This is the Work You Were Born For: some thoughts on teaching kids the practice of Story

 

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Good grief. I haven’t blogged in over a month. What on earth have I been doing?

(actually I know exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ll get into that in another post. right now I have important things to discuss with you. ahem.)

Anyway, once again I am spending a week with some amazing third and fourth grade students at Chanhassen Elementary. I’ve been doing this same residency for a number of years now, through my work with COMPAS, a statewide community arts program, and every year I am stunned by the brains of elementary school kids.

They are philosophers, these kids. They are scholars. They are giant hearts with legs. They are analysts. They are deep thinkers. They are Big-Idea-Types. 

One of the things that I do at the beginning of the residency, and I feel this is vitally important, is I get the kids all jazzed up about writing stories by talking to them a bit about why we tell stories at all. Because they all know stories – of course they do. They read them and listen to them and watch them on television. They act them out. They observe them in photography and sculpture and paintings. They watch high drama unfold every day in the casual gestures of their parents or the overheard side commentaries of their classmates in the hall. These kids are always engaged in Story.

So I tell them stuff about stories. Big stuff. Broad stuff. Big Idea stuff.

“The act of making a story is not the words you write on the page,” I tell them. “When we write the words on the page, we’re just making a pathway for the reader, and a pathway for ourselves, to journey toward the story. The story, you see, is separate. It is a prize waiting at the center of the universe of your brain, and only you can take us to see it.”

Stuff like that. They eat it up, these kids.

“Stories,” I tell them, “are uniquely human. When we write a story or think a story or tell a story or listen to a story, we are connecting ourselves to every other human being who has ever written or thought or told or listened to a story. We are connecting ourselves to the larger human family.”

I tell them this, and they are itchy to start. I can see it in their hands – the way they hold their pencils.

“Human beings,” I tell them, “have told stories even before they had language. At first they told stories through song, through dance, and through rhythm. They made pictures in the mud. They painted on caves. They invented language to be able tell stories more effectively and efficiently.”

This blows their minds, actually. I can see it on their faces. I have to work pretty hard at the beginning of the class to catch all their attention in my little butterfly net and hold them close to me, but at this point, I could stand perfectly still, and each one of my little butterflies would simply cling to my hands and arms and eyes. They don’t fly away. The kids hold their breath. I hold my breath. This is my favorite part, I think.

“Telling stories is your birthright, folks.” This is true, you know. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it. “This idea. This story in your head. These words that are about to pour like water out of your giant-bucket brains and onto the page. You were born to do this work.

And then they do. With gusto.

So far, I have gotten stories of hidden super powers and stories of kidnapped parents and stories of hidden treasure and stories of mad scientists who only wanted to find a way to make their teeth stop hurting. There have been friendly bears, wicked giants, dragon librarians, stealthy spies and a boy who becomes King of Poopland. I’ve gotten stories about a best-friend-zombie and a best-friend-talking-bunny and a best-friend-ogre and a best-friend-robot. I’ve gotten stories about a mall full of people suddenly possessed by ghosts and two sworn frenemies who are the only ones who can fix the situation. I’ve gotten stories about parents who download an app and then their children disappear.

So many stories.

And it’s good for me, even though it wears me out – the driving, the teaching, the geyser of enthusiasm that pours out of me every class period and with every interaction with students. It’s tough on an introvert. Necessary, yes, but tough. My family has been most attentive and sweet when I come home. But still, I love doing it because, even as it depletes me, it fills me up at the same time. Standing in a room full of thirty kids all attacking their pages at once, writing furiously as though chasing their stories down like bison on the plain? Well. As I pour, so am I filled. It’s amazing. And bearing witness to the raw enthusiasm from these kids, their joyful chase of the stories in the bright Universes of their brains, that I, too, am born to do this work – this teaching, this writing, this sharing of stories. And that it matters, you know?

The story matters. The telling matters. The sharing matters. The reading matters. It all matters.

It’s nice to be reminded.

 

I have more to say, of course, and some Very Cool Stuff About Various Books to share with all of you, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. I gotta go get ready for class.

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Real writers steal. Sometimes from children.

(Author’s note: I have never done this.)

(Or, at least, I have never been caught.)

I just got back (like, this very minute) from doing my little song and dance at a Kindergarten class at Wenonah Elementary School in Minneapolis. And it was wonderful. The kids sang their Get In Line Songs and their Transition Song and they sat on a brightly colored checkered rug – each child in his or her own “learning box”, and they peppered me with questions (a few were on topic) and lots and lots of nonsequiter comments. (“Oh,” says I. “You also live in Minneapolis and Minnesota. Marvelous.) And we talked about stories, and why we tell stories, and what we need to make a good story.

And the kids nearly crawled out of their skins trying to participate.

