Tag Archives: teaching writing to kids

A Fly on the Monkey Bars

My seven-year-old student led me down the hallway, out of earshot of his brothers, who hadn’t read the book yet.

“So, you know Charissa?” he said, referring to one of the supporting characters.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “I made her up, remember?”

“Oh, right.” His voice began to rise. “Yeah, well, she’s so mean! She’s always like ‘Ooh, look at my clothes, I’m so pretty! Gladys, you hag!’” He punctuated this last bit with a martial-arts-style kick, then looked up at me with a smile.

It was all I could do not to burst out laughing right there. No one ever calls anyone a “hag” in my middle-grade novel, The Delicious Double Life of Gladys Gatsby, and no one ever gets karate-chopped, either—but the sentiment was spot-on. Charissa is a bit of a bully at times, and she probably does make our heroine, Gladys, feel as bad as if she’d called her names and kicked her.

Once my surprise and amusement at my student’s interpretation wore off, I found myself feeling gratified that he had internalized my story enough to make up his own dialogue for one of the characters. As I biked home that day, I had a vision of a group of kids on a school playground at recess. “Let’s play Gladys Gatsby!” one of them suggests, and suddenly everyone is clamoring to “be” their favorite character. Reams of dialogue and whole new storylines are improvised. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the monkey bars and watch that.

One of the best things about the years I spent as an aspiring playwright in New York was being able to sit in the back of the theater during performances and watch the audience react to the words I had written. I got to revel in the sound of a packed house laughing at one of my jokes (and occasionally cringe as audience members nodded off in their seats in a half-empty theater). So as thrilled as I am that my first novel is going to be published—and that it has a chance to be enjoyed by thousands more people than my Off-Off Broadway plays ever were—it’s been a little bit hard accepting that I won’t get to witness my young readers’ reactions to each funny line, each twist and turn of the plot.

So thank goodness for my elementary-aged writing students, who demanded to read my manuscript as soon as they found out I had written one. Who screamed and whooped when they found out that I had a book deal, and stamped their feet and moaned when they learned that the book wouldn’t come out until 2014. Who pepper me with questions, like “Why does Gladys do X?” (To which I reply, in my best teacherly voice, “Why do you think she does it?” Cue deep thinking.)

One of my students told me this week that she is reading my book for a second time, just for fun. As if that hadn’t already warmed my heart enough, I got to sneak up behind her later at lunchtime and see it for myself. Sandwich in one hand, she was hunched over the Kindle next to her plate, oblivious to the world, giggling softly as she read.

It may not be a theaterful of hipsters, but I’ll take it. 🙂

***

Fellow writers—published, agented, aspiring, etc.—I turn this post over to you! If you’d like to leave a comment, I’d love to hear about the first time a member of your target audience read something you wrote.

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Filed under Happiness, Satisfaction, Thankfulness, Writing and Life

My Former Life: An Apple Versus an Orange Versus a Wombat

Funny that you should choose this topic, Lisa—this topic of teaching writing to children. It’s been on my mind.

And in my heart, as well.

First of all, Lisa, I have no doubt that you will be a fantastic writing teacher. I know you to be engaging, knowledgeable, and funny; those are lucky girls! You’re already ahead of the game, as a teacher who is genuinely enthusiastic about a topic, tends to pass that on. Plus—a group that signed up to write over the summer?! Sweet! This is the stuff that teacher dreams are made of!

There have been many surprises in getting a publishing contract—wonderful opportunities and friends have popped up in places I wouldn’t have expected. But there is one thing that I have been looking forward to since pre-contract—and that is getting into schools.

I’ve been plugging away at assembling an “author PowerPoint presentation” for use in the fall. I already know that I will be visiting three schools (fourth, fifth, and sixth grades) and I am SO excited! I love hanging out with kids, anyway. I really do. The same presentation given to ten classes goes ten different ways—and I love that. Kids are spontaneous and honest, funny and open-hearted.

I miss teaching. Still.

I, actually, discovered my love of writing as a teacher. I couldn’t use the errors of students as examples, so I would go home and write stories that would subtly go off topic, contain structural issues, etc. . I bought piles of red pens, passed out my stories and told the kids to grade me and to be honest—to fail me if they must, but they better explain why. (I *may* have given them some little motivational, dramatic shows in response to their grades.)

The kids loved it and I began to look forward to these assignments, as odd as that was, for they loved being on the other side of the desk and dug deep when it came to giving me detailed feedback. I saw immediate results in their writing; it turns out that teaching them to look for things in others’ writings helped them find what they needed in their own. I did not foresee, however, that these writing exercises would turn out to be the birth of my new career.

I would also throw “one-minute writing pep rallies” and the kids’ enthusiasm translated to the page. After the rallies, I would join them in writing (I had an extra student desk for this use.) I remember one impassioned plea to my third graders that they just *had* to use metaphors and action and make their characters jump off the page because, if they didn’t, I would get tired at 1:00 AM while I read their stories. I imitated what this looked like by sitting at my desk, putting my head down, sprawling out my arms, and snoring loudly. This was when one of my colleagues came in to ask a question –the same colleague who’d called me “crazy” and slammed the door as she’d left on a previous day because my students were chanting, “De-TAILS! De-TAILS!” I had a very different approach to this other very capable teacher; however, we both got the job done well.

Which leads me to my little writing/author nugget for the day. Listen up—this is an important one!

In a conversation with mentor and friend, Patricia Reilly Giff, (If you haven’t read PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS, you must!!!) I had asked her if when she reads a book that she absolutely loves, does it serve to inspire her or discourage her. She laughed and said that she and Katherine Paterson had talked about that many years ago.

Katherine had said to her, “You’re a teacher, right? Do you stand in the hallway, looking at all the other doors, wondering if the other teachers are better than you? Or do you just go into your classroom and close the door and do what only YOU are able to do? The magic that only YOU can work in your own unique way?”

I’m grateful that I understood this as a young teacher. However, there’s a lesson in here for us writers, too. An essential lesson. Don’t spend time comparing yourself to others; it’s crazy-making and accomplishes nothing. Really. Besides, your unique voice belongs to you and you alone. So, open your mind, your heart, and your notebook, and do what only YOU can do!

In your own unique way.

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Filed under Celebrations, Colleagues, Writing, Writing and Life