I had the pleasure of representing Writopia this morning with my talented and dedicated boss, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, at a Young Writer's Workshop in Scarsdale, New York. Scarsdale - famous not only for the diet, but for being one of the toniest suburbs in the world, and a place where education is revered (as it should be everywhere) at the top of its industry.
This was an impressive event: The Scarsdale parents had encouraged 500 of their 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, to sign up for a Saturday morning of creative writing workshops with 47 different teaching artists! Rebecca had signed us up to teach two consecutive workshops of 9 kids each, and to have each child create a "short, short story with a twist" in 45 minutes. Yes, a daunting task for anyone, but Rebecca and I have experienced firsthand the creative capabilities of children if in the right environment. We weren't going to give these kids blank paper and pens and tell them to write willy-nilly, oh no.
Rebecca and I were shown to our separate classrooms, and immediately rearranged the rows of desks into a circle. At Writopia, we are kid-centered and collaborative. We were each assigned a "mom" volunteer, (wearing a fetching green Young Writers Workshop tee-shirt) to take attendance, and the kids began to file in. I greeted them enthusiastically, introducing myself and Writopia, and laying the groundwork for the next forty-five minutes.
We all know about characters and objective, and the very basic elements of "story", so we don't need to go into that here. But how do you explain a plot twist to an eight year old? Simple stories end with the character either getting what they want, or not - a twist ending is that character meeting that objective in an unexpected way. When Rebecca and I had brainstormed, we came up with giving the kids a structure of a beginning and a surprise ending, and they could have twenty minutes to fill in the middle.
"It's Alice's birthday and she wants to have a sleepover, but her parents say no," I told them. How does she behave? What choices does she make in order to get what she wants? Does she give up? "We end with Alice getting what she wants, but her parents had planned the sleepover all along."
Most young writers (and old ones too) worry about copying and plagiarism: being original. This is a wonderful exercise to show how unique "voice" is, even when having the same framework of story. I guaranteed them that each would have a different story and that it would be fascinating.
A few of the third graders weren't able to start right away.
"I think they're too young," my classroom mom whispered.
I nodded to show that I understood her concern. "They can do it," I whispered back. "Give them a chance." I gave one boy a different objective of going to the zoo to get him started. Another boy spent five minutes looking to his upper left side, insisting that he was okay: "He's accessing the right part of his brain," I explained to the mom, and then he spent the next twenty minutes writing furiously.
All of them did, and all of them took pride in sharing their unique voices, with texture and depth, dialogue and detail. Of course some were more sophisticated, but that's beside the point. I loved this mom, who voiced my fears from a place of the best intention. I loved how it was proved again how children are capable of so much more creativity than we adults can fathom.