Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Middle School Writing Workshop

I spent yesterday at Greencastle Middle School as part of the Castle Arts program to bring guest artists into the classrooms of local schools to enrich their arts curriculum as they struggle with budget cuts and the pressures of high-stakes testing. I was asked to give SIX 43-minute-long writing workshops to various-sized groups of seventh graders - oh, and asked to incorporate a focus on bullying as well. I was somewhat dreading the day: would the students be silent and sullen? would they look upon me with withering scorn? could I explain a writing principle, get them to write and share their pieces, AND work in a focus on bullying, all in 43 minutes?

Well, as so often is the case with things I dread, the day turned out to be a delight. The students were engaged and on-task; the teachers were appreciative and supportive; the library even had numerous books of mine in their collection that I was able to sign. 

Here's what the students and I did together.

First I talked about point of view: the way an author invites readers into a character's head to share his/her thoughts, feelings, experiences, and perspective on the world. I briefly presented the different creative choices available for an author regarding point of view - first person, third person, omniscient narrator - and the strengths and limitations of each one.

Then we made up the outline of a story together. I told them the story had to involve one kid being mean to another. What mean thing should it be?  The students offered answers like: hitting/punching, calling names, stealing homework/lunch money, spreading rumors. Why would the kid do this mean thing? Here by far the favorite answer was: because the other kid was flirting with the first kid's boyfriend or girlfriend. (One group worked up a different story where the mean kid was picking on a new foreign exchange student, who hadn't even had time to hit on anybody else's girlfriend yet!). The third character in the story was a bystander to the meanness/bullying (usually the girlfriend/boyfriend in the story).  The students did a great job of coming up with a backstory for each character.

Then they spent ten minutes engaged in writing this short scene, taking either the point of view of the bully, the victim, or the bystander. I made sure that every point of view was represented.

When students shared their work at the end of the class period, we could all see how much the story changed according to who was telling it. We learned that often the "mean kid" was responding to someone else's prior meanness (name-calling, for example), or felt remorse for how he acted. All the characters became humanized as we saw the event unfolding through the lens of their own point of view.

So now I have a new writing workshop I can do at schools - and an anti-bullying workshop at that! Thank you, Castle Arts, and thank you, Greencastle Middle School students!

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