Monday, July 27, 2015

How I Spent My Summer Vacation and Loved Every Minute of It

     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 them something else, that I promptly forget.)

 Young Writer's Camps have been the best part of my summer (or year, for that matter) for nine years. While my Facebook friends are posting from Maui and Montana and Myrtle Beach, I take a twice-a-day selfie at camp,perhaps to compare the damage done after seven hours with twelve young authors. Young Writer's Camps are my idea of vacation. Seriously. Yes, the first camp week reminds me of my public school teaching days when I felt as if I had been worked over with a Louisville Slugger, standing on cement floors in hard soled shoes, after a summer of sneakers and sand. But now, as then, no matter how wasted I feel, emotionally and physically, it's a good feeling. Every day is a good day at writing camp.

    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



Damon Dean said...

You're my sudden new hero. Thanks for giving-teaching-inspiring-empowering-freeing young writers.

Carmela Martino said...

How fun to see photos of you and your students, MA! I SO wish I could come to your camp, too. :-)

mary ann rodman said...

Thanks for the comment, Damon. I had so many excellent writers this year who told me they "failed" the writing portion of the Georgia state test. They were unable to confine themselves to the required five paragraph they failed. No wonder so many of them are writerphobes.

Thanks Carmela. I did all those selfies to give a sense of where we were. I am very wary of posting pictures of students so I always make sure you san't identify faces. The one of the kids on the porch is two or three years old.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Yes, yes, what Damon said: Sudden Hero--yes! ...except it's not a sudden thing, my respect for you, Mary Ann--it's always that way, especially when you write with such passion about your writing camps.

And as Carmela said, really: we want to be your student! Maybe you could teach a writing camp for adults and treat us like your treat the kids. That would be heaven.

Garden Girl said...

Your first rule for writing, "There is no right or wrong way to write." is excellent and encourages the campers to write the first terrible drafts [Anne Lamott], as they move on to become stronger and better writers. Thank you for encouraging and sharing the love of literacy with kids. What a great opportunity for the campers.

The vocabulary content and charades suggested as a strategy for ELLs [English Language Learners] is just good teaching for all kids.

Parents who encourage [not insist] their children to be bilingual or multilingual understand the importance and benfits of doing so. With the constantly growing and diverse world population, the ability to speak multiple languages is increasingly important. In order to improve the sharing of knowledge, materials, and wealth, everyone should learn another language besides just English or one's native tongue.
~Suzy Leopold

mary ann rodman said...

April (and Damon, too) I'm not sure what a "Sudden Hero" is, but if it has the word "hero" in it, I accept gratefully. Garden Girl, some of my first students were students whose parents somehow had the idea that this was a remedial grammar class. I couldn't really explain to them because they didn't speak English at all. (The kids told me that was what their parents expected). I crafted the "contests" to build vocabulary (their grammar was impeccable, but their vocabulary wasn't adequate for what they wanted to write. And I could do this so the "native English speaking" half of the group wouldn't catch on. As for the dual language thing, I think it is a wonderful thing to be fluent in more than one language. It is not so wonderful when it becomes a punitive thing, and a sad thing when one of the parents can only communicate in their native language. I once had a group of girls who were carpooled every day by the same mom...the one who could speak a little English. And I can thank Anne Lamott for my own personal realization that writers can be slapdash the first draft around, just get the story out. Otherwise,I would still be sitting in front of my laptop, musing over the first word of my first book! Thank you all fr your kind comments.

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