Writing Home: From Page to Stage

I know most authors dream of a movie deal, but I got to see my book brought to life in a way I hadn’t even dreamed of.  This spring, I had the incredibly unique opportunity of working with an entire 4th grade to turn my picture book into a play.

If you are ever looking for fresh ways to combine author visit with teaching artist, I highly recommend this.  Both the kids and I had so much fun and learned so much in the process, and the product blew me away.  But like all good learning, it didn’t come without challenges.

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My book, Writing Home: the Story of Author Thomas Wolfe, is a picture book.  It’s short. It has no dialogue.  And it’s a biography, so it’s essentially a story about one person.  The task at hand was to have 82 students write the script and act it out.  And we had just five 45 minute classes to do it.

We got creative with it.  We broke it into 16 scenes, which was cool because Thomas Wolfe got to be black, white, and Latino, male and female, tall and short.  The students learned to extrapolate on what other characters might have been there, and what might have been said that wasn’t on the pages of my book.  What they came up with was clever and entertaining.

When Grover died on stage, the mother threw a sheet over him and the narrator comically tossed a bouquet of flowers on top.  When a circus rented out the boarding house, a student dressed in a clown wig stepped down from the stage to tell jokes to the audience.  To show that Tom won a debate, the students wanted to base it in something that was real for them, so they staged a debate about whether or not toys should be allowed at school.  And when Tom finally returned to Asheville, a British farm boy offered him “some milk, on the house!”

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For many of the students, this was their first time in a play.  In addition to figuring out how to adapt the book to script, we practiced staging, projection, and inflection.  All of that in addition to overcoming stage fright.

But seeing them on stage, they totally let loose and had fun with it.  And best of all, they felt successful.  They felt a sense of ownership since they wrote their lines and staged their scenes, then got to see it come to life as we put their scenes together in front of an audience.

 

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How Minecraft is Crafting Our Minors

If you know me at all, you probably know that I am one of the last people on Earth that would promote kids playing lots of video games.  But it doesn’t really matter whether or not I would promote it, because kids are playing lots of video games.  And, as a creative writing and art teacher, I made an observation recently that I think is worth sharing (and that makes me sound way less curmudgeon-y than normal).

During my last creative writing residency, when I asked my students to write personal narratives about family memories and then fictional stories about a family member overcoming a made up conflict, they asked if they could write about computer games.  I discouraged it, but said that they could do it if they avoided violence and really focused on the experiences of their family members and not just what was happening in the game. They largely ignored me.

And you know what?  Their stories were awesome.

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Ducks understand the joys of computer games better than I do.

When I let go of my personal biases, I saw how excited they were to write their stories.  Kids who could hardly stay in their seat for 4 minutes were hashing out 3 page stories that ended with “to be continued,” because they did not want to stop.

 

Their stories were filled with action, adventure, and drama while sticking to a cohesive narrative arc.

I did not have to prod them for detail like I normally do.  They drew out descriptions of how they built houses or escaped from evil ‘animatronics.’

And, most interestingly to me, their narrative voices sounded unlike any other 3rd grade narrators I’d heard.  They were mature and sometimes even archaic, one student referring to the reader as “my child.”  They wove lots of dialogue into their stories, and one student even embedded short fables of the protagonist’s parents’ youth into his longer tale.

The same phenomenon was happening with my art students.  A group of boys who had all but stopped participating in the activities now got excited about any art form they could apply to their favorite characters.  There was no denying that computer games were encouraging kids’ creativity.  And I wasn’t the first to notice it.  A Michigan State University study linked video games to creativity in kids years ago.

The point of all this is not at all to say that parents should go encourage their kids to spend lots of time playing computer games.  It’s to say that since computer games are something that many kids are excited about, we should use that excitement to make connections with other things.  Encourage kids to draw their favorite characters… and then make up their own.  Ask them to write stories or act them out.  Build actual models of what they build in the games or create costumes of the characters.  Come up with math problems about them.

When kids get passionate about something, whether or not it’s something you care about yourself, make the most of it.

