by Jeff Bender, TOPS 7th & 8th
I’m thrilled to be teaching fiction writing as a new WITS resident. I just completed my first week of classes at TOPS in East Lake with the great veteran teacher Lori Eickelberg, Ms. Eick.
On my first day a gap opened up quickly between my two sections. We were playing a guessing game where the students complete the sentence “Something that nobody in this room knows about me is _____,” and they fold their strips of paper and hand them to me, and I redistribute them, and we try to guess whose is whose.
With thirty students per group, the game took a while. But somehow it took the second group fifteen minutes longer than it did the first. Next on the agenda was their first writing prompt, a letter to me addressing the following questions:
- Who are you?
- What’s your relationship with writing?
- What do you want to learn in this class?
Where the first group had twenty minutes to compose and to share their letters, the second group had only five. I asked Ms. Eick whether this group should forego the letter for another day. She said, “Why don’t they just answer the first one?—‘Who am I?’”
So they did, and I read the letters over the weekend. Somehow the second group’s letters came out sparkling. The writing was loose and fun, organic to the authors, and void of stiff details like height, age, or number of years at the school.
At the new-teacher meeting that afternoon, Jeanine Walker (the WITS Program Manager) suggested that the quality of writing had something to do with the nature of the questions they were being asked to address. When pressed to answer all three questions, the first group of students wrote diligently but formally. Pencils dropped quickly, and when I walked over to see what they had written, some had written only one sentence per question. (In these cases I leaned and wrote “P.S.” on their papers and said, “Tell me a story.”)
But when invited to answer one informal question in five minutes, the second group came alive. They talked about their dogs, their families, their personal dreams and aspirations. One girl started her letter: “My name is _____. I hang out with the boys.”
Jeanine also pointed out that there’s something about that question “Who am I?” that tends to trigger any writer, and I remembered a quote by Richard Hugo in The Triggering Town: “It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a world. It is also essential.”
Ms. Eick and I debriefed after class, mainly about the differences between the two groups. “You just have to be patient with them,” she said, of the second. “They’re going to take longer.”
It felt good hearing that. I think she’s right. The quality of the work doesn’t always reflect the time spent on it. Maybe the long, long guessing game at the beginning of class somehow primed them to write. Maybe it’s O.K. to move at different speeds in different sections or to let part of a class’s lesson carry over to the next meeting. Maybe it will bloom in the students’ minds in between. After all, there is no content we need to cover—an asset in a program like this.