I've spent a wonderful three days with students in the Highly Capable program in the Chehalis, Aberdeen, Raymond, and Hoquiam School Districts in southwest Washington. The students range from second to sixth grade and they got a big, four-hour dose of writing tips from me during a workshop designed to engage them in the natural world and in their writing.
Four hours is a lot of time, but broken down into 20-minute blocks, the day goes quickly. at The start of the day, I give each students a mini composition book and a golf pencil (writing tools I keep in my purse, glove compartment, by the bedside table). They use this for taking notes, doodling, or writing down their observations at stations I set up outside the classroom--in the natural areas adjacent to or near the school. Luckily, both schools I held my workshops in were near wooded areas--one with trails and flowing water, the other with a lovely pond surrounded by mature fir and cedar.
The kids were ecstatic to be outside, exploring what lay just beyond the playground, finding all sorts of "cool!" leaves, cones, rocks, mosses, puddles, and water a little deeper than they expected. Though one mother had to deliver dry clothes to her student, no one whined about, soaked hoodies, numb finger tips, or muddy shoes.
Using their observations from outdoors, we created a word bank, and from that word bank we created our stories. We wrote group stories in 15 minutes, we wrote individual stories in 10. The stories were fiction (zany fantasy, usually involving zombies, chickens, spaceships, and large moss-covered trees) but incorporated non-fiction elements from the word bank. We were aiming toward the genre I write in--narrative non-fiction--and I think the students understood that even the zaniest fantasy or sci-fi needs to be grounded in observable truths.
Part of my program includes props and some hamming it up on my part to explain the four different stages of the creative process--the explorer, artists, judge, and warrior. I was first introduced to these stages during a workshop thirty years ago by Roger von Oech, a creativity consultant and author of A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (books about unlocking your mind). I have modified for the classroom--almost beyond recognition!
The students loved the warrior helmet I put on and, I think, relate to the stage in any creative process where you have to meet your deadline. The big enemy for any warrior is Distraction--the cell phone, iPod, Internet, snacks, TV, the pets, the messy room--and the students get a feeling for dealing with those distractions. I ask them to transcribe the nearly illegible story (at top of this post) into their notebooks in 15 minutes. Then, with the help of an assistant, try to distract the students by poking them and saying "hey! hey! hey!" or by testing all my ring tones on max volume or by standing by the window and shouting "Wow! Look at this!"
At first, the students do not behave like warriors. They turn their heads toward me. They look. They come over to the window. When I scold (gently) for not being warriors--they get it. The last ten minutes of the exercise features me being obnoxious and no one even cutting their eyes at me. Success!
At the end of every workshop, the students fill out a six-question evaluation form. "Fill out" isn't exactly what they do, though. Most of the questions require a "yes" or "no" answer, which is what is given (though there is plenty of space for elaboration!)
I pass the surveys out at 1:20, the students leave at 1:30. This gives them ten minutes. But they are tired, they are weary of writing, they need a break. And they think that if they fill out the survey in 2 minutes, they can leave at 1:22. Most of them are in line by the door at 1:22.
After the students leave, I collect the surveys to send to the Hi-Cap program office. But I read them first. The pay dirt comes in the responses, written hurriedly and with a stubby golf pencil, to question number 3: "What good ideas did you learn from this workshop?"
"Be a warrior."
"How to write things."
"Distractions are not good for writing."
"That it is hard to write."
"How to write stuff."
"That hiking is fun."
"How not to have writer's block."
"How to write several prewrites."
"There is amazing wildlife behind the school."
"Don't take your attention off stuff."
And best of all--the one that made me laugh outloud...