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One of my Favorite Things

I have a lot of favorite things, but one is that every three weeks, my voicemail makes me listen to all of my saved messages and decide whether I want to re-save them before I can hear any new ones.  I’ve kept some of my favorites from as far back as 2006, including several…um…totally on-key renditions of ‘Happy Birthday,’ an impromptu rap, a friend playing the bagpipes, my nephews learning how to leave voicemails (older nephew in the background: “Say: Hi, it’s Will.”  Will: “Hi, it’s me.”), and even a personalized voice message from Samuel L. Jackson urging me to watch Snakes on a Plane.  Feel free to do the math if you want, but I’ve listened to them a lot, and I still smile every time.

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The personalized Snakes on a Plane call site is gone, but you can download an awesome Samuel L. Jackson voicemail here.

All of that just to say that not all of your words have to be monumental to change the world.  Sometimes, they can change the world just by making someone smile – maybe for longer than you’d expect.  So if your writing or your work is ever feeling too heavy or daunting, take a break and call a friend.  Or send them some snail mail.  Or invite them over to watch Snakes on a Plane.  It’ll be time well spent.

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Happy Multicultural Children’s Book Day!

I’m a little late to the game in discovering that today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day, so I don’t have an exciting blog post prepared.  And even though kids and classrooms should be reading multicultural children’s books every day, I thought it was an occasion worth celebrating and that the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website, with book lists, giveaways, and kits for teachers and parents, was a resource worth sharing.

Thanks to Patricia Tilton for sharing this and reviewing a great multicultural children’s book today on her blog, Children’s Books Heal!

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Burmese Climbing Rhyme

I’ve been exploring different forms of poetry for a book I’m working on, and I’m having such a great time.  Some people, I think, see form as something they have to squash their ideas into.  For me, though, form is more like a ladder to throw down to your poem.  Sometimes your idea may fall off, but often it will climb up to an entirely different place than where it started.

Which is why I’d like to share the Burmese Climbing Rhyme, or Than Bauk, a form that’s been especially challenging and fun for me (and that fits nicely into my simile since it rhymes in steps like a ladder.)  It consists of four syllable, also adapted to four word, lines with an inward-shifting rhyme scheme.  The format looks like this:

x x x a
x x a x
x a x b
x x b x
x b x c
x x c x
x c x x

You can read more about Than Bauk here.

This morning, I decided to try my hand at one in tribute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Enjoy, and if you feel inspired to try writing your own, please share in the comments – I’d love to read them!

To Dr. King,

words were things that

could sing our souls.

His words rolled stones,

touched goals as high

as dreams fly.  Speak.

Don’t die silent.

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An Oldie but Still Relevant Goodie

Although many people still hold the idea that children’s books are saccharine bedtime stories, they are actually often at the forefront of bringing into conversation controversial or complex issues facing society.  Sometimes they even take concepts that adults still tiptoe around and hand them openly to children to think about and discuss.

tuck_everlasting_1_largeA book that I remember loving as a 4th grader came to mind recently.  Tuck Everlasting, published by Natalie Babbitt in 1975, deals with the concept of immortality.  It tells the story of Winnie Foster, who discovers a family guarding a secret – that they inadvertently drank from a ‘fountain of youth’ – and the tragedies that come with their timelessness.

Of course, there are many stories – modern and ancient, for kids and adults – that take on the idea of immortality, but the relatable characters in Tuck Everlasting make the topic very accessible to young readers and the emotion in it is believable.

As crash-preventative self-driving cars are developed, fatal diseases prevented and cured, organs grown in labs, and mechanical body parts engineered, it’s obviously important to keep this topic of immortality in conversation.  Of course these innovations are noble and have already improved the quality of life for many.  But at what point is it okay to just let people die?

There’s a HUGE part of me that wishes a doctor could have stuck a robot heart into my dad so that he’d be around to meet my kids some day.  But I also know that my dad, wary of Aspirin and baffled by how to turn on a computer (… says his flip-phone wielding daughter), would have hated that.

And it’s not only important whether increasing lifespan is valuable for individuals, but how it affects life on earth.  If these innovations extend the lifespan by 25 years, then that’s an entire extra generation of people on this planet in addition to the already growing population.  Even if it’s widely agreed upon that extending life is a good thing, our innovative energy needs to go into systems for supporting the growing population without increasing hunger or homelessness or environmental degradation before we eliminate all the main ways that humans die.

Or maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon afraid of progress.  But to me, progress means a better life, not an endless one.

I didn’t mean to make this quite such a soapbox-y (or, you know, paranoid technophobe-y) post.

What I did mean to do was to recommend reading Tuck Everlasting.  It’s a great book.

And to ask your thoughts.  What is your outlook on immortality?  What’s your idea of progress?  Are there any books you recommend that take on an issue that’s been resonating with you lately?

Thanks for bearing with me.  And remember to try to live life in a way that, when it comes down to the end, you’ll be glad whether a doctor comes and sticks a robot heart in you or not.

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Writing Prompts y Provocaciones Para Escribir

A giant thank you to all of the wonderful local writers who joined our Mountain of Words Write-In yesterday, and of course to everyone who contributed to support Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community’s work!  Your contributions will enable us to do so much, although we still have a ways to go to reach our goal – and it’s not to late to help out.

Even if you weren’t able to make it out to the write in, you can still take advantage of the bowl of writing prompts prepared especially for the event.  Go ahead and grab one, and write away!

  • Create an advertisement for yourself.  Be sure to highlight all of your greatest features! (You can also try writing a dictionary entry, recipe, or theme song for yourself…)  Crea un comercial de ti.  ¡Incluye a todas de tus características mejores!  (También puedes escribir una entrada de diccionario de ti, una receta para ti, una propaganda musical para ti…)
  • Choose an emotion, such as anger, fear, love, or surprise.  Write about it as if it were a physical thing.  What color is it?  What texture?  How does it sound and smell? Selecciona una emoción como el enojo, el miedo, el amor o la sorpresa.  Escribe sobre la emoción como si fuera algo físico.  ¿Qué color es?  ¿Qué textura?  ¿Cómo suena y huele?
  • Imagine you are walking through the park and you find an unmarked box.  Do you look inside?  What do you think is in it?  Fíjate que estés caminando por un parque y descubras a una caja sin escritura.  ¿La abras?  ¿Qué tenga a dentro?
  • Create a ‘How To’ manual for something for something that you cannot actually teach step-by-step.  For example, How to drive your big sister crazy, How to achieve world peace, etc.  Crea un manual de cómo hacer algo que no realmente puede explicar paso a paso.  Por ejemplo ‘Cómo enloquecerse a tu hermana mayor’ o ‘Como obtener paz mundial,’ etc.
  • Choose something that you feel strongly positively or negatively about.  Write about it as though you hate it.  Then, when you’ve written as much as you can, write about it as though you love it. Selecciona algo de que tienes emociones muy positivas o muy negativas.  Escribe de lo como si lo odias.  Luego cuando has escrito tanto que podrías, escribe de lo como si lo amas.-from “Writing Down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg
  • You have been given the opportunity to create a new holiday.  What does it celebrate?  Who celebrates it?  When?  Where?  And most importantly, how?  Tienes la oportunidad para crear un feriado nuevo.  ¿Qué celebra?  ¿Quién lo celebra?  ¿Dónde?  ¿Cuándo?  Y, más importante ¿cómo se lo celebra?

Happy Writing!

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A Mountain of Words to Help Voices Be Heard

“I feel like this country doesn’t want to know about me or my life but that is why we are doing the magazine. So that we can give kids a voice. So that they know we care about them.”

-Word on the Street Online Magazine participant, 13 years old

During this heated time in our country, it’s so important that our youth, families, and communities feel empowered to share their voices, and I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of that work.  This year, Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community launched Word on the Street, a bilingual online magazine run by teens of color so that youth locally and globally can share their perspectives through creative expression.

We also continued our Family Voices program, placing writers in classrooms to share literacy skills and build a creative classroom community, and inviting families to come together for food and creative writing in the evenings.  The students and families then publish their stories, poems, and artwork in an anthology.  When I see my students who have participated in the past, the first thing they usually tell me is, “I still have my book!”

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“My hands are old, tight, closed, very hard to work with.  Wrinkled, brown, long.  They have been through a lot in life.”

