In mid-May I was a presenter at the Young Authors, Young Artists conference in Rochester, Minnesota. My workshop was called The Question Session: Q & A Your Way to Great Writing. Over the course of three days, I worked with close to 270 kids in grades 3 to 5. I thought I’d share the highlights—and a few lowlights—of what it was like.
The gist of the class: Questions are a simple, effective tool that can help us enrich our writing. To get the ball rolling, instead of introducing myself in the usual way, I had the kids ask me questions. I told them they could ask me anything, serious or silly. They didn’t go for the silly questions the way I expected, but they did seem to appreciate the go-ahead to ask personal questions.
What’s your shoe size?
How old are you?
Do you color your hair?
Have you ever played a video game?
Are you a good cook?
Why did you wear that outfit? (That one had me worried.)
Are you married? (Maybe I imagined this, but the kids seemed a little taken aback by my answer. I told them that I had been married for a long time, but wasn’t anymore.)
One scheming boy asked me how far away the Earth was from the Sun. Luckily that’s one fact that will never leave my brain.
And in every single session I was asked about my favorite color and if I had pets. It makes sense. Kids know when their odds are good at having something in common with the teacher.
Before heading into second drafts, we talked about several categories of questions and did a group exercise to practice. One boy revealed that he’d once had a container of pineapple explode in his backpack. (That sounds like something that would have happened to my daughter.)
At the end the kids could share their work if they wanted to. Many of them read work based on the question If you had a bazillion dollars, what would you spend it on? Every single child who had chosen that prompt talked about using the money to help people. Every single one. But you could tell that the older kids, the 5th graders, were already worried about college. Several of them said that after giving money to charity and buying some cool stuff for themselves and their families, they would put money aside for their college educations. So yes, even with a bazillion dollars and no need to have a job at all, the kids believed they should go to college—and they knew it would cost a lot of money.
Another popular prompt was If you could have any animal in the whole world as a pet, what would it be? One girl approached me as the kids were starting their first drafts.
“Can I create my own animal?” she whispered. “Sure!” I said.
When it was time to write second drafts, she came up to me again. “I made up an animal. Can I write from the animal’s perspective?”
“Of course you can!” I told her. “What a great idea!” Her face brightened. I’m sure mine did too. This is the power of creative writing: You get to say YES.
But sometimes saying YES comes with a price. An older girl chose the prompt What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?. She talked about how hard it was that she hadn’t seen her dad in three years.
I really hope that girl keeps writing.
A few kids gave me pictures or notes, or even the drafts of their work. The boy who wrote the note to the right has a bright future as a writer AND politician, for sure.
Another boy told me he’d learned more from my class than from his English teacher. But that might have been because I gave out candy bars at the end. They were meant to reinforce a metaphor we’d talked about in class, but a candy bar is a candy bar. (Not my first time around the block.)
And a teacher stopped by my room and told me that she loved my books, especially the Writer’s Toolbox series. She was a science teacher who’d been asked to teach writing and wasn’t crazy about the idea, but she was inspired by my books.
I totally savored these feel-good moments, but life being what it is, they were accompanied by a major reality check. My prompts included the question What’s the best (or worse) birthday you ever had? A girl volunteered that it was her birthday that very day. And she was having her worst birthday ever. Right there, in my session, she was having her worst birthday ever. “It’s kind of a blah day,” she explained with a shrug. “Just so-so.” (We sang for her anyway.)
Another girl also chose that prompt and asked me to read her piece. I tried my best, but I couldn't make out all of it. One critical plot point came through loud and clear, though: Someone threw up on someone else’s birthday presents. Now THAT is a bad birthday!
And what was my favorite part of the conference? The funny stories, the affirmations that provide much-needed encouragement? No. What I enjoyed most was the sound of pencils sliding busily over paper.
Because in that sound is everything.