I love Kindergarteners. They are so wonderfully random and impulsive and sweet. Trying to get a bunch of Kindergarteners to do a thing – from listening to writing to learning to becoming minions in my eventual Evil Empire and helping me on my quest of one day Ruling the World (probably shouldn’t have said that out loud) – is like trying to get a roomful of butterflies to stand in a single, straight line: clearly impossible, but fun all the same.

And it’s wonderful, because who, really, doesn’t like butterflies? No one that I want to spend any time with, that’s for sure.

But there’s an ulterior motive as well. There always is. And in my case, it is my incessant and pervasive thievery.

Or not thieving, exactly. Collecting. Saving for later.

For example, in our character-making exercise, a kid came up with a villain named Mr. Mustache. He was hard at work, drawing his villain on his card and explaining to me that Mr. Mustache’s feet were of differing sizes and his eyebrows were as sharp as cacti and his mustache had two sharp points because he was always twisting it.

“That’s a pretty rad idea, kid,” I said. “Mind if I steal it?”

“Sure,” he said, and handed me his card.

I handed it back. “Not the card, sweetheart. The idea. I want to put the idea on my idea shelf and save it for later.”

He stared at me. “But how can you keep the idea if you don’t have the card?” Because he is six. And ideas are things.

“Trust me,” I said, patting his shoulder.

I friggin’ love Kindergarteners.

Other things that I have….not stolen exactly, but collected. Things that have been poured, unbidden, into the imaginary soup of my overheated brain:

A girl with invisible wings.

A magic stone that changes color depending on what kind of magic it’s making.

A planet made of cake.

A villain with two pet monsters – one bad, the other just pretending to be bad.

A mom with magical keys.

A very lost dinosaur.

A dog that fights crime.

A butterfly that saves the world.

I won’t use these things today, and I may not ever use them at all. But I’m terribly sure of one thing: these things feed whatever it is inside me that makes stories. And these things combine to make new things. This is the primordial ooze from which crawls a fish with legs or a multicelled organism or Grendel or God or sixteen eyed aliens or whatever. We who are in the business of Stories act as collectors. Our Cabinets of Curiosities are filled to bursting and spilling onto the ground.

I won’t say it makes my – or anyone’s – job any easier. It certainly doesn’t. In fact, I think I excel at making my job harder for myself. But it certainly makes it interesting. And in the end, interesting is as good a thing as any.

First Lines

Just a quick post today, as I hurry out the door to conduct my very last story-writing workshop at Chanhassen Elementary. But I wanted to share with you just a tiny bit of what these kids are doing.

I like to start my residencies with a workshop on First Lines. I do this for a number of reasons – firstly, because it’s a very non-threatening place to start for the possibly-reluctant writer. (“Hey!” I tell them. “We’re not writing full stories yet. Just a sentence. The first sentence of a story that you would like to read someday.” See how tricky I am? And see how I educate these children in the fine art of Self-Delusion, so necessary for a life built on fictions and lies.) Secondly, because it is the first line that sparks our love in stories. It is the first line that draws us in. It’s the first line that knocks us out of balance and forces us forward in our search for equilibrium.

The first line matters.

So I put the kids to work. And holy heck, do they ever produce. And they produce material that is so much richer so much more authentic than any worksheet or teaching aid that I could produce. This, of course, allows me to be lazy, which I appreciate.

Here are some of their first lines:

-It was never my intention to rule the world. I didn’t even want to rule my own town. But now I’m stuck with it.

- It is coming. Fast and faster than I could run.

-When I woke up, I was in jail.

- Nobody knows that I’m an alien.

- My mother is a dancer. My father is a dance. I have been dancing since before I was born.

- Do you know what an ordinary Saturday is like? Well lucky for you, because I don’t.

- He heard the hunters getting closer. He checked his watch. “Perfect timing,” he said.

- In the darkness, the white willows shone like ghosts and the moon shone like a shield.

YOU GUYS. These kids are amazing, and I will miss them.

How I Became the Most Famous Woman Alive (in my head) (for one week)

Last week I did a fiction residency at Epiphany Catholic School in Coon Rapids, MN.

(Here’s me holding a whiteboard marker that I was about to start waving around as either a lightsaber or a magic wand. One or the other.)

On my very first day, after talking to a group of fourth graders about stories, and cheering them on as they wrote stories of their own, a little girl gave me a big hug, and said this: “You are as pretty as Sarah Palin.” She smiled. “Almost,” she added – yanno. To keep it real.

And while – most people who read this blog probably guessed this – I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the ex-governor, nor would I expect that she and I would agree on a single thing if we were ever in the same room – it was certainly evident that as far as this little girl was concerned, she was giving me the highest of compliments. And I appreciated it.

(though really…..the “almost” does sting. I could out-cute Sarah Palin with one arm tied behind my back and hopping on one foot.)

