Focused Inquiry Professor Creates Writing Collective, Book Club for High School Students in Richmond Area

By William Lineberry

A woman wearing dark rimmed glasses, necklace and a dressLindsay Chudzik wants to be, for all of her students, what she needed when she was younger.

Chudzik, an associate professor in University College’s Department of Focused Inquiry, wants to help show her students—like she wishes her past teachers would have—that literature does not have to just be a smattering of dead white men.

Instead, she wants to show that literature can serve as a means to help students see themselves in art and hear stories like their own. It can also be used as a tool for self-discovery, activism, advocacy, knowledge and personal growth.

“Representation through literature is a key way to work toward this goal, as [students] seeing themselves and their concerns reflected in the pages they are reading can have a sizable impact,” Chudzik said.

And through two service-learning grants, Chudzik is now doing this work with middle school and high school students in the Hopewell area. Over the past year, Chudzik received both a faculty development grant from University College and a service learning project grant (awarded last month) from the VCU Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success to create a book club and writing collective for middle school and high-school girls living in public housing in Hopewell, Va.

Chudzik, through her first grant, started developing the curriculum for the program that was initially intended for middle school girls. The most recent grant from VCU has now allowed her to expand the project to work with both middle school and high-school girls in the same community.

The workshops consist of students engaging in discussions around novels with diverse characters and strong female protagonists such as in coming-of-age novels like “Malcolm and Me,” “The First Rule of Punk,” “Moxie” and “The Hate U Give.” In these texts, Chudzik said she hopes to instill in students a sense of social responsibility and advocacy.

“My goal for my service-learning students always is to turn them into advocates and activists for themselves and the communities where they volunteer,” Chudzik said. “I hope reading these novels will encourage all of the participants from middle school to college to begin thinking of themselves as activists as well.”

My goal for my service-learning students always is to turn them into advocates and activists for themselves and the communities where they volunteer.

Involving and letting students engage with these texts is one part of the project, but Chudzik hopes by the end that all of them will be published writers as well. All students involved in the project, along with Chudzik’s Focused Inquiry students, will write a semi-autobiographical novella and work with a national literary magazine, Feels Blind Literary, to publish excerpts from their work in a special apprentice issue of the magazine in summer 2022.

‘Pressing Need’

After Chudzik pitched the middle-school project to the Superintendent of Hopewell Public Schools, Melody Hackney, Ed.D, Hackney then came back to Chudzik about expanding the program to high-school girls in the same community.

“We identified a much larger need for this programming than initially anticipated,” Chudzik said. “Dr. Hackney identified that the most pressing need for both groups is developing and nurturing their self-esteem, though especially since COVID, I see this same need with my college students. Not only will this workshop encourage them to be more engaged in the discussions at hand, but when their experiences are privileged and valued, this also will enable them to feel more connected to learning institutions as a whole.”

Chudzik will begin her work with Hopewell students starting in mid-March at a new after-school facility. The facility, which was paid for from CARES Act funds, contains a gaming room, a movie theater, a gym, a restaurant-grade kitchen to feed the students hot meals and help them explore culinary interests, a café, a gallery and a combination tutor and studying space.