Sick, low-energy, and achy, I headed out this morning to a public school on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn with antibiotics in tow to lead the third session of a 12-week memoir project. The school hired me to provide creative writing enrichment for their freshmen. After a tough first week, I began to feel like I was making headway last week.
But, unfortunately, things (at least at first) didn't seem as bright today:
Three students appeared for the first time who hadn't been in school for the previous sessions; another three left their essays at home; two decided that they needed to change the entire focus of their essay; one still had a blank page; there was a general feeling of restlessness in the room; I barely had a voice.
So this is what Ms. S., the classroom teacher, and I did:
1) She and I quickly motioned and nodded as she took the new kids to the side and brought them up to speed.
2) The most vocal trouble-makers and I joked around for about half a minute... (They're funny :-) and I laugh easily). When they began to look straight at me I knew they were ready to begin. I called on the same rowdy bunch by name, and asked them several questions about their memoirs--which really means about the personal details of their lives. They began to calm; others began to listen.
3) Finally, two or three other students volunteered to read the current drafts of their memoirs out loud. (Which was fewer than last time, but better than none...)
4) One boy suddenly found his missing draft.
Once the new kids were updated, Ms. S and I rotated around the room to speak individually with each kid, to read a draft if they had one, or to help them flesh out the specifics of their narratives.
What I learned:
Many of them, it turned out, were struggling with writing scenes with dialogue. They didn't think they had done it "right." As I read each one, though, I found that the opposite was true: almost every single one of them had clearly captured distinct voices, humor, or strong emotion on paper in their scenes. True, the dialogue wasn't executed with technical prowess, but I automatically skipped over that part--and realized in that moment that I should have skipped explaining it in the first place. (It may have only served to intimidate them.) Then: Ms. S. explained to me after class that she has tried teaching technical writing of that sort before and that the kids have a lot of trouble with it. But it was extraordinary how easily the story-telling part came to them. The lesson: They have to fall in love with that part before they invest hours of their lives working through the challenging, technical part. My Goal: I hope that they feel that it's worth the work in the end.
THE CAVEAT AND THE PLAN: The principal is trying to get the the school's computer system fixed by January so the kids will be able to type their memoirs into computers by the end of my session with them. One of the students has a computer at home--the other few hundred rely on the moody school network. If the repair goes as planned, though, I will review the proper technical way of writing dialogue with each one privately then as they transcribe their work.)
At the end of the session today, I asked the kids to add more description of face and body language to the dialogue they had written and to write a third paragraph on the emotional context of the piece: how close they were with their cousin who died; how much time they had spent or didn't spend with their dad before he went to jail; how often they saw their grandmother before she passed away; how long they dated their boyfriend before the brutal break-up. They seemed back on track.
Ms. S. made copies of each draft this time, and then gave them back their work to take home. Her in-classroom-warmth and complete involvement seems to be central to the success of this personal-journey type project.
(I will write about group two next week.)