One More Thing About Teaching . . . the side benefits.

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I’ve been doing fiction workshops in schools for a bunch of years now, and one would think that I would have made it easier on myself by creating a bunch of fairly standardized lesson plans so I wasn’t having to make it up as I went along every dang time. Alas, if one should think such a thing, one would think wrong. I’m not much of a planner as a general rule. When I shoot, I shoot from the hip. Every time I organize a workshop, I re-invent the whole thing. It’s the only thing I know how to do.

This year, I decided to teach the kids about story structure – cause/effect, three-act, non-linear, etc. I had them plan out the stories they had started, starting with fleshing out their main characters, identifying the central problem and mapping out what was going to happen in the beginning section, the middle section and the end.

To demonstrate what I wanted them to do, I pulled out the longhand manuscript of my new WIP, called The Sugar House, and did my own story plan on the white board. So as they were planning out their stories, so I was planning out my own. And talking about my own. And wrestling out loud.

And here’s the thing about spending time with third and fourth graders. They are incredibly encouraging.

“Wait,” one boy said, after I had written the central problem for The Sugar House on the Smartboard and was waiting for the kids to write down their own. “Is that book out?”

“Which book?” I asked.

“That one,” he said, pointing to the notebook in my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “No. As you can see, I’ve just hit the 150 page mark in my notebook, and I’ve run out of space. So now I’m going to start transferring it into my computer, expanding the details, and do fussy little things like work out the ending.”

“Oh,” the boy said.

Later as I wrote out the main events – beginning, middle and end – for The Sugar House as a demonstration, and waited for the kids to write their own, the same boy raised his hand.

“Well,” he said. “It looks like you did it.”

“Did what?” I asked.

“Worked out the end. Right there. ‘Nate and Mrs. Otterholt save the day even though they still hate each other’s guts.’ That’s a GREAT ending.” He smiled encouragingly.

“Well,” I said. “Thank you. I actually haven’t gotten that far yet in the actual narration, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it will end. I’m glad you like it.”

He paused. Raised his hand again.

“So,” he said. “It’s coming out, like, next month maybe?”

“No darling,” I said. “But I’ll let you know when it does.”

“Good,” he said. “Because I can already tell it’s my favorite book.”

 

And that’s what it’s like with these kids. I read them sections from The Witch’s Boy and they tell me it is their new favorite. I read them sections from other books that I love – Winter of the Robots, Breadcrumbs, Goblin SecretsThe Thirteen Clocks and they tell me those are their favorite books too. They stand up when I walk by to give me a hug. They ask me to autograph random scraps of paper which they shove in their pockets, lose, and then ask again the next day.

I have spent the last year staring at my manuscript in a state of utter fear – writing, erasing, writing, erasing – wondering why I do this job at all, wondering why I scribble words just to pronounce them failures and kill them forever. Wondering how I could ever hope to do right by these characters whom I love so very much.

And then I go to a classroom. And I share my characters with kids. And the kids love them as much as I do. This right here – this is why I teach. I teach to remind myself why I write, and I write to have the opportunity to connect with the kids I teach. The two are connected. And it’s only when I’m in the classroom, that I can feel that connection in my bones.

Time to get back to class. I hope everyone has a wonderful Friday!

Once A Poet

I’m stunned.

After a – hell, I don’t know-  like a ten-year hiatus from writing poems, I actually wrote poetry today. It felt awkward at first, and insubstantial – like flexing the phantom tendons and imaginary bones of a hand that had long since been amputated. They were ghost poems.

Do they actually exist?

Here’s one (unedited, I might add. And not particularly good.)

STUMP POEM
The last remnants of stubbled skin
cling brutally to the side.
Grey torso –
grey flesh –
In the glare of the sun,
the memory of shade.
 
 

As I said, not particularly good, but it felt good. To write it I mean. And I didn’t start today with the intention of writing poetry. I wrote poetry because I was at a meeting.

A business meeting.

For work.

One of the best perks of working for an arts organization is that, every once in a while, you get to hang out with a bunch of artists. As many of you know, I work for an organization called Compas, which, among other things, schedules artist residencies and intensives in schools around the state of Minnesota. My colleagues are storytellers, poets, potters, accordion players, puppeteers, rappers, drummers, dancers, painters, actors, singers, spoken-word artists, and every other kind of art practitioner that I can’t even think of.

And they are wicked cool.

Anyway, we don’t get to see one another all that often, so I really look forward to our yearly business meeting as my one chance to say hi, drink coffee, gossip, swap stories and revel in the fact that I get to be associated with these folks.

We met out at Dodge Nature Center on an astonishingly beautiful morning. I parked far away on purpose just to give myself the opportunity to walk the trails and experience a moment of thick green and birdsong and bugsong and still ponds and damp, quiet breathing. We met in the education building, right next to the barns.

And after sitting in a meeting listening to the abysmal state of arts education in our state-

(did you know, for example, that there are districts that have removed all music instruction, from elementary to high school?)

(did you know that there are districts whose ENTIRE ARTISTIC CURRICULUM centers on a couple artist residencies?)

(did you know that there are districts who do not integrate the arts into their curriculum, despite the fact that the business world is desperate to find creative people who can think spatially and in interdisciplinary modes?)

But that was neither here nor there. In any case, when it was time for the break-out sessions, I was so filled with rage over the short-sightedness and mean-spiritedness when it comes to the arts, that I just couldn’t go to the grant writing workshop.

Instead I went to the nature poetry workshop. With Diego Vasquez – a terrific poet, a great teacher and a hell of a nice guy. He took us outside and charged us with writing poems. Short poems. About the things that surrounded us – dead things, living things. Things that move. Things that do not move. So, on this absolutely beautiful day, I wandered around and wrote short poems. And it felt REALLY good.

Like I-need-to-keep-doing-this-or-I-might-die good.

Here are some of my efforts, along with pictures of the things that inspired them. And I’m thinking that I shall have to continue writing poetry with my amputated poet muscles. I think I shall continue to write my phantoms – my inklings of the writer that I used to be. Because I kinda need to.

And perhaps I’ll post them on this blog.

Here are the poems:

PLOW POEM
 
Two seats
one horse.
 
Am I a tool
or a metaphor?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
SHED POEM
Whitewashed slats let in the breeze.
A hail-knocked tin roof. 
A dark, windy, hiding-place.
 
 

SIGN POEM
All my life, I 
looked
for 
sign.
 
“THIS WAY!”
it said,
tilting towards the ground.
 
 
SILO POEM
 
I once had a dream that I drowned
under a crush of ripe grain.
 
The silo’s roof is a geometric bite 
on a pale blue sky.
 
I hold my breath and shiver.
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
TURTLE POEM 
 
(for Leo)
 
Come
closer.
 
My mossy shell.
My bright eye.
 
Come
closer.
 
My spiked tail.
My waiting mouth.
 
Come
closer.
 
I’m in the mood for a snack.
And fingers are delicious.