It’s Not Every Day You Write A Book

May 20, 2011

A good book takes over

I volunteered twice this week at 826NYC, a writing center created to inspire schoolkids.  To get into the center, you sneak through a real-live secret passageway in the back of a room that would otherwise appear to be a store selling Superhero Supplies.  Invisibility capes. Anti-Villain Disguise Masks. Paint cans with labels lovingly designed by creative hipsters to appear to be full of “Super Strength” or “Keen Intelligence” or “Truth Serum.”

The writing room is filled with thousands of books, posters from movies that children have written and filmed, and adorably fey puppets.  There is an enormous fish tank, ample supplies of paper and pencils, and sturdy oak tables. It is perfectly designed to appeal to kids, to the parents who have the time and inclination to take them there for workshops, and to us, the volunteers.

At the start of the first workshop of the week, an eager group of fourth graders filed into the writing room. We snapped their photos and wrote out name tags, then a staff member immediately corralled them to start writing a story.

Staff Guy in charge was good.  Great even, in a Mr. Schneebly-from-School-of-Rock sort of way, except it wasn’t all about him.  He asked terrific questions and focused the kids’ palpable energy.  As they spoke — or even spoke over each other, in wild fantastical phrases — a volunteer typed their every word, their clever phrases, and their writerly choices.  It was all the fun of writing — generating ideas, hashing out character, and plot, and setting — with absolutely none of the headache.  Staff Guy was inspiring — guiding without overpowering — and seemed utterly comfortable enabling their process while leaving precisely none of his own stamp on their work.

The kids’ final story, left on a cliffhanger on page six, traced a precise line between wacky and great.  Ten year olds shouted out exuberantly creative names of characters, and voted on whether the story should take place hundreds of years in the future or eons in the past.  Staff Guy wouldn’t let them repurpose other people’s characters and plots — no Sponge Bob or Wizard School — but they had no problem being original.   They shouted out enormous and precise words to describe their characters.  The setting came to life without a pause.

And here is the big miracle of the day — every single kid was engaged.

Back when I ran a school, I had the sacred responsibility of evaluating teachers. What I watched closer than anything was the degree to which the kids were engaged in learning. The quality of the lesson plan, the classroom management and teaching, the room design and the materials were all vital pieces of the picture, but the proof was in the pudding:  for how much of the time were how many of the students how engaged, how close to their “sweet spot” of learning?  That spot where it’s not so hard it frustrates them, and not so simple as to bore?

Only good teachers get most of the kids to that sweet spot most of the time.  A great teacher — small “g” god on a good day — gets all of them.

As soon as one sentence was written, another took shape on the screen.  An artist volunteer illustrated the unfolding plot while the kids were still throwing out ideas. Typing Volunteer sent the text to the office to be printed.  Collating Volunteers stacked the pages in order.  (As the new guy, I got this job.)  And then, at the end of the session, each student wrote his or her own ending.  The ending was page seven, and they could take as many page sevens as they needed to before illustrating the ending, on page eight.  Lots of the kids filled three or even four page sevens.

The kids collected their front and back cover (with the author photo we snapped on the way in, and a blank place where they could write Praise from the Critics.)  The books were bound in a cool machine, and each child left with a book.  In tiny print on each one, the book reminded its author to keep it for a very very long time.These books were important.

Each kid wrote a book. They were authors. They created.  They had fun.

They each wrote a book.

And damn if watching those kids write books didn’t make me — the world’s biggest sappy sucker — mist over with joy.  I will never tire of watching what a small posse of loving, smart adults can help kids do.

And boy do I like seeing people writing books.


What is 826 and how do they do what they do?

This successful writing workshop was not a newsworthy occurrence.  Particularly not in the context of a week in which the former governor of California was publicly disgraced, and all of French politics upended, and teachers’ unions across the country roundly discredited for bankrupting towns without teaching the kids a damn thing.  Not a damn thing, people say angrily, and for emphasis, as though they knew the challenges and the true value of the work of education, and could weigh that against those teachers’ pensions.

If the news is to be believed, discrediting and disgracing and diminishing other people is important, whether or not it is actually true.  Also selling things, running large corporations, and publicizing blockbuster movies.

826 National Disagrees with this point of view.  826NYC is 1/8 of 826 National, a midsize nonprofit that provides tutoring and writing instruction in eight separate locations in our nation’s big cities (generally, these are located in the writerly-cool parts of cool cities.  No branches yet in, say, Sheboygan, Orlando, or Dayton.)

The organization’s schtick is carefully crafted, subtly branded, and damn brilliant.  In essence, the organization seeks to draw kids into the creative and intellectual work of writing through play and fantasy.  By taking the homework out of writing they provide something that doesn’t really exist anywhere else outside of our nation’s best public school classrooms: writing instruction that is free, smart, and actually fun.

