December 17, 2011

  • Swimming With Sharks…Er, I Mean Fourth Graders

    You go in the classroom. Kids are in the classroom.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love kids. But when it comes to teaching them–yowzers. Coming from a family of educators I have nothing but respect for teachers. It’s a lot of hard work to teach, to command attention of young minds and keep your students focused. I know this. So when I was asked to do 30 minute presentations to four classes of fourth graders I was a little nervous. Kids are a tough crowd. And if they smell blood in the water, well, it’s over.

    I was asked to give presentations on myself, as a playwright. But I knew better. What fourth grader wants to hear the story of my life? I needed to make the presentation a little more interesting and engaging. I decided that in order to show them what playwriting was like we were going to do a little exercise and develop a narrative together.

    Here’s what my presentation essentially went like:

    By a show of hands, how many of you have an imagination? (Almost all would raise their hands) Well I have a very active imagination, I always have. And when I was young I used to use my imagination when playing pretend. So if you’ve ever pretended to be someone else, if you’ve ever played with dolls and made them talk to each other, then you can write a play.

    Close your eyes. I want you to imagine that you’re on a boat (with the later classes we imagined we were in a desert, in an abandoned castle, on a deserted island–lots of isolation for some reason). Is it nighttime or daytime? Is it a calm sea or a stormy sea. Why are you on the boat? Are you going on an adventure? Are you running away from something? Did you sneak on board?

    Now I want you to imagine that instead of it being you on that boat that it’s someone else. What do they feel? What kind of person are they?

    Open your eyes and write down on a piece of paper your character’s name and write down a few adjectives to describe them.

    I gave the students some time to come up with their character names and to help them I wrote the names of some of my own characters on the board. I mentioned that Lalo likes to quote things he learned on television. That Fatima is a sorta unhappy teen who works at Chili’s. That Septimo is brutal and mean and gets his comeuppance when he’s locked outside and left to face a pack of wolves. That Moises isn’t really a man at all.

    Then I then went around the room and had each student tell me their character’s name and a little something about what they were like.

    Next I told them were were going to develop a play together and I was going to draft a few of their characters in order to do that. I took 3-4 four characters and thankfully the first class had a villain because that gave me the idea to make sure the following classes also had an antagonist.

    I set up the scenario with the characters. In the first class one of the characters was a kidnapped kid hidden in the bottom level of the boat. There was also a boy who was the good guy and a teen who was a murderer.

    Next, I asked the students to suggest ways that our hero would learn about the kidnapped kid. This is when it started to get exciting. Little hands started firing up into the air, their bodies coming up out of their seats in earnest eagerness. I took a few suggestions and then decided to go with the suggestion that the hero had heard the kidnapped kid calling for help.

    I asked the class again to help devise a way for the hero to rescue the kidnapped kid, reminding them that the villain would probably wake up in the night and hear the escape because we didn’t want to make the escape too easy.

    After getting a few ideas for the final battle I let the class vote on how the ending might be resolved.

    Before I knew it the presentation time had expired and it was time to repeat the exercise with another class (this time in a different location).

    By the end of the afternoon I was a bit tired. It took a lot of energy to wrangle these young minds, but it was deeply satisfying. Even the students who were reluctant to participate at first seemed to get into it toward the end.

    And while we didn’t go into how to write dialogue, I did give them a sense of how to come up with their own narrative.

    By the end it was less Jaws and more like this.

    I’m glad I did it, jumped into the “shark cage” and gave all my energy to trying to make each presentation unique in its own way. And of course now I feel like I have another teaching/presentation in my quiver.

    Though, what an archery idiom has to do with sharks, I’ll never know.


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