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Kids' Voices Matter: Teach For America Alumni Launch Arts Organization In Baltimore City

Meet the student- and teacher-led literary-arts magazine connecting inner-city youth in Baltimore.

Student drawing from Baltimore.

By The TFA Editorial Team

June 7, 2017

CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth is a student- and teacher-led literary-arts magazine out of Baltimore.

Founded by local middle school teachers, and Teach For America alumni, Michael Rennard (Baltimore ’07), Michael Hartwell (Baltimore ’06), and Whitney Birenbaum (Baltimore ’05) in 2013, the magazine and arts organization aims to give youth a platform to celebrate the great artistic work they do in and outside of the classroom.

Founded by local middle school teachers and TFA–Baltimore alumni Michael Rennard, Michael Hartwell, and Whitney Birenbaum in 2013, CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth seeks to give local area students a platform for artistic expression.

“A group of us teachers got to talking about the amazing work and writing our students were creating, and what a shame it was that it wasn’t leaving the walls of our classrooms,” says Rennard.

For Rennard and Birenbaum, the idea of a magazine promoting the creative talent and successes of the students served as an opportunity to boost the morale of the children and better the community.

“A lot of people talk about the achievement gap, but something we don’t talk about as much, I think, is the opportunity gap and the idea that children who attend Baltimore City schools don’t get as many opportunities as the surrounding areas,” says Rennard. Being part of a published magazine is one way to remedy this inequity.

“Untitled” from CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth, Vol. IX, Spring 2017 Edition. Artwork by fifth-grader Kayla Holly (Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School)

CHARM works with surrounding K–8 schools. In total, the magazine is proud to have published the writing and artwork of more than 350 students at 30 Baltimore City schools.

“As language arts teachers, we saw middle school students needing an outlet for having their voices heard,” says Birenbaum. “Here, in Baltimore City, your seventh-grade results impact your high school choice, so it’s critical kids are able to achieve success and motivate themselves early on.”

During the first year of the program, CHARM centered on creating a structured student editorial board that would seek submissions from participating schools, select pieces for publication, organize the layout, and make editorial decisions to create a professional magazine.

In a typical editorial meeting, students sit down with teacher editorial board members. After “playing warm-up, improv games” to break the ice, the board members “solicit submissions from students, design letters for the cover of the magazine, review the submissions, order pieces in the magazine for publication, and plan for workshops or other CHARM events,” says Rennard.

Since its first publication in spring 2014, CHARM expanded to incorporate several other aspects of the organization, including its six writing and art workshops.

The workshops, a favorite among students, are offered Saturday mornings. During workshops, students have the opportunity to hone their skills in small-group settings with other kids from their city who share a passion for the arts.

“Streetscape” from CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth, Vol. IX, Spring 2017. Artwork tenth grader Miracle Jordan (Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women)

“Every year there are more opportunities coming CHARM’s way. There’s been a lot of energy around it,” says Birenbaum enthusiastically.

Sponsored in part by the Fund for Educational Excellence, led by Roger Schulman (Baltimore ’92), CHARM continues to enjoy growing relationships with 826 National, the national literacy nonprofit organization founded by acclaimed writer Dave Eggers, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and local bookstores.

In fall 2016, CHARM partnered with the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program, a literary arts outreach program that brings free copies of contemporary works of literature, along with visiting authors, into the classroom.

“It is a very symbiotic relationship—writers love to come into the classroom, and the students love to share their work. We’re thrilled about the possibilities with Writers in Schools,” adds Birenbaum.

“Carli Thinks” from CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth, Special Baltimore Edition, Spring 2017. Artwork by eighth graders Carli Alderman and Jalysia Crawford (The Midtown Academy)

This June, CHARM will host its fourth launch party. The public event will celebrate the publication of two unique magazines this year: one special Baltimore-themed issue and the annual spring journal.

“I love the energy at our book-celebration launch parties, and seeing students’ reactions to seeing their writing or artwork in print,” says Birenbaum. “We founded CHARM on the belief that kids’ voices matter—these book celebrations solidify that.”

“We’re publishing two volumes in a single year for the first time, which is really exciting,” says Rennard. “This year, we’ve made a big push to expand our art offerings, and we’re publishing the best art we’ve ever produced. Also, our first class of students ever published in CHARM is graduating from high school this year, and many of them are enrolling in college in the fall.”

When asked what inspires them, CHARM’s founders point to the students themselves. “They always come up with fresh ideas or new takes on assignments. Their responses continuously show me that they are brilliant and creative young people, simply requiring some passionate guidance to help steer them along the path to college,” says Rennard.