Serious Dreamwork: Two Weeks in Port Townsend

by Rachel Kessler, Blue Heron Middle School & Ballard High School

I feel as though I have just returned from sea. For the past two weeks, I have been living out at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, staying in a weathered cabin that looks out over the Salish Sea. After watching the apricot hour* dawn over the mountains, I’d hop on my bike and pedal the few block to Blue Heron School to meet with three classes of fantastically enthusiastic fifth graders. Our hope was to write a polished short story in two short weeks. Our process was multi-layered and circuitous.

I began by having each student outline the features on their face with a single-line, drawing by feel. Each student developed her or his face into a map, using the visual language of maps. We wrote self-portrait poems, constructed from objects. We searched maps of real and imagined places for place names. From these, the students brainstormed place names and began filling in and naming the water and landforms on their face-maps. I encouraged each writer to travel across her or his face-map place through a guided quest. From this they wrote into existence an alternate world, discovered creatures, and set off on a journey.

I had no car but why do I need one when I have flying potion? I guess I had no choice but to go to the city in the secret world to get more magic potion. So I went out. The wind whipped at my face and light brown hair. Soon I came to a light red rock. This rock would take me to the city.
    – From “Flying Potion” by Sarah L.

Working with dedicated teachers Christina Laughbon, Chris Neuman, and Virgil Rondeaux, as well as resident artist and illustrator Jesse Watson, the 5th graders developed and deepened their face-maps with layers of words and images drawn from their poems and brainstorms.

One brilliant student, but reluctant writer, informed me that “Imagination” was his most hated word, right up there with “Art.” He preferred science to fantasy, but when we played around with mixing up different animals to create new beasts, he invented a “Camel-Rhino,” which he imbued with his own sensibilities and character-qualities.

Students drew pocket-sized field guides to the secret creatures they came across. The measurements and sizing charts in the field guides included another, more familiar object that was the same size as the creature. This size comparison encouraged figurative language in their character sketches. The visual art aspect of this writing project contributed to strong descriptive and sensory writing. The young writers worked hard on staying in the image they were writing about by exploring it with drawing and tactile observations.

I was in my dark wood house, eating the fresh rabbit Fuego caught for me earlier today. I was watching the orange and red bird devour his meal: a ferret he had just caught while it was coming down the soot covered chimney. He always ate the tail first. As he devoured the small creature, he flapped his wings with delight.
– From “Fuego” by Karley C.

I wanted to students to explore and to create worlds from their own imagination and beliefs and experiences. We studied some Northwest Coast Native American stories that featured portals to super-natural worlds. We discussed the basic “Hero’s Journey” story structure. Young writers were thrilled to discover thresholds to other worlds in very ordinary places in our regular world, such as the refrigerator, the cupboard, a certain large tree, a stone, the water’s edge of a lake, a spot of graffiti, and, of course, the toilet.

Andy sped down the street. Writing graffiti was a rush for an eleven year old boy. Four weeks later he was sent to the office with all his things. After a lecture he was told he had to clean off the so-called “filth”. Two days later he was dropped off at the spot he had put big velvet dot – he did not know why he did it, he just did. He sprayed the cleanser on the dot. It started to look as if he could enter it. Baffled, he touched it, then he was sucked in. Andy flaoted in a trippy limbo. He saw a large bolted door. It opened itself and a black portal formed. He slipped though and fell on cold cement.
– From “Cell Walker” by Keagon N.

It was enchanting to see each student invested in their characters, their worlds, and their writing.  Fascinated by the different hidden worlds and paths inside of each young writer, I began to see how powerful and important it was for young boys and girls to write about what scares them and to confront this danger by writing from the point of view of a character who possesses heroic and magical qualities. There were many epic troll battle sequences. I could almost hear the clang of sword tang above some writers’ heads as they labored over the “Road of Trials” and “Magic Chase” parts of their plot outlines. Fantasy allows humans to do some serious dreamwork.

* in one writing exercise, the students renamed the hours of the day with more visceral images, such as “The Hour of the Howling Moon” and “The After-School Snack Hour”.

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