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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Why I love teaching

I can barely hold my fingers steady over the keyboard at present, and will be soon, and gratefully, folding my tired little carcass into my covers and sleeping for something in the order of one thousand years, but I wanted to take minute to write about how very, very, very much I love teaching.

And, of course, I’ve written before about my secret joy in corrupting the youth of America,  as well as the benefits in having a legion of minions in the quest for my ultimate goal of one day ruling the world, but I’ve never written before about the world’s best kept secrets of our culture’s most over-worked, under-valued and precious profession.

Actually, you should come a little closer, so I can whisper it to you.

No, closer.

You ready? Here’s the secret:

Teaching is a pleasure.

“WHAT?” you say. “But what about standardized tests? What about behavior problems? What about paperwork? What about nasty politicians who demonize you and claim that your meager salaries are the cause of our economic meltdowns and lousy job markets?” [Author’s note:They didn’t.]

And yes, that’s all true. Teaching is a difficult and wrenching job, unnecessarily burdened by pointless forms and interminable meetings and the by-products of a society that has effectively ignored and punished its poor.

But still.

Those children!

Those beautiful, grubby, snarky, graphite-smudged, over-sugared, silly, curious, responsive, smart, creative, lovely, lovely children. After only one hour in their classroom, they were already ready with damp hugs and furtive whispers of, “you’re coming back tomorrow, right?

Yes, my darlings, I’m coming back tomorrow, I assured them. And they grinned their gappy grins.

The reasons why I am no longer a full-time classroom teacher – well, they are many. The crummy job security for one. The hours for another. And my career at present allows me to balance my passions as a writer with the needs of my children, and I appreciate that very much. But in any case, I do love the way my life is currently, that I have this opportunity to, every once in a while, access my teacher self. To remind myself of the indescribable joy that I had while managing a classroom.

Teaching requires patience, kindness, an iron will, and  skin thicker than a rhinoceros’. It requires a willingness to endure logic-less exchanges with one’s superiors, to make books and resources and supplies appear out of thin air like magic, and to leap tall buildings in a single bound (well, I can’t do that, but I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve seen the teachers who do it every day – despite what Certain Documentarians have to say about it).  It requires you to bear the pain that some of your students must bear every day – to witness it, feel it, and fight like hell to make it better. It requires one to accept foot aches, back aches, ulcers, kidney infections, gray hair, and wrinkles the size of canyons between the brows and around the mouth. It requires late nights, early mornings, hollowed out zombie eyes.

But in return – moments of grace, moments of clarity, moments of joy and love, love and love again. In teaching, we love the whole child – the child they are, the child they were,  and the adult they will become. We get to see the future in this job, and that ain’t nuthin’.

Teaching is an act of love, and we’d all do well to remember that. And I’m glad that, in my sporadic return to the classroom world, I get a chance to remember it, and re-remember it. Because it makes me appreciate all the more the men and women who have dedicated their lives to teaching my children. And your children. And my neighbors’ children and the children who may one day read my books, and the children who will one day drive my busses and fix my plumbing and heal my illnesses and run my country and lovingly bury me when I’m dead and gone. Each one of those kids had legions of teachers who guided them, worried about them and loved them.

So I feel pretty lucky. And happy. Despite the fact that right now, I’m so tired I feel as though I’ve been sapped utterly – I am dry leaf, dry grass, a papery husk in an insistent wind –  it’s been a pretty good day. And I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

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