Monday, November 9, 2009

On Writing and Children

For four weeks now, I've been volunteering in Ben's class on Mondays, working with the children on creative writing. I'll confess that, at first, I felt a bit lost. What kind of concepts are appropriate for 3-6 year-olds? How exactly does one write with children who don't yet know how to write? As I prepared, I found even Barnes & Noble insufficient as I searched for pre-school writing concepts and activities (except for Lucy Calkin's wonderful book The Art of Teaching Writing, which I wish I'd discovered when I was teaching). Very little exists on the topic until kindergarten age.

I began with blundering and stumbling. The first Monday, I introduced myself to a group of four kids and immediately realized attention spans and reference frames and interest levels would not sustain the original idea I had for our time together. Working with these little guys in a structured sense is a giant leap from working with high schoolers, and I had too much information even in my seemingly scaled-back "plan." Even with a four and two-year-old at home to help me gauge what would be appropriate, I floundered. So I scrapped most of it and started at the very beginning ("a very good place to start").

"Do you know what an author is?" I asked them. Most of them shook their heads or said no, though through the morning I found a few who did. "Authors are the people who write books. They tell stories. Do you like to tell stories?" Most of them nodded their heads enthusiastically and began raising their hands and spilling all kinds of fascinating information about snakes and circus performers and playing with their parents and summer vacations and anything else they could think of. "Well, if you write your story down, do you know what that makes you?" A pause. "It makes you an author, a writer. Did you know that you guys are writers?"

I got a number of different responses throughout the morning. Some kids smiled a bit at the possibility. Others claimed they were actually artists. Some said they didn't have any stories to tell.

Here, I would interject and talk about "special writer's eyes and ears." For those in doubt--and even for those hopeful believers--I shared that what makes someone a writer is their "special writer's eyes and ears that see and hear and notice things that other people don't." We went for a walk around the school yard, then, "noticing" things other people might not: a spider web tucked into a dark corner, a brilliantly-colored leaf on the ground, an ant crawling on the slide, the sound of a dog barking from a car on the road, the shape of a particular cloud, the sound their feet made as they walked through the gravel. They returned to the table and "wrote," which for now means they drew, what they noticed--or anything else that caught their mind's fancy. And when they were through, they "read" their stories to each other. When one group finished, the authors took their stories to their cubbies and returned to class, and I began again with the next group.

In spite of the false start, it went okay, and now I start every week and every group with the same question: "Have you had your special writer's eyes and ears on since we were together last week?" Now, they almost all nod knowingly, and some even share special things they've observed. We're finding our rhythm, I think. We talk about a concept like characters or setting, they draw their stories, and then they tell them to me as I write down their creations.

I'm getting to know the kids. I call them by name and am learning about their families. Some now find me in class when I come in to gather another group of children and ask to work with me. Others are still skeptical but obliging. There are a few who are reticent to tell stories--cautious or shy or just unsure of what to say. There are a few who insist every week they don't know how to draw what they have in mind, and I just reassure them that they'll get better with practice and to give it their best try. Some can't stop the flow of stories welling up from within them--they've barely finished one elaborate tale before they're crafting another. Others get out a few lines and that is that.

My favorite part is that my primary role is simply to affirm every attempt. I want these kids to walk out of our time together actually believing they have a story to tell. Because they do. No one else in the world will see the same things and hear the same things and feel the same things they will and be able to tell about it from their perspective. There are very few original stories in the world, and by that I mean original plots. What is new and different and unique about each one is the perspective from which it's told, the feeling imbued by the author, the beliefs and attitudes and observations of a particular individual that color the entire event.

This morning as I talked with a group of four girls about characters, three of them decided to create pumpkin characters. This inclination to do what another does is definitely a danger with these little guys--if one person begins talking about something, you're likely to get that same concept from two or three more (I suppose that danger exists no matter what the age). But I pointed out that even if they all had a pumpkin for a character, they would still have different characters because they would all be making their own decisions about whether their pumpkin was nice or mean, helping someone or needing help, silly or serious, loving ice cream or loving green beans. And indeed, all three pumpkins were different--uniquely characterized by their unique creators.

I look forward to these Monday mornings, now, with a bit of childlike anticipation. Because there is very little "writing" in the stringing-letters-together-into-words-and-sentences fashion, I am freed from my teacher tendencies to correct grammar and spelling. Because they are so little, I am freed from my expectations that they understand concepts like characterization and plot development from an abstract perspective. Any attempt to understand and use the concept merits encouragement and attention and delight.

I do provide some guidance. As I worked with three boys today on setting, they all decided to write their stories about superheroes: Batman and Spiderman and "Star Wars guys." "Great," I told them, "and can you show me where they are, too?" So around their characters, they drew tall city buildings or a "[Bat]mobile" with a computer and buttons to push or outer space with stars and black holes and hot rocks--settings. They're getting it. I give them a bit of structure, turn them loose, and do everything in my power to draw out their stories. And then I get to enjoy the most original creations that emerge.

I wish I had had more of this perspective when I taught high schoolers--the bigger kids--several years ago. I wish there had been less judgment and more invitation, less focus on doing it "right" and more acknowledgement that everyone has a story to tell. A fellow teacher and I were trying to get there with a writing workshop format, but I wasn't quite here. Of course, mechanics matter. They provide the framework and credibility for the content. But I think I could have kept the elements in better balance. Alas.

As a parent, I am being drawn out of my regimented lists of do's and don'ts and musts and shoulds into the fuzzier, kinder, nuanced place of childhood. It is a gentler view that shades the world I see and influences the way I engage it.

Even before they can write, children are writers. I love that optimism. Even before I have life figured out, I am alive. And in theory, the writing--and the living--should just keep getting better.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love comments!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin