Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Tale of a Girl Named Chicken

By Amanda Simays

Recently at the middle school where I work, my fellow volunteers and I started after-school clubs — Hip Hop Aerobics, Photography, Travel, and Creative Writing/Word Games. Guess which club had the least amount of sign-ups?

Yup. My club, Creative Writing. And the ones who did stick it out were much more interested in the word games (Mad Libs, Hangman, etc.) than anything that involved actually putting a pen to paper.

Maybe it’s to be expected at the middle school level, but very few of the students I work with would put “writing” and “fun” in the same sentence. I know a few kids who keep journals or write raps — and the art of passing notes and texting in class is still thriving — but for the most part, writing is viewed as schoolwork drudgery, on par with memorizing Civil War dates and calculating the slope of a line.

I’m trying to fight this attitude. A few weeks ago, I pulled four of my tutees out of class at the same time, handed them their notebooks, and told them to write the beginning of a story. They stared at me blankly.

“You can write anything,” I said. “You just have to write.”

I had my own notebook with me so I could model what I was talking about. I started writing a silly story about two boys who went fishing and caught a mermaid. Tentatively, the other girls started to write too.

“Switch!” I said suddenly, and I made everyone pass her notebook to the left. Gradually, they caught on to what I was getting at, and they also realized that I really meant it when I said that they could write about absolutely anything. When one girl complained that I didn’t give out enough candy, I told her to put that in the story if that’s what was on her mind. Sure enough, she had her character (running through the woods to escape a crazed farmer with an ax) encounter Ms. Amanda there in the forest, eating candy and not sharing with anyone.

Soon the girls turned from whining about having to write to being completely absorbed in the activity, silently scribbling except for the occasional giggle and the periodic shout of “Switch!” By the time the bell rang, we had created five collaborative stories. One girl wrote about a high school romance. Another student wrote about a seven-year-old girl named Chicken who was also “shaped like a chicken.” Were they literary masterpieces? Not really. But the point was to get the students writing, feeling free to put their thoughts into words on paper without worry of being graded or judged.

As a tutor, I have to spend most of my time focusing on the practical side of academic writing, but I’m still convinced that content organization and conventions will be easier to develop if I can foster that spark of enthusiasm for writing first.


Ginny said...

Thanks for motivating our youth and proving to them that writing can be fun. It's a way to give voice to one's uniqueness...make yourself heard in this world of homogenous food, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, WalMart that pervades almost every aspect of American society.

monjon said...

I very much agree with your conclusion. Simple recognition by students that writing (versus texting) is conveying more than one thought and therefor more important is paramount.

Anonymous said...

I like that writing activity! Keep up the good work--the students will appreciate it when they get to high school...and beyond.