Seriously, guys. How do teachers do this every day?

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Boots: check.

Lasso: check.

Yodel: check.

Folks, this week, I’m back in the classroom again. Cue music.

As many of you know, I am a former full-time teacher (Middle School, natch. And I have the scars to prove it) (I’m just kidding. Middle School kids are puppy dogs with fairy wings and butterfly kisses. For real.), and now, in addition to my writing work, from time to time I return to the classroom to teach fiction writing for a week with eager, energetic, enthusiastic, and oh, good god, tiring children.

I’m so tired right now. I can barely see straight. I may melt into the floor.

With each class today, I stood in front of these kids and poured my energy out so they could pour that same energy onto the page. That’s what I do – pour and flow, crackle and burn, light the room, hold their attention in the palm of my hands, and set their stories ablaze. They were maniacs today. Story-writing maniacs. They wrote stories with spies in them and stories with aliens in them and stories with best friends in them and stories with soldiers in them and stories about jury duty and super heroes and cranial implants and stories narrated by an arthritic dog. And they were awesome.

Since this is not my regular classroom and these are not my regular kids, I can’t rely on the relational foundation that most teachers use to keep their classrooms going. These kids don’t know me. So the only way I can get them to lose their inhibitions long enough to get their stories written down is to do my little magic tricks on my makeshift stage.

“Look here,” I say. “Storytelling is ancient.”

“And here,” I say. “Stories are an integral part of your humanity. We tell stories, therefore we are.”

“Look here,” I say. “Your brain can do tricks. Watch.”

“Look here,” I say. “I can tell you words and turn them into sentences and use those sentences to make your heart beat fast and your breathing go shallow and make all of you sit on the edges of your seats. Look at yourselves! Look at how you’re gripping your chairs. Look at how your knuckles are white. Now you make that happen in your stories.”

“Look here,” I say. “There is a dragon that can fit in your pocket. And a kingdom made of cattails. And a forest with fire in its belly. Look! A witch! Look! A liar! Look! A horde of bandits, smiling in the dark.”

I told them stories. They wrote stories. They read their stories out loud. We postulated and discussed and argued and laughed and made excellent points. I think we’re all exhausted. The kids walked out holding their writing hands limply in makeshift slings.

On my way out to my car today, I literally waded through a sea of Kindergarteners. They swirled and swelled and crashed like waves. They clung to my boots like seaweed. Third graders jostled me from side to side and fourth graders shouted like fog horns in my ears. Fifth graders pulled at my coat sleeves as I left, and sixth graders called me back because I had to listen to the funniest joke. It took me like an hour just to leave.

I love them. I love them so much. But I forget how tiring this work is. I’m sitting on the couch right now and it is so much work just to keep my skeleton from turning into a puddle on the floor. I am a pot boiled dry. I am an empty husk. I am the ashes from yesterday’s campfire. I have no muscles. My skull has shattered. My eyeballs rolled away an hour ago, and I think they’re lodged under the refrigerator. It hurts to breathe.

And I just want to point out that your kids’ teachers do this every single day. Every day, they work themselves to the dang bone. Every day they pour out their love and their intellect and their training. Every day they chart a course on your kids’ learning. You are here, they say, pointing to the map. And just look at where you are going. Isn’t it wonderful?

Teachers are awesome. And I know that, of course I do. But I know it even more during my little teaching stints. Where I meet these kids and work with these kids and love these kids, and they inhale every joule of energy in me. They drain my essence. They absorb every ounce of my soul. And I know that for their teachers, this ain’t nuthin. For them, it’s just Wednesday. They pour themselves out every single day. They are inexhaustible wells. And god bless ’em.

So here’s my challenge for you: Go out and do something nice for a teacher. Any teacher. Buy ’em a latte. Give ’em a Target gift card. Write ’em a note. Do something. Because holy smokes. Do they ever deserve it.

My hat, ladies and gentlemen. It is off.

And now, will someone please bring a hose and an air machine? Because I seem to have deflated. And I need to be re-inflated by tomorrow so I may return to the classroom and teach my heart out once again. ONCE MORE, MY FRIENDS. INTO THE DEEP.

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!

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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