On August 22, 2011, Melissa wrote, ....I still want to know what you're doing at your summer workshop. Or if you could tell me some of the homework you gave the kids. Hopefully I can find your answer this time.
Thirty to thirty-five children sign up and usually about twenty or so are there each week. The age range is ten years to eighteen. Debby, a fifth grade teacher volunteer helps me. (I’m also a volunteer. The local library hosts us.) I hold six sessions, each an hour-and-a-half long. We always start with a vocabulary word, often a word that’s new to me that I got online from Wordsmith at http://wordsmith.org/words/today.html. I’m looking for interesting words, interesting meaning. My favorite word last summer was poetaster.
The kids know what to do as soon as I write the word on the eraser board. They make up a definition and guess what part of speech the word is and write both on a scrap of paper, which I collect. I pick four or five to read aloud and slip in the real definition, written in a kid vernacular. Then they vote for the one they think is the true meaning. My hope is that they won’t pick mine so there’s a surprise. When the real definition is revealed we applaud the person who came up with the most persuasive wrong definition. Kids return to the workshop year after year and get better and better at inventing the fakes. They also start thinking about roots of words and etymology. My goal is to help them fall in love with English. Most are at least halfway there already.
Next, I read a poem I like and suspect will appeal to them. I’m not always right.
During the first class I ask the kids what they hope to get out of the summer. Last year several wanted to work on conflict. Great choice!
So I looked online for help and found an article that listed four kinds of conflict (interpersonal, internal, situational, societal). For the second class of the season I introduced the four and we started on one, interpersonal conflict. I’ve discovered over the years that some prep helps before the writing commences. Here are my notes to myself for leading the introductory discussion on conflict:
Why does a story need suffering, humorous suffering or serious suffering?
Why do readers seek out entertainment in which terrible things happen, villains behave monstrously, people die? I’m not sure, but maybe because we’re preparing for the worst that life can throw at us. When we make Sammy suffer we’re helping our readers, which should stiffen us to do it. We may hurt him, but we’re helping them.
Conflict doesn’t have to be huge, though. Worry about a report card and a parent’s reaction, worry about something foolish a character said.
How do you convey that a character feels bad?
Perception, like stomach clench.
Action (like leaving, or being wounded literally).
Possibly even setting.
After the discussion, when I think everyone is ready, I give out the writing exercise. You’ll see that I offer two choices. The age range in the class is huge - we’re like a one-room writing schoolhouse - and I want to appeal to them all. Here’s the in-class choice of exercises. You can use either or both as a blog-post prompt:
Carl or Carlie, who doesn’t like to share, has something that’s very precious to him or her, may have magical properties. His or her best friend Tom or Tomasina wants it. Write what happens. Make each one do or say something he or she doesn’t mean. Make them both feel bad. (I emphasized that we weren’t going for a happy ending here; we were working on conflict, which means distress.)
A new bicycle
Book by author they both love
Or Carl or Carlie says to Tom or Tomasina, “I hate when you do that.” Write their argument. Make each one do or say something he or she doesn’t mean. Make them both feel bad.
I can’t find the handout I gave the kids or I would have shown it to you here, but I usually give them something to look at while they work.
Then they write. I ask them to let me or Debby know if they need help. We also watch for kids who’ve stopped working and seem stuck.
After about twenty to twenty-five minutes I stop them and break them into groups for sharing and critique. Often I arrange the groups by age, and Debby and I join groups of the younger kids, because the older ones generally need no assistance. Part of the first class is devoted to a discussion of critiquing protocol.
Then I give out the homework. Below is what I handed out for the internal conflict class. It’s one of my favorites ever, and it can be another prompt for you. I don’t think I used it on the blog, but often my blog prompts are the source of class exercises and vice versa. Here is is:
A car is a great place for conflict. Who picks the radio station? Or CD player or iPod. Who prefers news or a recorded book? Open window? Closed window? How high to crank the heat or the air-conditioner? Who sits in front? Anybody gets carsick? Are the grownups arguing about driving style? Are the kids pushing, pinching, teasing? In doing this exercise you can draw on your own miserable car experiences.