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that for one week – perhaps the only week of my life – I was a total rock star. There were posters of my serious-looking mug all over the school (like, about twenty of them), and the kids throughout the school knew that I’d be paying all of them a visit sometime during the week.

Whenever I walked by, children pointed. They gasped. They whispered in one another’s ear. They asked for my autograph (I didn’t have the heart to tell them that once I wrote on the paper, the autograph was worth less than the original paper it was written on. Who puts value on a scribbled piece of paper?). Kids ran up to me from halfway down the hall and gave me a hug. They squealed when they realized that my nonfiction books were in the library (“The library!!” they gasped.)

They listened to me read.

Okay, fine, they weren’t really listening at that point, because they were working so hard on the stories they wanted to share with me. And share they did. I have around seventy hand-written pages in my bag of student stories – lovingly written, then shoved into my hands. They giggled and blushed. They needed me to read them. Look how hard they worked! 

I’ve written here before how I’ve never been, nor will I ever be, cool. Still, for that week, those kids declared me cool. And I’ll hang onto it.

On Ruling the World (and other worthwhile endeavors)

About a year ago, I sat on the couch with my eleven year old. She had a book on her lap, I had a laptop upon which I was furiously typing the final chapter of my next story. All of a sudden she closed her book with a slap and chucked it – without comment – across the room. I looked over. Her face was set with exasperation and rage.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Why,” she asked, “do evil villains insist on incessantly trying to rule the world? Can we have another plotline, please?

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“What about evil villains who try to rule the multiverse?” I asked, giving a surreptitious glance at my own work-in-progress, thinking more critically about the motivations of my own evil villain.

“Same thing,” she said.

Drat, I thought.

“Is it just that writers themselves are power-hungry megalomaniacs? When writers write villains, is it just because they’re living out their fantasies?” She gave me a sidelong glance. “Do writers secretly plot to rule the world?” She gulped. “Do you?”

I had to act fast.

“Let’s have ice cream,” I said, changing the subject. Next I knew, she’d be asking about my alter-ego, or my secret lair, or my army of steam-powered automons with laser-beam eyes that I have in the garage.

“No,” she said. “I don’t trust it. And I am so on to you.” She narrowed her eyes. “Princess Barnhill.” She flounced away (though, I noticed, she picked the book back up, and took it to her room to read.)

Yup.I thought. She’s onto me, all right.

Because it’s true: I’m a total megalomaniac. And a power freak. That’s why I write fiction.

Incidentally, that’s why I like teaching as well.  Now I’ve blogged before about my passion for corrupting the youth of America, and I stand by it. But what I haven’t written about before is the rush I feel – both in teaching and in writing.

Take this picture for an example:

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A classroom full of bright-eyed, fresh-faced minions! What’s not to love?

Because it’s true: In my classroom, it is my land, my kingdom, my realm. And I am Princess. When I was a classroom teacher, I had a hundred and twenty kids refer to me as Princess Barnhill. Now, every once in a while, I show up at a school to do a week-long residency wearing a crown.

Just because.

When I stand in front of a classroom – when I have every eye, every mind, every heart tuned to what I’m about to say – I’m creating a singular, insular, perfect world. I make the rules; I guide the thinking; I can make it wonderful or scary or boring or fun. And when I get a room full of kids thinking about stories, and talking about stories, and imagining new stories…..and THEN, preside over that same room with thirty kids bent over their desks, spinning stories on the page, when the only sound to be heard is the sound of pencils scratching and papers rustling and open-mouthed breathing…..

Honestly, there’s nothing, nothing better.

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I love teaching. I love pulling kids into the world of story-making. And I love, love, love being Princess for a little bit. It’s not exactly ruling the world. But it’s close enough.

Much Like My Inability To Walk and Chew Gum……

I can’t write while I teach. Like at all. I’ve attempted to do it before – some feeble stabs at a story over here, some anemic excuses for a poem over there. Nope. Not at all. It’s as though, by standing in front of a classroom, my body becomes a conduit between the creative well beneath my feet and the waiting brains in the desks before me. When I teach fiction, all of my training from teacher school about constructivist classrooms (“Don’t be the sage on the stage,” intoned my professors. “Be the guide on the side!”) gets thrown out the window. When I teach fiction, I employ the Personae Dramatis theory of education. I allow every ounce of passion, every discrete unit of energy, every thought, every feeling, pour through my body, and let it fill the room. It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally, but it’s worth it. And honestly, given the sheer amount of writing that I require from these kids, there’s no other way that I know of to get them bought in.

But, it’s problematic. The more I teach, the less I write. The more I teach, the farther behind I fall on my deadlines – both self-imposed and editor-imposed.

