Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Write Stuff

November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as "NaNoWriMo" to a number of scribes, with the challenge to put your money where your storytelling mouth is and pen 50,000 words in thirty days (and yes, they are supposed to be more or less in the right order, I asked). I participated in a January spin-off of this self-imposed literary boot camp through my regional SCBWI chapter and managed 31,141 words (but who's counting?). On the bright (and teacherly) side, this exciting, motivational program has a well-planned and comprehensive component for young writers, including the free downloads of Young Novelist Workbooks ("100% awesome, non-lame," they aren't kidding, I would have loved these in the sixth grade and I am itching to do them even now). Children are encouraged to set their own word-count goals,and I am proud to be one of this year's pep talkers, in auspicious company! This is a wonderful opportunity for kids to focus and be supported in their most prolific and spontaneous impulses to create! Just like Black History Month and Women's History Month and Poetry Month and Cupcake Eating Month (oh, no cupcake eating month? My mistake...burp!), you don't need a calendar date to celebrate or to begin.

Speaking of putting words in the right order, that's an awfully hard and subjective thing to teach, as you know. My goodness, it seems to take no time at all before children are completely smushed and squooshed up and all they care about is what other people think of what they have to say, writing to impress instead of express. So! I was ecstatic to come across this masterpiece, WHAT IT IS by Lynda J. Barry (Drawn and Quarterly). Some may call it a memoir or an art book but to us it will be no secret that this is a teaching book all the way, and a mighty inspired one, like "choir of angels singing when you crack the binding" inspired:
There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capablities, in the way melody can transform mood. they can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable. It seems that human beings everywhere understand that a child who is never allowed to play will eventually go mad. But how do we know this? And why do we know this? And what happens when we forget? -- Lynda J. Barry

(Thanks to Parka for the images!)

The first part of the book focuses very on Barry's own childhood and how she and what she learned as a child, and then she speaks to what she learned and unlearned as an adult, especially with the help of an arts educator named Marilyn Frasca who cleverly knew how to teach as much as by what went unspoken as what was said aloud. The grand finale is a generous and wild activity book that will help anyone who reads it squish and smush down anything that's been doing the squishing and smushing. Dedicated primly to a Miss Doris Mitchell (the photo on the last page will make you cry a little, you watch!), this is clearly a tribute to Barry's teachers, but in the process, Barry is revealed as a transformative teacher herself. Would somebody give this woman a MacArthur Grant already?! Seriously, what does it take! In the meantime, I recommend dusting off the ol' opaque projector and sharing some of these pages with kids (you will have favorites) or start saving for a classroom set. Children deserve to see what they are capable of creating. Teacher, read this and see what you, too, are a capable of creating...on paper, in the classroom, and in another person.

(And Lynda Barry, please come over for matzoh ball soup, the best way I know how to say "thanks.")