Just spent another invigorating morning with Tori’s sixth-grade ELA students. I honestly think I get more out of it than they do.
I started by telling them what author James Scott Bell had to say about story. Sometimes writers fall in love with their characters. They don’t want them to have any dark spots, any flaws. They don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And that’s boring. As somebody or other said, “No one is going to go to a movie about ‘Another perfect day in the village of happy people.'” Story, Bell tells us, is taking some characters and getting them stuck in a tree with hungry wolves circling below them Then you throw rocks at the characters. Then you set the tree on fire. Then you let them figure out how to get out of the tree.
In our story, the one I am reading to them a couple of chapters at a time, we just got the characters up the tree, I told the kids. Now we’re starting to throw rocks at them, and pretty soon the tree will be on fire.
As I read the next two chapters, I could see them react when something I’d set up earlier suddenly “paid off,” To me that meant they were getting it, not just the narrative of the story, but the technique.
But the real fun part came after I was done reading the two chapters. Tori had them get out paper and write for 10 minutes. They were supposed to write dialogue with the characters from the story. What might happen next? What are they going to do?
It wasn’t about them guessing what I have in mind, wasn’t about them “getingt it right.” I kept telling them, “This isn’t a test. It’s the first draft, it doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be done.” It was just about them writing for 10 minutes and exploring what THEY would do, and usinng the conventions. They struggled a bit at first, but suddenly you could almost read by the light of all the bulbs going off over their heads. At the 10-minute mark, many of them were eager to read what they’d done, and others we coaxed. It wasn’t bad at all. And I played on my bad hearing. Made them read out, they got stronger as they went along.
And a couple of them DID get what I plan to happen next. Not the way it’s going to happen, of course, but the general idea.
Towards the end one girl asked me the classic – “Where do you get ideas and how do you put them together for a story?” (Apprently she’s hooked on the writing thing!) I went to the back shelf and pulled a couple of books from the class library.
“Where did Judy Blume get the idea for this one? Where did Dav Pilkey get the idea for “Captain Underpants?” Just an idea, a thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if … ? That’s really all it takes to start. J.K. Rowling wondered, ‘What if a boy who thought he was normal went to wizard school?’ Just ideas. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if?’ ‘You know what really scares me?’ ‘What if a middle school student ran for president?’ What interests you? Your ideas are just as good as theirs. Even as good as J.K. Rowling’s. That’s where ideas come from. You just have to learn how to take that ‘what if,’ and then the next one and the next one until you have a story.”
I guess this is all good for them, good for them to see the process, to get excited and to practice writing and to learn the conventions of how to write dialogue. But in all honesty, I think I get much more out of it than they do. Their excitement is contagious and I’ll be coasting on it for another week. And there were one or two little things they wrote that I very well might steal. (I mean, be “inspired” by, of course.)
So back to work, got two chapters to write before next Thursday.