As a Young Inklings and Hillview Author Author teacher, I have hosted thirty-one class parties over the last three years. I’ve heard nearly three hundred kids – Kindergarten through age fourteen – read their original stories out loud to an audience.
Each student created something unique, from her own imagination. This story – brand new to the world but very close to her heart – she shared with others, some of whom she did not know.
I usually ask the teenagers to list their fears the week before the reading. This takes a lot of paper. Fears about reading original work aloud include: “people won’t understand you, tripping up reading, being judged, being misunderstood, tripping up and other variations on what others may think.”
We discuss each of the fears. Unfortunately, these are rational fears. I never promise kids that these things will not happen. They might.
We can’t control what others think. We make mistakes.
I don’t tell students this, but I’ve seen worse things happen: accidents, tears or uncontrolled giggles. It’s scary to face your greatest fears while everyone is watching you.
So, why do it?
Well, the kids in my elementary classes will tell you its because they get a cookie afterward. At each party every kid gets a cookie. They know this from day one. Each student reads the story she has written aloud to an audience of other students and, if elementary kids, also parents – usually about 15 – 30 people. We talk a lot about this cookie for the nine weeks leading up to the party.
When we have writer’s block because we can’t come up with the exactly perfect thing to write, we talk about the cookie, and how many weeks it is until cookies. This might be a good time to go ahead write anything: it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be ready for when we have cookies together.
When we start to get scared about reading the story we have written out loud, we talk about how there will be cookies afterwards. No one will be thinking about us and whether our pants are zipped up, they will be thinking about when we have cookies together.
To be clear: these cookies are from Safeway.
Even though it’s all about the cookies, it’s not about the cookies at all.
It’s about the other part of the sentence: We will all have the cookies together.
It’s about faith. We need to know that all our effort, all our work will be valued by those around us. We need to know we matter. We need to be acknowledged. We will not be alone in the moment of our greatest vulnerability.
Promising friends and families cookies for that support seems like the least we can do. And, certainly, when kids are this courageous, they must know they we will be there for them at the end. When they face their fears – and they are substantial: rejection, judgment, and failure – we will be there.
And, we want to know everything will be OK on the other side.
The cookie is just our excuse.
And that’s just fine with me. These kids are brave enough as it is.
Creating something from nothing. Marjorie Frank calls it “romance.” Naomi Kinsman Downing calls it “play.” Some call it “foreplay.” No matter what you call it, it’s an essential start to the writing process.
One must get one’s creative juices flowing, so to speak. But I’ll stick with the PG version: Fun. Writing starts with fun. If you’re not having it, most likely you’re staring at a blank page or computer screen.
The same goes for teaching a writing class. Kids can’t write if they are not having fun. If the kids aren’t having fun, you’ve got a class full of kids ripping up paper, playing light sabers with pencils, crawling under desks, or using up all the anti-bacterial gel.
In short, kids will make their own fun. And it won’t be fun for you.
Fun is paramount. If I could, I’d make fun mandatory. For teachers. Forget the kids, man. If we’re having fun, so are they.
Naomi Kinsman Downing, Founder and Creative Director of Society of Young Inklings, articulates it this way.
“The freedom associated with letting go, being silly, breaking patterns, is the very thing most likely to bring new ideas and insight. Play isn’t trivial. It’s vital.”
She’s right. How often have you been unable to solve a problem as you sit for hours at your computer? Miraculously, when you release your mind from it – sew, garden, shower, feed the kittens – a brand new idea may come.
Play frees. We need fun to create. The first book I bought about writing was called “If You’re Trying to Teach Kids How to Write You Gotta Have This Book.” It was written by Marjorie Frank and published in 1979. I kept it on my desk when I began teaching over twenty years ago. I still have it on my desk now.
In her chapter titled “Romance,” Frank say this:
“Experiences – with self, with others, with literature, with arts, are the catalysts that ignite expression…PLEASE, don’t ask kids to write without giving them some input!…SOMETHING romantic needs to proceed the writing assignment: some happening that jars loose the poetry inside their heads and sets free a flow of new ideas.”
As a teacher, mostly I can figure out what will be fun for kids. Usually its what’s fun for me: playing a silly game, reading a book, making detailed observations of art or life, experiencing art, or sharing interesting information. Today we drew silly pictures – starting with a scribble – then wrote haikus together. We had fun trying to make sense of our pictures, within the syllable count of haiku.
When an activity is no longer fun, sometimes a kid will ask, “Can we just go write?”
I’ve never said, “No,” to that question. Sometimes, writing is more fun than a game, or a story, or whatever else I’ve brought for the day. Sometimes, that question means the game, or story, or photo did its job.
Each writing session is a chance for joy. If you’re not having fun while you’re teaching writing, stop. Do something that sounds fun. To you. Its vital.
It should be mandatory.
For three years, I’ve been teaching writing to kids all around Silicon Valley. My students have ranged in age from five to fourteen. I’ve also spent a good amount of time – two years – watching adults learn how to write, since I earned my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
You could say I’ve spent my last five years learning how to learn to write. When I tell people in casual conversations I am a Writer and a Writing Teacher, I often get a fake smile in return, or a more honest, “I always hated writing.”
Lots of people of all ages say they dislike writing.
However, over the last few years of writing classes with kids – and adults – that has not been my experience. Once people have the opportunity to write freely, they often love it.
Over my last few years, I’ve seen Kindergarteners run to class, second graders write novellas, fourth graders outline and write multiple novels, and teenagers suggest meeting together to write – with their free time.
When writing class is fun, anything can happen. Kids can wish everyday were writing class and they write every night instead of watching TV. A second grader can write a true story about a friend who survived a frightening trip to the hospital. A fourth grader can go from weeping at the sight of a notebook to claiming writing as her favorite subject.
Third graders can create entire worlds. Kindergarteners can imagine visiting the moon and Mars. First graders can write a story so sad and scary it will haunt your dreams. Fourth graders can create intricate fantasy worlds, characters who inhabit them, share those worlds and characters with each other, and write highly entertaining stories consistent with those settings. Teenagers can write poetry, realistic fiction, fantasy and science fiction that will make you laugh and think; worthy of publication. This world is full of young and gifted writers.
And it’s easy to nurture them.
First of all, you’ll need a lot of pencils.
After that, I think it boils down to four things pretty simple things: fun, friends, seeds and cookies.
I’m taking the pencils for granted. Those would be element number five. My next four days of blog posts will be dedicated fun, friends, seeds and cookies. I don’t have much to say about pencils, other than: Keep them out of your neighbor’s eye, please.