​WordPlay launches new era of innovation in education

I’ll never forget the first night that my friend Libby Hunter and I opened the doors to WordPlay Cincy. More than aa hundred and fifty other volunteers had already pitched in their time, talents and savings to re-imagine the space at the corner of Hamilton and Blue Rock. We were all passionately bound by our nascent mission: inspiring kids to love learning by surrounding them with books, caring volunteers, innovative educators and a supportive community.

In the midst of our first celebration, the most unexpected thing happened. Neighbor kids stood in line, patiently waiting for a chance to play on a kind of keyboard they’d never seen before. It was attached to an old, old typewriter.

Even though the antique barely worked—co-founder and executive director Libby Hunter had set it up on a whim—we immediately saw its power to engage, entertain and ignite the imaginations of our youngest guests.

As a start-up non-profit, we wanted to innovate, and we knew we had to be nimble. On that first night, our commitment to openness and agility allowed us to see something we never expected to help our mission, in this case, typewriters, and put them to use.

At WordPlay, students hone final drafts on typewriters and share their final stories not only with each other, but with the world. This fall marked the debut of our first book authored by WordPlay writers, “When You Seeay My Name.”

Just as Libby and I dreamed, WordPlay has remained a hub for innovation in education. And, yes, typewriters, too.

Some examples I will always carry with me: I created erasure poetry with an 8-year-old. Later, we took a stack of mixed-up words from Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” and told a story of sugar raisins running sweet with syrup.

I sat alongside high-schoolers who had fallen through academic cracks as they crafted essays based on Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” series, then watched them sit tall as they read their work aloud in a TV studio to create podcasts for the public.

I’ve watched friendships form between youth who share stories and creative spirits if not socio-economic backgrounds and neighborhoods.

WordPlay has grown a lot since I helped found it in 2013. Through the hard work and limited budgets, I’ve been proud to serve as Board Chair and, in addition to volunteering, do what I could to build strong networks of supporters and experts to keep us moving forward.

We’re forming new partnerships with brain development and teaching and learning experts at the University of Cincinnati so that we can offer even more support to our youth and families. We’re continuing partnerships with healthcare providers and medical students as well as and local artists, authors and poets. We’re building a broader base of research-driven interventions designed to support and sustain the same young people we’ve focused on since the very beginning.

These are young people whose creativity has been stifled in traditional and overburdened classrooms; young people whose complicated lives crowd out opportunities to imagine new worlds; young people whose richness and wisdom too often go untapped in systems designed to reward memorization over innovation and problem-solving.

As we move forward, we are reaching out to tap new experts, new volunteers and even new leaders. I’m more excited and positive about WordPlay’s future than ever, which is why I am excited to step down from my role as Board Chair and welcome a new leadership team who can take WordPlay into a sustainable and successful future.

You’ll read more about our new Board leadership next month in The Northsider, and I know you’ll agree WordPlay has never been in better hands.

As I step aside to welcome more innovation and progress, I’d be remiss if I didn’t extend special thanks to all of those who have taken WordPlay and made it their own. From the indefatigable Libby Hunter and the rest of the Board to generous Snack Fairies (and so much more) Tom and Maureen Callinan, from poet and storyteller extraordinaire Pauletta Hansel to neighbor and cheerleader Peggy Shannon, from supporters like the Schiff Family Foundation, the Haile Foundation and LPK to more artists and volunteers than I could possibly name (Elese Daniel, Desirae Hosley, Jori An, WordUp volunteers, I’m looking at you!).

It has been an honor to work alongside such an amazing community, to meet so many like-minded souls willing to do the hard work to build a better future for us all. It has been beyond rewarding to watch what started as an ambitious dream of two friends grow into something so much bigger than us that is owned by so many and destined for such success.

If you haven’t visited WordPlay yet, or volunteered, or signed your child up for one of our all-free programs, I hope this bit of writing inspired you to give us a closer look. Maybe one day I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one sitting by a typewriter, reading off lines to a talented young author.

Elissa Yancey, MSEd, will always identify herself as co-founder of WordPlay Cincy. A long-time Journalism professor and journalist, she now works full-time as Special Projects Director/Associate Director of Communications and Marketing at the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Cincinnati. She earned her Master’s in Education at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

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