My Future Self is Now

By Katy E. Ellis, WITS Writer-in-Residence

On February 2nd, I started my first ever WITS residency, a two-week intensive at Broadview Thomson K-8. My mission: to teach memoir to 78 kindergarteners. The idea of teaching memoir to five- and six-year-olds mystified and tickled me at first. Not only did I wonder how much personal history they might have to recount (seeing as almost half of their lives they couldn’t even speak understandable words), but how in the world were they going to physically write about their memories on the page?

I mostly used techniques I’d learned from working with my daughter’s phenomenal K-1 teacher at Pathfinder K-8 and from my experience teaching very young, emergent writers at The Family Learning Program, a West Seattle home school organization. Lots of empty boxes for drawings that will help the writer get started and to remember what he or she wants to write. Beginning sentences or poetic lines that the writer completes. Modeling my own writing on a large piece of paper, sounding out the letters and “reading the room” for frequently used words (e.g., and, the, my, is, friend). We did “My Six Word Memoir”, a list of “I Remembers” (using a kid-appropriate selection from Joe Brainard’s classic book length poem), a repetitive poem called “A Version of My Life as [my favorite animal]” and other exercises. I asked students to rely on the fact that they are the experts of their own lives since they are the ones living it. Even though fine motor letter making was a challenge to most students, they understood the lessons and put their best kindergarten selves forward.

But then, things went a little wonky. I asked the kids to look into the future. Memoir by definition is a story from a person’s life, an experience of a story that has already happened and the person has lived to tell about—usually in great detail—so it’s no wonder “Letter to My Future Self” was the toughest lesson I taught in this residency. Now, the students’ task was not only to move their small hands in tiny movements to make shapes that represent the sounds in each word, but to also dream up something that may or may not happen in his or her future! Yes, a tough writing assignment but one that eventually generated a lot of excitement in the room and seemed to turn a lot of wheels and cogs.

It started with a math lesson. The kids helped me figure out how old I would be in 10 years (we don’t need to talk about the sum they came up with), and then we calculated how old they will be in 10 years. When they discovered they’d be teenagers, most students were nonplussed and hard pressed to tell me what life would be like for them. I told them that they would be in high school, old enough to drive and maybe have an after-school job. Slowly they began to see it. They sat “knee to knee” and talked with a friend about what they might be doing when they were 15 or 16. Would they drive a car? If so, what kind? (For Brian it would be a “kuhmaro”!) Would they have a job? Friends? Long hair? How would they feel? Soon, being a teenager seemed to some students the same as being a fifty-year-old, with a steady mad scientist job. For others, it meant sleeping all day or traveling. Most everyone hoped they were happy, healthy and employed.

Future Soren

Dear Future Me, Age: 15,
When you read this I think you will get a job. It’s going to be a policeman.
I hope you get a job.

Love,
Soren, Age 5

Future Sierra

Dear Future Sierra, Age: 15,
When you read this I think you will knit a scarf.
I hope you get a job.

Love,
Sierra, Age: 5

Future Dasha

Dear Future Dasha, Age: 15,
When you read this I think you will be in Russia.
I hope you will be happy.

Love,
Dasha, Age 5

Future Fatimah

Dear Future Fatimah, Age: 80 [some kids wanted to go far into the future]
When you read this I think you will drive a car.
I hope you don’t get sick.

Love,
Fatimah, Age: 6

For years, I’ve imagined what it would be like working with so many children, learning their names and teaching something that I truly love and that I believe in. I’ve hoped that I would do right by my students (i.e., not scar them for life or totally turn them off of writing). I’ve looked forward to being a writer in the schools for a long time. And now it has happened!

I keep mulling over one student’s words, “I hope you love myself,” and how her sentence wrestles with the shift of tenses and the shifting self in the confusion of trying to understand something new. In my head I’ve been saying “I hope you love myself” and it feels like a little reminder from my future self telling the present me to keeping loving myself despite the tough lessons. Or maybe it’s the present me forewarning my future self to stay present. We still have one last day together, me and the kindergarteners at Broadview Thomson K-8. It will be our celebration day, and it will always be something I’ve looked forward to.

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