Today, I got my last round of notes from my editor for my novel (the one that has, up to now, been called Jack Be Quick, but will now, I’ve learned, be called something else – though I do not yet know what) and I can’t even look at them. And even if I did look at them, there’s nothing I can do for my book. I’m in teaching mode. I couldn’t write if I tried. Fiction, I mean. Writing fiction requires a reserve of creative energy that is different, I’ve found, from any other type of writing.

And honestly, I think it’s better this way. If I held back from my students, if I toned down what I offered them every day, I would be doing them a disservice. The whole point of the residency is not to teach writing, but rather to allow the kids to experience writing. To have that moment of utter excitement and thrill as a story unfolds -quite of its own accord – on the page. I give them my passion for the art of fiction because no one else has done it for them yet. I want them to feel it.

And I think they do. And they seem to dig it. And anyway, the sound of thirty two kids, all bent over their pages, breathing through their mouths, their pencils scratching furiously against their pages….. Well, there’s no better sound on earth, I’ll tell you what.

Still, I keep on thinking about how I could do my job better, and how I could add…..just that little something special to bring me just over the top, so I turn to one of my teaching heroes – Mr. Russo from Freaks and Geeks. Enjoy!

First the Grownups and Now the Kids

And so continues Kelly’s 14-day marathon of constant teaching, as she moves from the world of rowdy grown-ups to the world of rowdy nine-year olds.

Actually, scratch that. The grownups were way rowdier.

In any case, it’s funny when you take the Intrepid Authoress, so accustomed as she is to the quiet, solitary life, and shove her into hours and hours of social interaction. Indeed, at home, I send the children off to school and busy myself for the rest of the day with the demands of fiction, but when they return, it’s not like they listen to me. Quite the contrary. But in a learning-based setting, be it kids or adults, the only reason why I’m present at all is to have people listen to me. And I’ll tell you, it’s taxing.

I’m now officially taxed.

I have a very tall stack of student papers to read and evaluate after the kids go to bed (even though I’d much rather curl up under my covers and fall fast asleep), and while it’s a lot of work, I have no doubt that the experience will make me laugh, cry, and hoot out loud. The process of teaching is, and always will be, an intensive learning experience for me. I wonder if my students know how much their energy feeds my creative soul.

The Loft Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference

Thanks to everyone who was so kind as to come to my Magic and Fantasy class at the Loft yesterday. I seriously thought I’d only have two students, and was woefully unprepared for the number of folks who came. Actually, I was woefully un-prepared in general. Or, maybe overprepared. A one hour class is a weird time period, in my opinion, and was inadequate to be able to accomplish the things that I wanted to accomplish. Still, I hope I was marginally helpful. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting the writing exercises as well as some of the further reading that didn’t make it into the actual class due to time constraints.

I’m off to my kids’ piano recital right now, where I am sure to glow and beam with maternal pride, happiness and joy. Happy Sunday everyone!

These Kids are Frickin’ Awesome

So, as I mentioned before, I’ve had the great privilege of working on the process of fiction and the importance of storytelling with a busload of some wicked fabulous middle school kids from Apple Valley. Now, given the time constraints of the middle-school day and the limited duration of a single week, there’s a limit in the details of what I can actually impart to these children. I can’t really teach story writing in a week. Maybe someone with more skill can, but we all have to be honest with what we can do. Instead, I spend a week encouraging story writing. I’m a fiction cheerleader. I give them things to think about and time in which to process and I turn them loose. But mostly, what I do for an entire week is tell kids again and again that their stories matter.
And they do matter.

I tell them that storytelling is our birthright as human beings, and that a single story can change a life, can change a community and a country and the entire world. Indeed, stories change the world every day. Ask anyone you like.

Now, I’ll be writing about this some more, and going into a little more detail about what I saw and how the kids responded but in the meantime, I’d like to turn your attention to this website – – no, go click on it now, I can wait.

See what I mean?

Scroll down and read . . . . oh, man, there’s a bunch. “The House on Cherrytree Lane” and “The Wonderful Misadventures of Serge Macalister”, and “The Secret Passage,” and many many more than I can think of right now. I’m so proud of these children, I can hardly tell you.

Too exhausted to post, but so, so happy

There is so much that I want to say about this new residency that I’m teaching over at Columbia Heights High School, but it will have to wait. There is nothing on earth more exhilarating than teaching fiction to teenagers. And there are few things more exhausting. Last night, I attempted to tell Leo a story (“from your imagination, mama, from your imagination” he insists. So demanding, that child). As I laid down in the dark, his small body curled next to mine, the yeasty smell of his skin clouding the darkness, I yawned, managed to spit out a “once upon a time” and thereupon fell fast asleep. Ted woke me up at midnight and ushered me back to my own bed. I’m pretty sure I brushed my teeth, but really, who’s to say.

Soon, I promise, will be the complete breakdown of the residency, replete with observations on its impact on my own writing. I promise.