by Dave Jarecki
Some 8-year-old boys drool. In the 4 years in which I’ve worked with third graders, at least one boy has drooled in the middle of at least one class. Sometimes it’s from frustration, but mostly it’s a result of over-excitement coupled with a blood sugar spike.
This year’s drooler is Ben. He’s now drooled three times in two sessions, which means he has six more sessions to break the all-time drool-per-session record of seven. Ben’s in-class snack of choice is a juice box. His teeth are coming in at jagged angles, leaving plenty of gaps through which saliva can escape. And writing excites the hell out of him.
I say the record is his.
What really excites him about writing is having the chance to write what he wants to write, as opposed to what the teacher “tells him” to write, as he puts it. That’s the beauty of not being a “real teacher,” as I explain to the kids in our first session, and this not being a “class,” but a “workshop.” I’m not here to tell them what they have to write. The best I can do is to guide them along the path of discovering the words inside them.
“Do you mean you don’t care about spelling?”
“Don’t let spelling stop your writing.”
“What about if I put a period in the wrong place?”
“We worry about grammar later.”
I never wanted to teach with my English degree, but the idea of workshops always appealed to me. In 2004, I went through a spring and summer intensive with Write Around Portland, a nonprofit that provides free writing workshops to under-served populations such as homeless kids, adults living with AIDS, and women in prison. I adopted the organization’s core belief: Everyone is a writer.
A few months later, I started a weekly workshop at a local Volunteers of America halfway house, working primarily with middle-aged men who were trying to stay off the streets and out of prison. Later I worked with teens who were fighting the same thing. Early in 2006, I started working with public school kids — kindergarten through senior high.
I figured working in schools would be easier. In the beginning, it was much more challenging. It didn’t have to do with the students. Mostly it was my own uncertainty around what I should be giving them, what I should be leaving behind, and how best to help them grow as writers.
What I’ve discovered over time is that the thing kids want and value most in a workshop setting is the opportunity to roam on the page. They want the freedom to express themselves in ways that get beyond grammar and punctuation. They want to make a mess with words. And from their messes, they want to fashion stories and poems.
Most elementary- and middle-school kids want to write fantasy. Call it the Potter-ization of the juvenile mind. This particular group of third graders wants to write poetry, which they explained on our first day.
If the best thing I can give them is the space to write, then the best thing they can give me is a guidepost from where to plan. Toward the end of our first session, once the topic turned to poetry, I asked a simple question:
“Does poetry have to rhyme?”
Ben said no. Rosa, a pixy whose sleepy eyes hide behind a wall of blond bangs, disagreed.
“How the heck do you write a poem that doesn’t rhyme?”
I asked the kids how much poetry they’ve read. They didn’t know what I meant.
“Do your teachers bring poetry in for you?”
Rosa repeated her question.
I stood up and rewrote her question on the chalkboard — some classrooms actually still have them.
“The answer’s in the question,” I said. Rosa rolled her eyes. Everyone else scrunched their faces. Ben cocked his head in a quick fit. Rosa blew up at her bangs.
I started erasing words. “How the heck … doesn’t rhyme … do … that.”
The kids read back what was left.
“You write a poem.”
Ben started to shake.
“And we can write what we want!”
Then came the drool.
The next week I brought in a piece about a bubblegum princess. I borrowed the idea from a poem in Peter Sears’ Gonna Bake Me a Rainbow Poem, a fantastic little book on teaching poetry to young writers. My poem was full of slant and internal rhyme, but no obvious end rhymes. When I asked if it rhymed, the resounding answer was, “Sort of.”
From there we moved into a pre-writing exercise. The kids wrote lists of characters, objects and actions. We talked through the lists as a group. Then it was time to write our poems.
The next 15 minutes was a mix of pencils scratching on paper, giggles and bathroom breaks. Ben slurped his juice box. Rosa sat under the table and wrote her poem on the floor.
When it was time to read, Ben wanted to go first. I could see the drool forming behind his teeth:
BLT Boy & Candygum
purchase pink pickpockets
for pork pachyderms of paradise
who are cruel drinking
and please the fleas
who ride ferrets
for freaky fools
fooling with humvees.
Rosa was next. She made a point of saying hers rhymed. She also pointed out that I was her inspiration:
The teacher is funny.
When he smiles he looks at bunnies.
He’s thinking of pulling a sleigh.
And that the sky is really gray.
Because he does this every day.
On their way out, I thanked them for being in class. They thanked me back. A number of parents stopped in and thanked me for having the class. That’s the best thing anyone could give me.