-Writing and Artwork from Family Voices at Hall Fletcher Elementary, 2016

Next weekend, Asheville Writers inthe Schools & Community will be hosting the 4th Annual Mountain of Words Write-a-thon to support these programs and keep kids feeling that this country does want to know about their life and care about them.  Here are some ways you can help:

  • Sponsor me in the Write-a-thon!  Next weekend, I will spend time writing as much as I can as a way to show my support for Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community… and for the sake of my own writing.  Donations will help programs like Family Voices and Word on the Street to continue and grow.  You can sponsor me here, or send a check to 347 Kenilworth Dr., Asheville, NC 28805 with my name in the memo line.
  • Join us for the Write-a-thon this Saturday, November 19, 1-4 p.m. at Malaprop’s Bookstore.  Bring your laptop or notebook, friends and family, and spend a couple of hours writing in community with some of our featured writers . We’ll have writing prompts for those that want them as well as some fun writing activities and favors for the kids. Plus, we’ll have an open mic for those that want to share.
  • Volunteer with Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community.  We recognize that our community has a great variety of knowledge and talents to offer, and there are all kinds of ways that your skills can contribute to what we do.  Just click here and let us know in what ways you’re interested in helping out.
  • Spread the word!  Re-blogging, re-posting, and telling your friends are some of the easiest and biggest ways you can help.

We hugely appreciate any support you are able to give!

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Post-Election Post

The biggest reason that I write and teach the arts is because I believe that everyone has a story and that everyone’s voices deserve to be heard.  When I woke up after the election, I was hit with hopelessness, but then I tried to come up with every reason I could to feel hopeful.  One of the biggest is that people are voicing themselves about important things.

I grew up hearing that you don’t talk about politics.  Now, more than I can remember, racial equity, immigrant and refugee rights, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and climate change are out on the table being talked about rather than swept under the rug.  My social media is filled with people sharing their grief, anger, and fears and lifting each other up.  This speaking out is such a huge step.

What’s missing is the other piece of conversation – listening.  There are people saying, “I don’t understand.  How could this have happened?” and then essentially disowning their friends and family who helped make it happen rather than listen for the answer.  I saw protesters outside of a Trump rally shouting, “Love Trumps Hate” with two middle fingers in someone’s face. And it wasn’t to be ironic.  For every Facebook post that has given me hope, there has been at least one response, sometimes from the someone of the opposing political party but often from within the same one, attacking the poster with hatred.

This country is divided enough.  Instead of driving these cuts deeper, can we begin to heal them so that we can continue taking steps forward?  I’ve never seen a situation where someone changed a person’s mind by attacking them.  But I have seen people who disagreed work through their differences by listening to each other and then work together to achieve something.  And we have a lot of work to do.Snapshot 3 (10-25-2014 11-21 PM) (2).jpg

I’m aware that people might attack me for posting this – for being too liberal or for being too soft when I should be outraged and call people out for supporting a hateful, intolerant candidate.  Or that I can say this because I’m white and privileged (which is totally true and valid).  If so, I will do my best to hear you.

But I’m not saying that I’m not outraged or that I accept unjust policies.  I’m saying that we should continue to fight even harder for social justice and human welfare and the environment.  I’m just saying that if we listen and try to understand each other, maybe we can fight from a place of love instead of hate.

Because I don’t think that love is too soft.  I think love might be the strongest thing we’ve got.

Thanks for listening. 🙂

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Halloweensie Writing Contest

Happy Halloween!  Six years in, and I’ve finally learned about Susanna Leonard Hill‘s fun Halloweensie Writing Contest.  The challenge is to write a 100 word children’s story about Halloween using the words Spider, Ghost, and Moon.

Check out her blog to read all of the great entries… and submit yours!

Here goes…

Halloween in Korea

No zombies, witches, or ghosts prowl the apartment building.  Just one tiger and her dad.

“Trick-or-treat,” says Teagan.  Her dad speaks a slew of Korean.

Jamkkanman,” they answer, then disappear.  They return with ginseng candy, a pear, or stickers for Teagan’s pillowcase.

One ajumma holds a fresh steamed bun in her spidery hand.  Teagan nibbles the warm red bean center.

Teagan knocks on Mr. Moon’s door.  Her dad bows.  When Mr. Moon disappears inside, he returns with a girl.  Teagan smiles and takes off her ears.

Now, two tigers prowl the apartment building on Halloween night.

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