“Editor. Writer. Teacher.” That’s what my website says I am. But it’s only in the past few years that I have been able to claim the last title. Thanks, in part, to my experiences as an instructor with a program called The Society of Young Inklings (http://younginklings.org), whose mission is to “inspire and encourage young writers because learning to think creatively opens every door,” I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I always knew that teaching could inform my writing, but what I didn’t realize was how teaching could transform it. Now, my only problem is that I’m spending so much time preparing for classes, camps and tutoring sessions that I’m having trouble squeezing in the novel writing.
My husband assumed that once I graduated with my MFA, he’d get to eat real food again for dinner. And we did—for a while. But now, as the take-out containers stack up in the fridge, I realize that all I’ve done is trade one obsession for another. Clearly, I’m addicted to teaching, and my life has become unmanageable. So, I sat down to do a searching and fearless moral inventory. Four cups of coffee later, I was able to justify my passion and recommend it to others. Here are three ways that I believe teaching kids can inspire and empower Kidlit writers.
1. Teaching Gives You Permission to Play: To children, play comes naturally. But by the time you’re old enough to be an instructor, this instinct has pretty much been wrung out of you. But in programs where improv and movement games are used to energize students and help them find the truth in their stories, writers can rediscover their inner child.
It makes sense to get up from your desk and move. When writing scenes, I need to make noises and faces, gnash my teeth, hum, curse, laugh and moan. Sometimes I act out conversations or roll around on the floor. I constantly run to the mirror, so I can describe the expression on my face. How do you show anger, jealousy, or humiliation? Throw out a prompt and watch a couple of fifth graders take the floor and use their bodies to teach you what those emotions look like. Sometimes, I can’t take notes fast enough.
Play-based writing games also enable writers with different learning styles such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, social, solitary, etc., more opportunities to find a way in. In my “five senses” exercise, I expose students to a variety of sensory stimuli and then observe what the experience evokes. For smell, I’ll give blindfolded kids a whiff of Play-Doh, cologne, cinnamon, or fresh basil. It can be an “aha” moment for young writers when they make the connection between scent and memory—and then apply this realization to their stories.
2. You Can Steal Their Stuff: Looking for a good knock-knock joke for your young protagonist? To crack the code of what cracks kids up, you can always watch YouTube, but there’s no substitute for “borrowing” firsthand material. For instance, I’ve amassed an impressive collection of fart jokes from one of my favorite fourth grade boys. It all started when I brought a battery-operated fart machine to a tutoring session (you squeeze it to hear four kinds of noises). It had been a White Elephant gift, good for absolutely nothing until I had the brilliant idea to use it as a “reward” for responsible behavior. (I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me, it worked.) Not only did I get insight into what tickles the funny bones of fourth graders, but I also got some humorous material for my work in progress.
Teachers can also openly eavesdrop. Last fall, I taught a three-day writing workshop to a group of talented teens at the multigenerational Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Novel Workshop & Retreat. On the last night, my students invited me to join them for s’mores around a beach campfire. Afterwards, we lay in the sand under the stars where, lulled by the sound of the ocean waves, my students talked late into the night, sharing stories about their lives…
3. You Get to Walk in Their Shoes: You may be surprised to hear this, but kids on television and film are not always depicted realistically. How do real teens think, act and talk? Working in classrooms and private homes (I do both) enables me to study young readers in their native habitats. Reading the stories they write gives me valuable insights into what makes my target audience tick. And when students’ eyes glaze over in class, I know exactly when my material has failed and I’ve lost their attention (unlike the anonymous readers of our books). My biggest teaching surprise, however, has been that gender stereotypes often hold true. My boys tend to write about bombs, bullet holes and dystopian worlds (what I call “tough guys in space”), whereas my girls gravitate towards domestic drama and stories that involve “mean girls in school.” Is this cultural conditioning or in the DNA?
Writing from a kid’s perspective isn’t always easy. I’ll never forget the time I told my class a “funny” story about how I once tried to convince my little sister to drink perfume. Afterwards, I expected smiles and laughter. Instead, I was chastised by a sea of stony faces. “But… that was mean,” a sixth grade boy spoke up. And in a blinding flash, I saw the incident from their perspective—not as a humorous anecdote, but as a red flag. Unlike the world of my childhood—where there was no Internet, AMBER alerts or cyber-bullying—the world kids are growing up in today is vastly different and much less safe. My students’ reaction was a reality check.
In the end, it comes down to this. Sometimes you don’t know what you know until you’re a teacher and have to explain it to someone else. Empowering young writers can empower you. So, are you ready to take the plunge?