Monday #40: The Clock is Ticking

I’m just finishing up a busy year of school visits.  I love being in schools.  The instant I walk in the front door and take in the sights of bulletin board covered hallways, the smell of the cafeteria getting the day’s lunch ready and the sound of bustling children tumbling in from their morning bus ride, I feel right where I belong.  Aside from the ersatz angst of my adolescent years, I pretty much loved school and will admit to working rather hard to be a teacher’s pet.  As a child, I played school with the neighborhood kids in our basement.  I, of course, got to be teacher and was more than a little stubborn about sharing that role.  It was the late 70s and my mother taught at the university.  She brought home the exams she gave her students and sometimes actually let me grade the multiple choice questions, which  I loved.  She also had access to some high technology– a mimeograph machine– and would, on occasion, make me copies of the worksheets I’d made for my own students in the basement school.  Heaven.  They say that teaching is either in your blood or not.

These days, I do lots of different things in schools that combine literacy and art.  I talk to kids about how I became an author and an illustrator, show them my book making process and, now more than ever, get involved with the different grade levels to participate in some fast moving poetry and art classes.  They are fast moving because there are few things in life that can disrupt a school schedule (and I have humbly come to learn that I am not always one of them).  But being required to do things quickly has shown me how little time it really takes to spark the creative parts of our brains and how much positive impact it can have.

And, it must take only a little time because there are lunch shifts to work around, planned field trips and assemblies, math classes, special schedules to accommodate (these are gym, music, art and technology–necessary stuff, in my book for sure) and, of course, testing and testing preparations which reign supreme in all the days of school, whether conspicuously or inconspicuously.  What makes this quick business even more of a challenge is the school’s expectation of a product oriented session.  During a discussion of my programming, almost as if on cue, nearly every person will ask the question: So, will each child leave with something they can take home?  OK, so it’s gotta be fast and every kid’s gotta make something.  Got it.  If necessity is the mother of invention, then I will have to own up to the fact that these time constraints have certainly necessitated the invention of some of my favorite things that I now do with people at schools–kids, teachers and parents.   Today I’m going to share some of them with you.

A little bit by accident, I developed a strategy for writing a six line poem that takes six minutes or less.  The initial inspiration came from one of my favorite books on writing poems with kids, The List Poem by Larry Fagin, which gives ideas for the simplest poetic structure, the list or catalog poem. These easy-style poems can be done quickly and painlessly by even the youngest children because everyone understands what a list is.  I add my own twist by turning them into a four-phase game on a stopwatch with partnered teams.  Kids pick their own topics and work fast to beat the clock, a method that forces the first (and best) words that pop into their imagination to go in their poems rather than allowing them the self-editing that is so much a part of their normal, daily routine.  During this workshop, the room is noisy with words flying through the air and kids jump beside their desks and wiggle on the floor with clipboards as they hurry to get their words onto the page.  Here are a couple of wonderful samples:

Football Is Fun by Anthony, Grade 3
I passed a great throw and my friend caught it!
At first he ran slow.
Then, he started to run! Next, he DASHED!
We worked hard as a team, together!
He dove to the touchdown and started to dance.
He sacked and tackled and then another player hit him.

I love how the words in Anthony’s poem move fast like a football play.  Anthony is a third grader, and is only just beginning to understand the power and freedom of a growing body with new athletic strength. I love that he uses capital letters and lots of exclamation points to emphasize how exciting this sport is for him.  And, I love that he captures the essence of teamwork necessary for the touchdown.  He also uses great words like sacked and tackled, which sound really good together, and I adore the joyous vision of the player dancing after the touchdown.  Here’s another one:

Out In The Scary Night by Hailey, Grade 2
In the cold, dark and scary night
the nocturnal bats come out.
The large, shining moon gives us light.
Small, sparkling stars appear for us to make a wish.
Those mischievous raccoons eat garbage.
The people sleep in their beds.

Hailey is just in second grade, only around seven years old, but this lyrical poem is totally sweet without any edits.  Hailey already has a handle on the use of adjectives to make her writing more interesting.  She starts off by saying the night is scary but she quickly turns to the things which comfort us all, the shining moon and stars we can wish on.  She adds a little playful comedy with the raccoons, including a pretty advanced word, mischievous, and then closes, appropriately, by giving us a vision of our peaceful, sleeping selves.

In my more involved residency programs, I stay for up to an entire week and usually work with one single grade level to create a series of class books.  What is remarkable about these programs is that, while I am at the school for a week, the total production time of a forty-paged, illustrated picture book is three hours and forty-five minutes.  This time frame includes creating hand-painted paper, writing a poem and illustrating the poem.  The text and imagery is loaded into a program which produces beautiful and very real published books.  You can preview the over sixty books I’ve made with kids at my Blurb shop.  Imagine twenty-five adults given the task of making a forty-page book in less than four hours.  Kids, however, can do it.

But here’s something adults have done with me.  I have a mural painting workshop that can be done at schools during a family night program so that kids and their parents can both make their mark on a piece of art that will hang in the school.  Of course, not everyone will get to take something home, except the experience, but the large, stunning finished work becomes a gift that gives something to everyone who sees it. I get the canvas prepped by painting a “sky” before the program begins and I outline some of the shapes when it’s done but, other than that, it’s all them.  Each person gets about ten minutes and I only let in ten at a time.  Subsequent groups have to build on what is there and add what they want to add.  Last week I was out in Youngstown, Ohio and this is what we made in just two hours:

Every good hostess knows that the party should end while everyone is still having fun.  Fast projects like this instill a TON of fun and come to an end when people still want more.  The result is an authentic feeling of achievement, a desire to do it again and an illusion of time flying by, all the while being engaged in learning.  The kids and grown-ups I have worked with this way feel happy to be able to stand back and look at this stuff with pride and say, “I made this!”  Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, I absolutely believe that we have time for this stuff in our schools because I know from experience that it doesn’t take all that much time.  In fact, I think we truly don’t have the time to put it off for one more second.

TRY THIS WEEK: Do something fun in a hurry.

P.S. If you are a teacher, “down and dirty, fast and fun” is the name of the game at my Summer Educator’s Institute.


About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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