by Rachel Kessler, Shorewood High School
Sometimes the trick is just to get the pen moving across the page. I have many techniques, gleaned from other teaching artists such as Lynda Barry, that I use in my own writing practice. The 10th graders I work with at Shorewood High School exhibited their nimble and original minds over the past two weeks as we made lists of objects, made lists of words describing those objects, then wrote self-portrait poems from all that list-making. By guiding them through a series of short list-making prompts with questions like “If you were a candy bar, what would you be?” (The best prompt to get reluctant writers minds moving, thanks to teaching artist Darwin Nordin), I command them to keep their pens moving, encouraging “First thought, best thought,” writing, keeping the prompts simple and short, listing 10 things, listing three describing words, list, list, list.
In my own notebooks, I make lists when I am stuck, or to avoid “real writing,” and have found that these lists sometimes turn themselves into poems. After wringing lists out of my students, I ask them use the describing words from their lists and build a list poem that begins with “I am.”
“Oh no!” many groan, “This is going to get weird!” Exactly.“I am cold and hard to fix, / sometimes the bitter one,” Linh writes. I, like the boat and the ship,
float on a windy day
with the sound of ocean whispering,
telling me to stay.
I was worried that this leap into unusual figurative language would be a stretch for some of my students who are relatively new to the English language, but these students have the fearless, lyrical minds of poets. Then there is the student who must do things his own way, who does not write list poems, whose mind moves through his list of objects and finds a surreal narrative, such as Spencer:
The taste of licorice can lead to gagging, causing trepidation amongst consumers. Driving through a slick alley road in a wilting BMW, through endeavor after endeavor. Close the door with the key that does everything. No key leads to no car, the life of engines without a key is equivocal. Go in the store and ear through it. The pancakes and syrup are cathartic after an arduous day of work. Back home, basements fill with fog.
Drawing exercises keep our pens and minds moving. We draw a continuous line tracing the contours of our faces without looking. Then we begin to color in spaces, layer and texture what was a Picasso-esque, stretched out face outline until it becomes a map. Writing about a place he sees in his face-map, Nebiyou paints a picture of where he’d like to be:
In my country, I am free.
I am surrounded by building
Very little wildlife surround me.
I am consumed by this Concrete Jungle.
The city sprawls for miles,
Cold weather pierces my skin.
Loud pigeons defecate on your car.
And yet, New York City retains its charm.
The process of purposely “bad” drawing, describing oneself via objects ranging from weather systems to household tools, imagining hidden worlds in the new world of our faces, allows even the most reluctant writers to connect with the page. Michael, who spent my first visit to his class with his head on the desk, angrily refusing to engage in any way, could not resist the silliness of dreaming up his ideal place, McDarnia:
To get there you have to go to a McDonald’s, get access behind the counter, make your way to the freezer. Once you’re there, go past the pigs, break down the boxes of supplies… pull down a plastic bag, attach it to the ground and walls around you. Once you have done that, it should sparkle, just a little. That’s when you RIP through it into McDARNIA!
He proudly read his writing aloud, surprising his teacher and classmates.
We investigate the topography of our bodies, our lives, our experiences. I ask students to sketch a scar they have. Then we write about what we see. Banna writes:
I have an invisible scar that cannot be seen,
it stays here inside my mind.
I got it from my dreams, insane.
It is there when I dream in the night…
it seems like it will never heal.
Like a bruise, my scar is inside.
How can I make it real?