A month ago or so, I wrote this post about how terrified I was to teach a creative writing class at the library for middle and high school students. Last night, I finished the session with the fourth and final class. We had some snacks – and I learned that Cheezits and M&Ms together makes a surprisingly tasty dish. We ditched the tables and chairs and sat on the oval kids carpet that’s normally used for 3-year-old kids during library story time. We all thought was pretty funny.
I had a plan going in to this. Well, sort of. My primary plan was to not suck. I wanted this class to be fun and useful. I didn’t know who I’d have in class. I didn’t know what their interests might be, and I didn’t have any idea if I’d the class would be filled with the bubbly-talking-all-the-time teenager or the brooding-every-adult-is-worthless teenager, or some combination I hadn’t encountered before.
My plan went something like this:
Week 1: Narrowing their point of view and thinking beyond the surface. I told them an odd story about a pencil and asked them consider the stories that were contained in everything that touched their lives – that a pencil could be more than a pencil; it could be the story of things that have been written or drawn with it, or the people who did the writing and drawing. I gave them a “1-inch window” based on Anne Lamott’s teachings. I talked to them about the importance of narrowing their view and their subject in order to produce clearer ideas and better writing. I left feeling better than I had when I started.
Week 2: Point of view. I brought a bunch of random things – a rubber ducky, an Altoids can, an apple, a stone gargoyle, and asked them to write from the point-of-view of one of these items. I was surprised with what they came up with. They really displayed some creativity.
Week 3: Using the senses. I encouraged them to use all their senses in their writing, and to focus on a sense aside from sight, which I think we tend to rely on predominately in writing. We left our activity room and wandered around the library. I think we were all a little surprised by what we heard and smelled. In particularly, almost all of the students comments on the scent of “oldness” that came from the books. They said they could smell the books, and I could too. It was a fascinating exercise that I felt had gone off very well.
Week 4: This was where I planned to spend more time talking to them about experiences and emotions, and how these – good and bad – can all be cataloged and used to write stories down the road in their writing. We talked about what writing meant to us, and how it is this great way to get thoughts and ideas out of your head and into a meaningful form. We talked about how it can help us process the things we feel and make sense of them. We also talked about not limiting our thoughts, about how we really can think any number of things and those can become stories.
Then we did an exercise that produced a hilariously crazy story. I started with one sentence, then moved around the room with each student adding a line to move the story forward. They could basically take the story anywhere they wanted to go. I’ve summarized it below (because we did this verbally and I couldn’t keep notes fast enough):
I looked through a hole in the wall. It looked like a gunshot. Looking through it, I saw that it led to a dark room covered in tiles etched with ancient writing. Across that room, I could see a where the bullet had lodged in the opposite wall. As I looked across the room, an eye appeared in front of me and someone was staring back at me through the hole in the wall. I could smell his breath; it settled in my nostrils, burning with the scent of fire and death.
I turned around and realized the room I was in had been a bank, and it was filled with people dressed in black. There had been a bank robbery, and a shooting, which had created this hole in the wall. I looked back through the hole, and saw that the eye staring back at me was actually Steve Miller and his band, and they were playing “Take the Money and Run.” Suddenly, cracks began to form around the hole and the wall began to crumble away. This hole became a portal through which I could see every event of my life pass before my eyes. I could see every second – from birth to now – all at once. I stepped into the next room, where my memories passed by and realized there were doors to each different memory. I considered which door to open, not knowing what lay on the other side. But I had to choose because the portal behind my was closing forever. I opened a door and it took me back to when I was 7. But as soon as I walked through the door, I saw that it wasn’t really me at 7, it was 1967 and I was in the recording studio with the Beetles, who were producing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I decided to sing along, but I messed up and sang out of tune. Then I saw the thing that had messed me up – it was a magical unicorn that had jumped on me. Only I didn’t realize it was a magical unicorn at first. I thought it was a demon, so I grabbed Ringo Star’s drum stick and poked it in the eye. But it turned out it really was a magical unicorn; I was just imagining the demon. The unicorn wailed out in pain; a wounded unicorn cry sounds like Miley Cirus singing “Wrecking Ball.”
As blood flowed from the unicorn (there was discussion here about whether unicorns bleed glitter, rainbows, or candidates for U.S. President) it turned into an orange dragon who began arguing with me about U.S. economic policy.
Then the entire scene changed before my eyes. The dragon remained, however, and he told me that in the year 2016 Bernie Sanders would become president, beating Donald Trump by a mere 2 percent of the vote. Two weeks after his inauguration, however, Sanders would befall a terrible tragedy. As I looked more closely at the dragon, I realized he wasn’t a dragon at all – but a pattern of spilled Cheezits that landed in the shape of a dragon. I had only thought he was a dragon because during my writing class at the library, I had eaten too many cookies and M&Ms and Cheezits and my brain was fried from all the sugar.
I really enjoyed this exercise. I got to see a little bit about their thinking and creativity. I also got to see them laugh and be a little open and free with each other. It really was a pretty incredible experience.
At the end of class, I thanked them for attending and asked them to give me some thoughts. They all indicated that they enjoyed it, and said it helped them consider more about how they think and write. I asked if they’d be interested in attending another class, maybe one that expanded on this one, or something during the summer that would keep them writing. They said they would, and that made me feel really good about the whole thing. They also said it would be useful to create a blog or Facebook page or something where the students could all bounce ideas off of each other, or share their writing or ideas.
There are things I think I could’ve done better – maybe more fun exercises and less of me talking. I’ve told people I should’ve called it a creative thinking class rather than creative writing, because that’s really what we focused on. But overall, I feel good about what we did with this class. I was happy for the chance to meet these kids and learn a little more about them. I’ll go back to what I said in the first post about this – teaching is a challenging thing. I only had a handful of “students” and each brought his or her own personality and ideas about how this class should go. Finding something that appeals to each of them is not an easy thing. Blending those different personalities into a group that works together productively is a challenge. So any teacher who has to do that with 30 students – and subjects that are much less entertaining and under the restrictions of expectations and standards – has my respect and admiration.
I hope these kids got as much from me as I did from them. It was really fun for me to talk to them about their thoughts and ideas, and learn more about their lives. I will carry this experience with me for a very long time. I hope they take some things with them as well. I hope they’ll journal. I hope they’ll feel free with their own thoughts. I hope they’ll see that writing is a good way to make sense of those thoughts, and the world. I hope they learned to step outside of themselves sometimes and consider a different perspective. I hope they’ll take time to fully absorb moments in their lives, with all their senses. I hope they’ll look at their lives as a beautiful story they are writing each and every day.