The love of writing is what inspired Alannah Joseph to begin the Manzanilla Secondary School Writers’ Club in 2017, encouraging students to express themselves through creative and essay writing.
The students have continuously won gold and silver medals in the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay competition.
Joseph, who is a library assistant at the school and has a background in international relations, said she started the club to give students the creative outlet she had in high school.
“I noticed the students, particularly the young girls, didn’t have a creative outlet. I love storytelling. I may not be the best storyteller vocally, but I love listening to stories. I believe everyone has a story within them, and writing is just a way of releasing that story and accepting themselves. So that’s why I started the writer’s club.”
She said the club is open to all students in all forms, but attracts mainly girls, who see it as a way of expressing themselves.
“We’ve had a few boys, but it’s really hard to retain them. I’m working on thinking of some strategies to get them more excited about writing. Boys have football and other sports and activities they can use as outlets but there is very little that girls, especially introverted girls, can do if they’re not good at sports, if they really don’t know music all that well, so writing is the next best thing.”
Joseph said she does not make it compulsory for students to attend the club.
“Because of the nature of writing and my approach to it, I feel like if you have that want or desire to write, I want you to be led to the club, so I don’t make it compulsory. It’s up to the students and how they feel, I approach them and if they want to stay or if they want to pursue it, that’s how we do it.”
She said the club meets a minimum of three times a week, depending on the term, and daily when they are preparing to submit for the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition.
“The first term is when we prepare for the competition, so we meet every day, but this term we would have it three times a week. We meet during the school day for 40 minutes, which is the length of a period at the school, from 12.30 pm to 1.10 or so.
"It’s not an after-school activity but we do meet after school sometimes. We also have Zoom meetings, for example last Monday when there was no school, we met because the students are preparing for the Ministry of Tourism essay competition.
"During some of the sessions I would also teach some aspects of creative writing, like story and plot development, throughout the year.”
Joseph said the students normally enter two competitions over the course of the year.
“I try to vet the competitions and think of the students and their workload in terms of the schoolwork they have, because I don’t want this to impede their studies. It depends on students and what they could take.
The first time the school entered the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition was in 2018.
"I was looking for a competition they can use as a benchmark in terms of how well they are progressing throughout the years.
"The first set of students has left the school since then, but I continued getting the students to enter. It’s basically like my test for them.”
In 2018 and 2019, the club members won silver medals before covid19 caused the competition to pause. In 2022, they won four gold awards and one silver and one bronze award, and in 2023, they won a gold award, two silver awards, two bronze awards, and a certificate of participation.
Jedaiah Saul, a lower sixth-form student who won a gold award in the competition in 2022, said she has loved creative writing since primary school. She said she knew extracurricular activities would be important in high school and was very interested when Joseph approached her about the club.
“It gives me an outlet to express myself. I tend to be very quiet and shy, and with this and other extracurriculars, I’ve been able to grow and express myself.
"I love everything about writing and reading, and it’s been really helpful for me to have this space. Just getting immersed in a story is such a beautiful thing and I really love writing because it makes me feel like sometimes I can put aside the stress of the world and just be in a fictional world.”
She said she doesn’t write any particular genre, but selects topics based on her emotions at the time.
“I would write whatever piques my interest.
"I was working on a piece about grief: I basically thought about how I love my family so much and I started thinking about the topic, so I wanted to write a story about a girl or a mother who lost a child, to explore the five stages of grief, and what that would look like for her.
"Then I also love love. Iit’s a cliché, but I love romantic stories, I feel like I’m a hopeless romantic. So I like writing about romance.”
She said she considered writing as a career, but chose to do business at CXC and CAPE.
“Writing has been an outlet, and it’s something I definitely want to do in the future, whether it be fiction or business writing, and basically I’m looking at how I can use that interest as a hobby or to generate income in the future, or just become a more well-rounded individual in the area of business as well.”
Saul’s Commonwealth essay was titled Health and Sanitation, a topic she said is often overlooked to a great extent in Trinidad and Tobago.
“Sometimes when you go to bathrooms, even in government offices, there may not be soap, and that causes issues. So in realising we don’t pay enough attention to that need in TT, I wanted to explore that.
"I know in other countries sanitation is a big issue, some people don’t even have safe drinking water, so I wanted to raise concerns about that.”
Saul said she thought everyone should have an outlet like the club to sharpen their skills and interests.
“I’m very grateful here at Manzanilla we have that. I’m thankful for Ms Joseph and all the other teachers that help us around the competition.
"School could be very stressful, but just knowing you have love and supporting people who are rooting for you and are there to help guide you is something that is very comforting and very beautiful. I’m thankful for my school and for the opportunities they have given me to improve as an individual.”
Third-form student Kerlise Williams, who won a gold award for her essay A Letter to Malala, said her love of creative writing began when she was sitting the Secondary Entrance Assessment Examination (SEA), and found an escape in books and stories.
“When I got to high school, I used to read in the library a lot and I’d asked Miss for advice about a book, and she asked me if I wanted to join the club.
"At first I thought it was going to be an extra English class or lesson, but as I got into it and as I got into the competition, I feel very excited knowing I have a class coming up, I have a meeting coming up, an essay to write.
“I like that writing is a way to express myself without using (spoken) words, that I didn’t have to speak publicly, I could write it down, and many people could listen to it, some people could read it and I wouldn’t have to speak to them, voice to voice.”
She said she prefers to write about fantasy and folklore, “stuff that would never happen, stuff like one day you could become an elf, become all these different type of characters inside your mind, that wouldn’t happen in reality.”
Williams said while she plans to study medicine, she wants to use her writing skills to uplift children.
“I would like to write a book about my experiences to help other young children. The way how I grew up, I would like to write a book about that so I could uplift young children like me to be able to inspire them to express themselves.
“My essay was asking why age matters. (While there are) many things adults say young children cannot accomplish, some children are at a maturity level that they can accomplish these things, they can do it. Some of the older generation are saying that you have to be a little older, a little more mature.
"My essay was about that: it doesn’t matter what your age is, you could accomplish anything from any age.”
Joseph said the initiative has the support of parents, teachers and the school, and parents have congratulated and thanked her for supporting their children. She said she received help from English teacher Georgia Fleming in editing the essays for the competition, and support from her immediate supervisor, Sheldon Alleyne.
The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition is the world’s oldest international writing competition for schools and has been delivered by the Royal Commonwealth Society since 1883. According to its website, since 2015, young people have written on a theme that stems from the Commonwealth’s values and principles, developing key literacy skills whilst also fostering an empathetic and open-minded world view.