Field Trips

Remember how awesome field trips were? Getting to leave school. Being in a new environment. It always made learning enigmatic and fun. Sometimes you didn’t even realize you were learning.

Two field trips immediately come to mind. The pumpkin patch, which is probably a pretty standard elementary option. The other one was to see Ramses the Great at a museum in Dallas in the late 80s. I remember the mummy. And the fact that my dad was a volunteer. I don’t remember who was in our small group, but I remember that I was totally stoked to have my dad there. Now knowing the museum and history buff he is, I would venture to say he jumped at the chance of a trip to the exhibit. Spending time with me and my giggly classmates was probably just an added bonus.

When I got back from Africa last year, it was with the realization that I didn’t have to fly in a plane for more than 20 hours in order to volunteer. So I began to seek out nearby opportunities. A teacher friend told me about 826LA because she thought it sounded perfect for me.

Founded by Dave Eggers, 826LA celebrates and encourages creativity especially when it comes to writing. They do this through various workshops and field trips. Field trips?! Sign me up. (They also do after-school tutoring and are all around super awesome.)

I quickly found my fit with the field trips. Basically what happens is a class of elementary school or middle school students comes in and we spend a few hours writing books with them. The ideas are theirs. And they come up with amazing ones. We as adults/volunteers facilitate and help out with encouragement.

They just started a third variety last week, but I’ve only done two types of field trips. Choose Your Own Adventure and Storytelling and Bookmaking. I have always loved Choose Your Own Adventure books, and pretty much live my life like one. During the field trip, the students are divided into groups and write different parts of the story. Some pages end in choices, others end in cliffhangers. Each student writes their own ending to the book. Since it’s older kids, it’s fun to see what entertains them character-wise and what they come up with.

Storytelling and bookmaking is geared toward younger kids. It comes complete with characters and a backstory to get the kids involved and thinking that if they don’t save the day and write a good story, a crotchety old boss is going to fire us all. We choose the characters, setting and initial plot, and write the first few pages as a big group. An illustrator draws accompanying pictures. And every student writes their own ending.

In both cases, the kids leave with copies of their published and bound books.

I bring all this up because the past two weeks I’ve had unique experiences that led to a few revelations. Oddly, despite enjoying it very much, I’m no more inclined than I was after my brief preschool teaching stint in Cape Town to becoming a teacher. But I have my moments where I know that for right now, this is a good use of my time.

Last week, I worked with my first special education class. It was interesting to see the spectrum of skills, and I was in immediate awe of teachers with rooms full of extremely varying levels. The kids’ came up with a great story about a cat and her kitten on a picnic eating watermelon. We wrote endings to the stories in small groups (with the volunteers doing the actual writing), and that was pretty much the only difference in the way we handled it, and it worked. (It’s a really well-put-together program.)

One of the little girls was particularly sensitive to all the stimulation (and a new environment), and I regretted not possessing the tools or knowledge to comfort her (similar to how I feel about not knowing sign language). I saw the importance of her assistant, and it made me feel like the Max storyline on Parenthood is not too far off.

Then there was yesterday. We had a group of 40 third graders. That’s a lot of third graders. But they were great. They were so inquisitive, and yet still engaged in our little production. I’ve played the part of typist several times now, and one of the things I do is make small mistakes on purpose. We then read each page aloud, and have the kids identify my mistakes. These kids were on it. And they were into it. Sure I tripped them up with dinosaur, but that was because we were writing about paleontologists at one point. Because a kid decided our main character – a dog – was a paleontologist. I love when little kids use big words.

Then came the time when they were each writing their own endings. Cue the questions. So many questions. About our production.

1. Did I really make those mistakes or was it part of the whole thing?
2. Why did Mr. Barnacle (our crotchety boss) talk into a microphone instead of just yelling down from the loft?
3. Why did they see a human hand when they saw the hand of doom (a claw that comes out of the curtain to grab each book page)?

In short, is Santa Claus real? What about the Easter Bunny?

Here’s the thing about me. I’m a horrible liar. I don’t have a poker face. I literally can’t lie. ESPECIALLY if you ask me direct questions. And if for some reason I give it a go, you can totally call me on it because you’ll know. This policy is true no matter how old you are. I talk to kids like I talk to adults – eye contact included – because I respect kids like I respect adults. Needless to say, I was doing some dancing.

1. Some of my mistakes were genuine, and some were to make sure you were paying attention.
2. The microphone is a power thing.
3. Hand of doom has one real hand and one claw hand. I’ve never seen the rest of him. (She totally didn’t buy it. Told me so, but said that was ok. You guys. I told you I’m a bad liar. I can’t even fool an 8 year old.)

In lieu of any more questions I continued my rounds to see how everyone was doing writing the ending of their stories.

I walked by one boy whose page was full. He looked up at me and was like, are we supposed to use periods? He had written one long sentence. I can’t judge someone for run-on sentences, but I looked at him and was like, “Can you read this entire thing without ever taking a breath?” (PS I realize that’s a run-on sentence.) We worked through the page, reading aloud, and adding commas, periods and quotation marks.

It was my second fuzzy feeling in ten minutes. Because earlier, I came upon a girl who was sitting with a blank piece of paper. “I don’t know what to write.”

I went over the last thing the group had come up with and asked the logical “what do you think would happen next?” leading questions, offering slight suggestions. And we were having this conversation and I was like, just take it word by word. Start with the character’s name. Then write an action word. Pretty soon you’ll have a sentence. Then before you know it – a paragraph, and eventually, you’ll find the end.

And. it. worked.

I stood up (I had been crouched down next to her) and walked over to another volunteer and was all, I just Anne Lamotted that kid.

Anne Lamott is an author who wrote a book about writing called Bird by Bird. It features the following passage:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

(Anne’s dad was also a writer.) There are so many SO MANY times I feel like I should write, and I don’t know what to write about (hence why I read books about writing and write blogs about random occurrences in my daily life)…I think maybe I need to take my own (borrowed from Daddy Lamott by way of Ms. Lamott) advice. PS I think this works in other areas too. It’s very much like MLK’s staircase quote I mentioned in the last blog. Things are so much easier to digest when broke apart into smaller pieces.

Foot note: I also highly recommend Lamott’s Operating Instructions. It’s not just for new moms.

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