wasn’t home… but wanted to know what her granddaughter had done this time. I told her that Tyisha was actually a fantastic student. Tyisha’s Grandmother started crying on the phone. My call marked the first time, in all of Tyisha’s schooling, that an authority figure called with good news. After an in-class reading, the students and I chose her script for the final presentation. I was beyond humbled that Tyisha chose to bloom during the workshop and that I had the great pleasure of sharing this with her grandmother. - Monique

Carlos’s story continues…
…Carlos finally got his dream: he made the team and became a professional soccer player. But he then faced the daunting task of finishing high school and continuing to work to support himself. As a full-time student, pro athlete, and head of household, he still completed all his assignments and wrote an amazing script. – Toni Ann

Malik’s story continues…
…He wanted to do a comedy about a cheetah who wanted to be a gazelle, but couldn’t, so he killed himself. The other students laughed. I didn’t. I know high school is a time when others want to fit in, but try as they might they cannot. Malik also “joked” a lot about sexuality, so I wondered if he might be having some questions about his own identity. We worked through options for the story, including why suicide was a cheat…Malik seemed resistant – the cheetah had to die for being different. I pushed for something else. He decided not to show up to a class or two, but then he not only showed up, but he was the first to finish his screenplay. And his screenplay is genius – racy, broad, hilarious… it was the biggest hit at the presentation. - Monique

Maria’s story continues…
… Her “protagonist” was in such conflict about joining a gang because her parents were telling her that gangs were wrong. But by telling her that, they were saying that the culture in which she’d been raised was wrong. It felt better to her to see the value in gang culture. She wanted to be proud of her family, not ashamed. So, against their wishes, she joined the gang… and devastated her parents. Maria told this complex and fascinating drama with honesty and courage… it was more than story. – Toni Ann

If you want to find out more about the Writers Guild Foundation Screenwriting Workshop, or how you can help give a high school student the opportunity to tell his or her story, please visit or call Adam Huss, Director of Outreach Programming for the WGF, at 323-782-4692.

Toni Ann Johnson is a two time winner of the Humanitas Prize, in 1998 for her teleplay, "Ruby Bridges" and in 2004 for her teleplay, "Crown Heights." Her pilot, "Save The Last Dance," was produced in 2002. Her most recent feature is "Step Up 2 The Streets." She is a Sundance Screenwriting Fellowship alum and currently an MFA in creative writing candidate at Antioch University.

Monique N. Matthews - a Harlem, New York native - has written for MGM, Walt Disney and Paramount Pictures and worked with MTV Films and Wendy Finerman Productions, among others. She was one Daily Variety’s “10 Writers to Watch” and lab fellow in Film Independent’s prestigious Directors and Writers Labs. Monique has recently completed her latest spec Home Sweet Harlem.