On July 3, I saw my first "back-to-school" ad. Outside it was 97 degrees. On TV, children dressed in sweaters and boots did handsprings over the notion of new notebooks and backpacks.
Even though school in Georgia starts ridiculously early (sometime in the first two weeks of August), I can't get serious about "back-to-school" while I am in the heart of my summer. The week of the 4th I was halfway through what I call my Young Writer's Camps. (The sponsoring organization...two different ones this year...call them something else, that I promptly forget.)
Starting out with one camp per summer in downtown Atlanta (the commute alone would kill you), I moved on to two camps with my local parks department (zero commute!) This year we not only added an Advanced Writers Camp for returnees and serious writers, but I also conducted a camp for the Historical Society of a neighboring county (hello, long commute!) Both my sponsoring groups are hoping to add additional weeks next summer. This summer there were four sessions. Next year we are aiming for a minimum of six, maximum enrollment of twelve.
These are creative days, where my writers can continue the dystopian novel they started last summer, write stories based on family history (some are pretty hair raising), personal essays, poetry. If it is not part of the Georgia writing curriculum, it's part of mine.
Like most American public schools, the emphasis is on essay and report writing. I understand. Being able to write well as an adult is an important skill. But in a world where recess has vanished in favor of more "instruction time," and music and the visual arts are considered so much expensive foofaraw, the child whose talent is creating fantasy worlds or sonnets...well, do it on your own time, kid. After you finish that enormous amount of homework.
When I first began the camps, deep in the darkest days of No Child Left Behind, I had kids who were afraid to write anything, for fear that it was wrong. Wrong spelling, punctuation, grammar, subject...they were terrified of writing. My first rule that year and forever after is this: There is no right or wrong way to write in my camps. I make sure they understand that creative writing and whatever it is they do in a classroom are two different things. The kids seem to get the difference. You can just see those tight little shoulders and pencil-gripping fingers relax as soon as they know they are free to mess up. It's my own version of Anne Lamott's giving yourself permission to write terrible first drafts.
Once they know there are no writing rules, I tell them that they are all writers right now. This is not strictly the truth since there are always those kids who are there because their parents need childcare and we are a bargain compared to horseback riding camp or Young Gourmet camp. With one exception, in nine years of camps, I have never had a parent or student tell me they didn't enjoy the week, even if they were massively unenthusiastic about being there on day one.
I begin by telling them they are good writers, but by the end of the week they'll be better writers. I tell them how even after my books are published, I always want to go back and fiddle with them. I am never finished with them in my head. This is a less threatening way of easing kids into being critiqued. I call it "conferencing" where we meet one-on-one to praise their strengths, and sneak in a few subtle grammar points. ("Does this story all take place in the past or in the right-now? You can fix that by making all the verbs "match.") I try to use as little "teacher talk" as possible. After all, it's summer, this is a camp. Camps are supposed to be fun.
I disguise writing skills as "contests." Vocabulary building is "re-branded" into "Can you name an animal (or color or action verb or adjective) for every letter of the alphabet?" This particularly good when I have kids who are ESOL, or whose parents insist they speak their native language at home. We play "charades" by acting out action verbs. We make lists of words to substitute for more pedestrian ones. (This year's favorite word...undulate!)
We talk about books we love and why, as well as books we disliked and why. I don't force anyone to "share" their work with the group, although 99% of them do. I do insist on two things on two share items every morning. One, they have to tell something unusual they have observed, This is considered "homework" and must be read from their notebooks. This is to get them in the habit of keeping a writer's notebook of story ideas. The other is that they have to contribute to "Ms Rodman's reading list" by giving me a suggestion for my own reading. This not only lets me know what kids like (as opposed to what librarians, teachers and book reviewers like), but has broadened my reading tastes considerably. Thanks to their suggestions, I have come to enjoy dystopian worlds (!!!) any number of new-to-me series, and my newest love, graphic novels. I learned about the world of Fan Fiction through my students. At the end of the week, I feel that I have learned more from them than they have from me.
Last Friday was the end of camp season for this year. I packed up my gigantic sticky note pad, markers, thesauri and odds and ends of writing books. I said a mental good-by to the four girls who have attended camp every year in it's current location. The boys who wrote historical fiction about WWII and the Iraqi War. This year's edition of the Fan Fiction writer (a girl this time who was into Dr. Who). The kids whose powers of observation are almost superhuman. I load up my car, turn off the lights, and lock the door. I'll be back next year.
It's my vacation.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman