Monday, September 20, 2010

Thank you, Brian, wherever you are

   As a child, the first day of school was synonymous with "first day in new school." My dad was an FBI agent which meant a transfer to some far flung part of the country every couple of years. Somehow, whatever neighborhood we lived in, it was the one part of the school district that was shifted from year to year. Whatever school had room for us, that's where we went. In thirteen years of school (counting kindergarten) I went to twelve different schools.
     You would think there would be at least a core group of kids that would carry over from one school to another.  Nope. Most of my friends went to parochial school. I was always the only "public kid" on my street.  It was almost as if we were a military family. The difference was that in schools in or near military bases, the school population is in constant flux. Year after year, I was the only "new kid." When we moved to Mississippi, I was the first new kid in that class ever;  my classmates had been together since pre-school, and they were now fifth graders. Yikes.
    Our teachers did make us stand and introduce ourselves. This was OK, as far as it went, but then some of us were already pretty nervous on the first day of school. I still remember a kid who got no further than "I'm Brian" before leaving his breakfast on the classroom floor. No one ever bothered to find out his last name, because to us he was already "Brian the Barfer."
     I never forgot poor Brian. I really remembered him when I had a children's writing workshop with twenty kids from the metro Atlanta area. Metro Atlanta is huge, and not one of those kids were from the same town, let alone the same school. They had to introduce themselves, or it would be a long week of people being called "hey you." There were more than a few writers whose primary language was not English. I had visions of kids heaving all over the carpeted classroom. I remembered how much my own daughter disliked introducing herself. But. . .
     . . . she had no problem introducing someone else. By the end of the first week of school, she could tell me who had a peanut allergy, who danced in the Nutcracker at Christmas, who's mother was a veterinarian.  It was one of those Oprah Ah-ha! moments. I would have my young writers introduce each other. 
     I paired them off, and gave them five minutes each to ask questions.I started off with the basics, since I was making this up as I went along: name (as in what they wanted to be called), age, grade, school (or if they were homeschooled), favorite book, what they liked to write themselves. Then each writer, would introduce his/her partner.  I thought it went really well; nobody threw up or burst into tears or hid in the bathroom.
     Over the years, this"get-to-know-me"exercise has turned into a two parter; the original five minute basic presented orally in the first half hour of the first day, and a second longer written piece which I cleverly call "The Interview."  This is read only by me, and serves several purposes. It not only gives me a lot of information that even the most insightful teacher can't learn in less than a week, it also shows me how well they wrote. Below is "The Interview"

Writing Workout
Ground rules:

1. If you are doing this later than the first week of school, do not allow friends to be partners.

2. A student must answer at least five of the questions they are asked. They can answer more if time allows (I give each interview seven minutes for this slightly expanded version). Prepare a handout (which the students will not write on, so you can use it again next year) with a lot of questions to choose from. I use twenty-five. Questions that would be considered no big deal when I was a kid (Where were you born? How many people are in your family? How old are you?) can be considered intrusive by both the student and the adults involved (family members, school administrators, etc.)

3. Here are the only two questions I require that each child answer: What is your name? What is one thing you would like your classmates to know about you?  These are the two items that are used in class when making the oral introduction.

4. The other three or more pieces of information are written in third person, newspaper-style; short paragraphs of no more than fifty words each, in descending order of importance. Example:

 Mary Ann Rodman was born in the United States but she wasn't born in a state. She has lived in eight different states and one foreign country. Even though she is an only child, she calls her dog Boots her big sister. (I was a weird kid).

The reason she moves around so much is that her father is an FBI agent.  Her mother used to be a Russian translator for some government office, but now she stays home and watches C-Span all day.

Mary Ann loves to read, climb trees, play baseball. Her favorite TV show is I Love Lucy even though her parents think it's a dumb show. Since this is also her grandmother's favorite show, she sneaks into her room and watches it from under her grandmother's bed.

Her unfavorite things are math, allergy shots every week, wearing a night brace and salmon.

From my imaginary bio (all true, by the way, except for the C-Span part, which came years later), you can see the kinds of questions possible.  Here are a few of mine.

least favorites as well).

Places they've been or lived.

Pets (past, present or future)

What they would like to be if they could be anything or anybody (as in rock star or Beyonce).

I have a notebook with hundreds of questions, since I often have the same students in my workshops over and over.

One more thing...since this a get-to-know-you for both the students and you, the emphasis is not so much on the mechanics of writing (this is a kind of diagnostic test for you), but the students ability to ask and interpret questions about their classmates.

You will be amazed at what you all learn about each other.


April Pulley Sayre said...

Mary Ann,

This is a brilliant activity—for kids or adults, frankly. Love that picture of you as a little girl, too. Thanks for sharing both.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

I love this Writing Workout, MaryAnn!
I - especially - love that/how YOU completed it, letting teachers see how important it is to share in the workout.
I plan to credit you when facilitating this workout with my children's book writers.