Some 14 years ago, Sue Guiney visited Cambodia for the first time and it changed her life. She has gone on to write novels based in the Kingdom. She then started her mission to give back to the country that inspired her so much.
In 2010, an American novelist, poet and educator led a writing workshop at Anjali House, an education and art centre in Siem Reap, and it was the beginning of Writing Through.
From that first workshop grew this international charity targeting at-risk populations – children, adults, students and teachers.
Writing Through launched its first project in Cambodia in 2015 – specially designed workshops that use the writing of English poems and stories to develop thinking skills, language fluency and self-esteem.
“At Writing Through, we believe that today’s world demands more from its citizens than an ability to parrot information,” says the executive assistant and Cambodia country coordinator for Writing Through, Kristin Schuster.
Schuster says the skills, which are so crucial to intellectual enrichment and personal advancement, are not those traditionally taught in many school systems.
Instead, Writing Through aims to remedy this educational gap within some of the world’s most at-risk populations.
“We know that creative language training and exposure to the arts creates new perspectives and opens minds.
“Open minds lead to self-esteem. The combination of thinking and language skills and self-esteem are some key antidotes to poverty. At Writing Through, we help save minds, one poem, one story at a time,” says Schuster.
At Writing Through, the original and critical thinking skills are developed through the arts. Arts education can come in many forms, whether it be writing, painting, dancing or singing, all help us to develop our creativity and push ourselves to use our brains in new ways.
Schuster tells The Post: “Writing Through uses a unique pedagogy focusing on creative writing of poetry and stories in English.
“We break down barriers between student and teacher while establishing mutual respect, thus creating a safe space for learning which encourages students to think in new ways, investigating and sharing their dreams and experiences.”
The workshops in Writing Through, which is registered in the US as a charity, are run by fluent English-speaking facilitators with the in-class assistance of a local teacher who is from a participating school or NGO.
“This supports our goal of long-term sustainability through local teacher training. Our programme can be adapted to students with a wide range of English proficiency,” says Schuster.
The programme grew out of Sue Guiney’s mixed experiences from a volunteer trip she took to Cambodia with her family in 2006.
That trip led to her writing the first of her collection of novels set in modern-day Cambodia, A Clash of Innocents. After the publication of that novel, Sue was determined to bring the fruit of her inspiration back to the people who inspired her.
Ever since the first workshop was run in the Siem Reap educational shelter, Anjali House, Sue has devoted her writing and much of her teaching to Cambodia.
From 2011-2013, she was writer-in-residence in the Southeast Asia Department of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the world’s leading institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
She has travelled around the globe discussing her experiences in Cambodia and drawing attention to the country’s needs.
The programme, which works for anyone regardless of background, gender or age, has participants as young as eight years old as well as the elderly with little English as their background.
The main focus of the workshop is to encourage learners to think in new ways and express themselves without fear of making mistakes.
“When they finally stand up and read what they have written, the pride and boost in self-esteem are palpable. Although we occasionally run workshops that are open to the public, most of our workshops are held in NGOs or schools that become our Partners,” says Schuster.
She explains the Writing Through uses poetry and stories in English as a new way to learn critical thinking, saying that creativity and self-expression are aspects often overlooked in the public school system but are highly valued in the job market.
“Employers want to hire people who can come up with new strategies, ideas and can help implement them. Everyone can create wonderful things and we are here to encourage and help them unlock that ability.
“The focus on teaching in English, though, is not the main goal of the workshop but a secondary benefit. It arose from the fact that English is the founder’s native language, and also as a response to requests from prospective students and partners,” says Schuster.
Writing Through values the reading skill which is written with an attention to style and substance. Sue Guiney’s weekly blog posts provide insights and inspiration.
“Cambodia’s writing community is still small and struggling. We encourage Khmer readers to find, read and support the work of their countrymen wherever they can find it.
“We are currently working on an online version of the workshop which we will offer for free to help people express themselves during these difficult times.
“For now, we are already offering activities via our Facebook page which allows readers to practise our techniques and thereby keep up their skills,” says Schuster.
She says over the five-year course, Writing Through have had over 1,500 people take part in its workshops in Cambodia.
Since the primary goal is for the learners to write poems and stories for themselves, at the end of each workshop, a magazine is created to include all the work written during the workshop sessions.
“That magazine is also distributed to all the students and their sponsoring schools or NGOs, as a way to celebrate all of our achievements and to help raise fund for further workshops.
“We have published an anthology of poems which includes some of the brilliant work of our past participants,” says Schuster.
The book, called Poems from the Magic Pencils, is available via www.writingthrough.org and at some bookstores.
First established in Cambodia, and then Vietnam and Singapore, Writing Through is open to working in any country where the programme could be developed.
The Charity has trained facilitators and volunteers around the world and are always receptive to being connected to new partners. This summer’s first programme in the US will take place with an immigrant population.
“We work with a dedicated team of volunteers who we train to facilitate and shadow our workshops.
“We are always looking for more that are willing to go through the training and work with us in the future. We also accept sponsorship, donations and grants to be able to run as many workshops as possible.
“Although Writing Through is only five years old, we are growing quickly and always responding to the needs and demands of schools and NGOs both in Cambodia and throughout the world.
“We rely mostly on volunteers to carry out our programming and to underwrite our basic costs,” says Schuster.