Supposedly, the Create a World/Create a Mystery curriculum is based on sound pedagogy: allowing children to tap into their vivid imaginations and fresh, exciting ideas can turn some reluctant writers into students eager to tell their stories. But I have an ulterior motive: I love listening to the kids read their creations to their classmates! And the part that never ceases to amaze me is that they come up with these incredible, often fully fleshed out ideas in only seven minutes!
As I will say in a later post, after I hear a lot of these little snippets, I have trouble remembering them. But let me give you an example. This was a story – actually, in this case, book jacket copy and an excerpt – handed to me by an enthusiastic Kinkaid student. She had created it in the seven minutes of time I give students to create a world of their choosing, and a problem, a puzzle, or a mystery within that world.
Kayleigh lives a not-so-normal life at a not-so-normal boarding school for girls. In fact, she is an elite spy in training! Halfway through her sophomore year, her father goes on a mission and never comes back. Desperate to discover the truth behind what was said to be her father’s death, Kayleigh discovers a shocking truth. In a story that takes place just north of Salida, Colorado, will Kayleigh survive her worst nightmare ever?
Excerpt: “Kayleigh, come to my office,” Mom ordered after dinner.
I followed her up the grand staircase. Inside her office, she said, “Kayleigh, Dad isn’t coming home.”
This gives you a sense of the fabulous stories fashioned by students at Kinkaid and Grace Presbyterian, the two schools I visited earlier this week in Houston, Texas. Indeed, it could have been written by a student at any of the schools I’ve visited.
· I loved the story set in an amazingly detailed world in the far future, where everything had been reduced to acronyms such as MNA: Morning Nutritional Allowance.
· A young woman wrote wonderfully of an entire culture (with names for both the world and its inhabitants) existing just beneath the surface of the earth, accessible only through fissures at the base of cliffs and in dry landscapes.
· A young man wrote some terrific book flap copy for a nonfiction work about the current presidential administration. I didn’t agree with his viewpoint, but the writing was splendid.
The award for most memorable probably goes to the Kinkaid student who wrote a compelling, extremely well-written short-short story beginning with “Cut!” – or some such exclamation from the world of filmmaking. In it, a director is trying to wring a good performance out of a young starlet, who, within the seven-minute writing period, manages to get her face chomped off by a paper raccoon!
There were many great first lines. I love those that, like the last example, bring us into the middle of an ongoing scene. But the very, very best first line I heard in Houston came from a student at Grace: “In the beginning, God created the heavens, the earth, and baseball.”
Another memorable line, though not the first line of a story, came from a young woman at Kincaid who wrote about a character who had just witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of a mugger in Central Park. The line: “My throat hurt from the tears I was holding back.”
There were many stories vying for top honors in each of the two locations. A grizzly bear in Wisconsin. A futuristic story in which the hero is keeping a journal on the old-fashioned medium of paper. The cop at the murder scene on Broadway in New York. And so many more wonderful, vivid creations.
But if forced to choose, at Kinkaid the award would go to the young man who wrote so compellingly and so beautifully of the dog and its master, separated by thousands of miles, now searching for one another, “drawn together like magnets.”
And at Grace Presbyterian, I would have to single out the story that featured Cinderella, with a glass slipper that was Buzz Lightyear’s helmet; Sleepy, the dwarf from Sleeping Beauty; the rat Ratatouille; and the wand of Harry Potter that ultimately brings them all together.
Kids, you all did great!
I blogged earlier about my experience at Visitation, where the kids met me with signs saying UFFDA, a Scandinavian expression I had once named as my favorite word. Well, it happened again at Kinkaid. And the kids who put this Uffda campaign together had the idea before they read my blog. Once again I was treated to multiple recurrences of Uffda: the napkins at two lunches, huge signs at my assembly presentation, and even an Uffda mug as part of my thank you gift. I’m using it now for my coffee. Obviously, I’m never going to live this Uffda business down – but then, why would I want to?
So I’m Not the World’s Fastest Learner
Some time ago I blogged about a wonderful opportunity to work with fifth and sixth graders at Visitation School in Mendota Heights, Minnesota. That was my first experience using my Create a World/Create a Mystery curriculum. Maybe because it was the first time, maybe because I met with only one classroom full of kids, I remembered a lot of the stories the kids had come up with. There were so many good ones. Many more than I was able to relate in the blog.
Not long after that, I had a chance to work with fifth, sixth and some seventh grade students at Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis. Awesome, vibrant kids, many of whom had great ideas and fashioned them into wonderfully imaginative stories. A few weeks later I had the great privilege of appearing as visiting author in conjunction with the annual book sale at Saint Paul Academy-Summit School, right here in my neighborhood. I spent a wonderful day there, once again treated to stories created and read aloud by terrifically inventive kids. Many of their tales made me laugh, a few grossed me out, and, as in the other schools before and after, a surprising number revealed true talent.
But can I remember them? No way. Between Anthony and SPA, there were so many pieces of writing that they all became a blur. Wasn’t there a terrific story about a land of cats? And who wrote the story about the frogs? Many set in the future were distinct at the time, but after hearing maybe fifteen stories set in the future in a single day, they blended together. There were variations on the theme of zombies, I remember, some set in Candyland, and one very gory tale about Elmo, of all things. One particularly vivid reading involved a girl who witnesses the murder of an old woman on a New York street and must now hide from the bad guys. Wasn’t there a historical mystery set in Sweden?
It took me two more schools, both of them in Houston, before I was finally able to figure out that I have to write these things down to remember them! Duh! So from now on, I visit classrooms with writing materials in hand.
Here’s a challenge to anyone whose class I have attended. If you’re a student, send me what you wrote, send me the fully fleshed out story that resulted from what we started in class, or send me just the idea of the world and the puzzle that you shaped into the story. If you’re a teacher, send me a reminder of the stories you found especially memorable, or send me the continued stories your kids are writing. I love these works created or begun in the classes I visit, and I feel terrible that I have lost so many of them!