Perry is invited to vacation with his best friend Letty Pewer and her parents. They are traveling from Brewster to Florida for a winter week in the sun. Write a scene or a story about their trip. Below are some possibilities to fool around with. Pick as many as you like or make up your own or do a combo of mine and yours.
• Letty’s father is peculiar. You decide how.
• Letty’s mom is a dangerous driver. You decide how.
• Letty’s younger brother and older sister are coming along. They don’t get along with Letty and dislike Perry.
• The car is older than Perry. The radio doesn’t work. There is no iPod, no CD player.
• The Pewers are economizing and haven’t bought a GPS. Good old maps are good enough for them. They plan to camp out and save on motel costs as soon as they reach warm enough weather.
• The car is bewitched - not in a good way.
• This is the snowiest winter in the history of New York and surrounding states.
• The scenic route will take the family and Perry through an old mining town in Pennsylvania. Unbeknownst to the authorities, one of the abandoned mines is now occupied by squatters who may be dangerous.
The children aren’t required to do the homework; this is summer and the workshop isn’t a school, but usually they do. I don’t grade their work but I do comment and return it. The emphasis in my comments is on story not on spelling and grammar.
For those of you who are teachers, I think you’ll understand this: I always show up with a longer lesson plan than I think I’ll need. Sometimes what I think is going to take half an hour gets done in five minutes. There is nothing (well, hardly anything) worse than running out of material.
Then we go home.
Two sessions are devoted to writing poetry. Since I’m still a newbie poet I just do my best and hope I don’t make too many mistakes. (I still shudder at the crazy advice I gave the kids about how to write a sestina.) I’ve found that structured poetry works best. Last summer we did poems that use anaphora and we did rhymed poetry. For the poetry sessions we follow the same structure as for fiction writing: discussion, in-class exercise, homework.
For the session on rhyme, the vocabulary word was apocope, a word I hadn’t known before, which I found in my preparation and which connected to the class topic. These are my notes for what I wanted to say about rhyme before giving out the exercise:
the good - satisfying, pleasing, when clever surprising
the bad - too often not surprising, forced with word inversion, using not the best word
we’re waiting for the rhyme, may miss the meaning, like limericks
read from Poet’s Companion, define kinds of rhyme, make sure they know what accented vs. unaccented syllables are.
rhyme scheme, aa bb, abab,
hand out Molly’s poems, go over rhymes
bouts-rimes - give example of rhymes in Handbook of Poetic Forms, put examples of these in your words, but not my examples
The exercise was a bouts-rimes, which is a kind of poem challenge. I think I had them do it in pairs. Each pair wrote a list of rhyming words then passed them off to the pair to their left. The next step was to write a poem using the rhymes. Fun. So another prompt would be to try this with a friend or a few friends.
Near the end of class I handed out Edward Lear’s poem, “Alphabet” and gave this homework assignment:
Write your own alphabet poem. In the example I gave you, some of the rhymes are forced. Avoid forced rhymes in your own poem. You can start with these first two lines or make up your own, but make the subject something lost:
A lost her Amulet, though she ransacked the Attic for it.
B said: Might it have been taken by a Bandit?
You can use any kind of rhyme:
∙ Masculine perfect rhyme, as in book with look
∙ Feminine perfect rhyme, as in riding with gliding
∙ Slant rhyme, as in blade with head
∙ Apocopated rhyme, as in beak with speaker
∙ Assonance or vowel rhyme, as in why with pride
∙ Identical rhyme, as in book with book (you can’t do this constantly)
∙ Eye rhyme, as in though with cough
For extra credit, after Z, end the poem with two or three lines (serious or not) about lost things.
Some of the poems I got back were amazing. You can look up the Lear poem and try it yourself.
The other thing I do each summer, although with decreasing enthusiasm, is a group novel. I keep offering it as a possibility because the kids like the idea, but then I think it disappoints them. I suggest a theme, and the first child writes a first chapter during the week and brings two copies of it in the next week. Debby keeps a master copy and passes the other on to someone to write the next chapter. By the end there’s a story in five chapters and everyone in the workshop gets a copy. Since there are more than five participants, there are several novels in the works, the number depending on the level of interest. Those who don't participate in the novel can submit a piece they worked on during the summer for distribution.
And that’s the summer workshop in a very long post. For prompts, try the exercise I gave the kids. Have fun, and save what you write!