This is only part of their mission.  The other part is to help kids develop stronger writing skills.  To that end, they also take on homework, head-on, with daily tutoring provided by volunteers.   How cool is that — to get tutored not in some gross Kumon office or a dingy basement, but in a secret writers’ lair.

The project was co-created by David Eggers, and backed by other writers so brilliant that they should be household names everywhere.  These writers lend their brilliance, creativity and peculiar edge to the endeavor, which is staffed by hardworking and intelligent people who went to terrific colleges and enjoy spending their time working fulltime with and for other people’s kids.

The vast majority of Americans who buy their books at Wal-Mart (or not at all) would not recognize these authors’ names.  The vast majority of Americans might have a hard time understanding the ironic nature of the stores that front the writing centers.  (People stand outside of the Superhero Supply store here in Brooklyn all the time, just reading the masses of ironic text, and looking puzzled.)

This organization is not curing cancer.  It is not solving homelessness.  It does not generate a profit or much of a product beyond kid-authored books, the only evidence of the intangible experience of having maybe 25,000 of our nation’s 76 million schoolchildren feel the thrill of real writing during a two-hour workshop once a year.

Because of the tutoring, some kids benefit from the place as much as two hours a day after school.  But while that is huge to each kid, even that’s not that important either, not in the context of the massive scale of our education system — what it does for some, and to others.  A pointless phenomena like Baby Kumon gets more attention.

If any of their work is to become important, we have to look at the world through the wrong end of the telescope, and see what happens when children are inspired.

But when you care about kids, that’s the direction you can’t help but gaze.  If you look into a telescope the usual way, and stare into space, you can see the moment way back in time when the kids set their fantastical story.  But looking at kids through the wrong end of the telescope is like staring into the future, and actually seeing something besides fantasies and the dark.


Choose Your Own Adventure

The next day, I showed up again at 826NYC, expecting the same drill.  Another adorable group of kids would write another rich and creative story.  They would love pointing out all the cool details of the room.  They would be fully engaged, right at that educational “sweet spot” where a great educator can lead them into something beyond what they can do on their own.

(Russian Educational theorist Lev Vygotsky came up with that idea, not me, and he gave it a real name: the Zone of Proximal Development.)

The next group of kids would spout brilliant ideas for two hours.  They would each get a book at the end, and feel like authors.  They would feel proud.  They would smile.   The beauty of the creative process would be repeated and I would once again find my eyes a tad misty at the beauty of it all.

But a lot of things were subtly different.  Nearly every single thing, in fact.  First, the kids’ bus was an hour late, because the bus company bringing them to us from some far corner of Queens neglected to arrive on time.

Although kids were an hour late, they walked in and got their photos and nametags just the same (albeit with slightly less predictable names — names that I struggled to spell because they had a surfeit of consonants, or extra vowels.)  Whereas the first group had been nearly all white kids, marked with an upper-middle class sort of comfort, bordering on rudeness, with their teachers, the second group was all students of color, and extremely well-behaved.  The kids were Hispanic, or Asian, some African-American, and quieter than the white kids had been.  They kept their ideas more to themselves.  They were cautious.  Wary.  Quiet.  Somebody had taught them, very effectively, how to behave.

The workshop structure itself was a tiny bit different.  The kids were older, so they were to write a more sophisticated story — a Choose Your Own Adventure, which was a genre I read pretty much nonstop when I was their age.  They were to write the story in the second person:  You are living in a time far in the future.  You are faced with a choice.  You choose one, and turn to page 2.  Choose the other, turn to page 3.

There was less illustrating going on, and the lines on the blank pages they were given at the end of the workshop were a lot closer together.

But the biggest difference was in the unfolding of the writing process itself.  When Staff Guy asked these kids for words, ideas, concepts, plot lines, only a few hands went up, and more cautiously.  With lots more prodding, the kids came up with their contributions.  But despite the fact that they were two grades older than the group that had been there the day before, their language was vastly more general.  Both spare and imprecise.

This group of kids simply didn’t have access to the kinds of words that spilled so easily from group one.  They didn’t have the vocabulary to generate the same level of sparkle in the story.

They were also missing a sense of the structure of the story itself: none of them ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure story.  From their responses, it actually sounded as though very few of them had ever read a whole lot of imaginative literature — for school or for pleasure.  Whereas the fourth graders the week before had fairly exploded with their big ideas, these sixth graders’ answers were spotty, sketchy.  When asked to contribute qualities for a character, a place, an action, they fell back on shorter words:  Fast.  Slow. Smart.  Dumb. Nice.

Instead of “a highly talkative nose made of cheese and named Mr. Rowbottom,” — a character suggested the day before, this group came up with “somebody annoying.”  “Someone fast.”  “A nice girl.”

Staff Guy successfully moved the story along, keeping them engaged and focused.  But whereas the day before he had had to act as referee in the battle of ideas, today he had to draw forth every word.  All the parts came into being, but instead of ideas pouring forth, they sputtered.  Some of the kids were just learning English, but even the majority of native English speakers had vastly fewer words at their disposal, and fewer plots.  The kids were very well behaved, and had imbibed high standards for how to behave in a classroom.  They were quiet, and respectful, and clearly wanted to do their best.  The classroom teachers who had come along on the field trip were attentive, and extremely tuned-in to what their students needed in order to work in their zones.

Plenty of those kids were smart.  And they were damn nice kids.  They had dedicated, committed teachers.  They each wrote a book, but really only two or three of them seemed to understand the full picture of what had happened.  Despite the admonition printed on the back cover, to Save This Book.  It Is Important, I’m not quite as sure that this group of kids will.

Because the bus had been late, they missed about half of the workshop. But some force much bigger than any of this had intervened — years and years and years ago — to undermine their fuller participation in this workshop.

And if that were true for this tiny, unimportant workshop, then many of these kids would have their full participation further undermined — at school, in higher education, in the political and economic processes that shape our nation.

With the help of loving, committed grownups, the kids were in their zones, at least the ones who could linguistically and conceptually follow the story.  It was just that their zone was in a different place.  While they worked just as hard, they could do much less, even with the excellent help of their instructors.

Please don’t tell them I said this, as I would hate for them to feel anything less than proud of what they had done.  But a series of somethings had caused the damn zone to move for the whole class.  Just not in a good direction.


Your Adventure Has Been Chosen

Like I said, this one-half of one workshop, in itself, is not even remotely important.  It was sad, I guess, that they only got a half a workshop, although the kids didn’t seem to mind.  But — metaphorical thinker that I am, making a forest out of two trees — I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this half a workshop was a tiny sign of a much larger phenomenon.

The subtle contrast in the experience of these two classes reveals so much about the fundamental inequalities of our society, and how those inequalities play out in an educational system that seems destined to reproduce those inequalities rather than to mitigate their impact.

The conceit of a Choose Your Own Adventure book is deeply compelling.  You make a forced choice at the end of each page, and find yourself drawn deeper and deeper into disaster.  Happy endings are just as likely as nightmare scenarios, and our second person “you” characters often die miserable deaths several times — looping back to ends that might take place on pages 16, 84, 225, and 28.

Sometimes your character dies almost right away.  You get half a story, and it’s over.

But when you’re reading a Choose Your Own Adventure story, most of the pleasure is in the sensation of having some sort of control over your fate.  And then, if you come to an early and disastrous end, you can go back and follow a slightly different storyline to come to what you hope will be a more cheerful outcome.

In watching these two workshops — the one that sizzled and the one that merely fizzed along, I couldn’t help but think of the many, many stories that led to these two outcomes.  I couldn’t help but think about just how much “choice” is involved in getting from birth to the sixth grade. I thought about what it must be like to be a teacher being evaluated in that classroom.  How great would a teacher in that context have to be to get results?  How dedicated?  How deserving of that pension that is so pissing off the taxpayers of America?

There are two-hundred and sixty million adventure stories being written in America, but for the 76 million of you who are children, attending America’s schools, your adventures have already been chosen.

In story one, you are born to college-educated parents.  Your parents have a few hundred books in their house, and a few hundred-thousand dollars still to pay in their mortgage.  Mom and Dad find the time to read to you from an early age.  They make good money on the sale of their first apartment, then move to a part of Brooklyn with a terrific elementary school, where you are significantly more likely than not to have highly competent instruction and continuation of the rich linguistic environment into which you were born.

Perhaps you have a reading disability, but it is identified early, and additional funding provided when the Parents’ Association provides an extra aide in your classroom.  You have a library card, and your grandparents send you a Barnes and Noble gift certificate every year on your birthday.  Through your own hard work and your teachers’ skill, you’ve become an avid reader, and have moved through every Harry Potter and every Lemony Snicket. On the day of the workshop, you are currently making your way through the Percy Jackson series.

You’ve learned to read and write fluently and skillfully — but even more importantly for the longterm, you have learned to love to read and write.

You get to go to a workshop in a cool room behind a store that sells invisibility goggles. You write a great book, and you’re proud. And next year, my friend, you are headed to a Middle School for Gifted students.  Then a specialized high school (not your first choice, but still a good one) and then college.

At some point after sixth grade, a lot of things do start to feel like “choices” for you.

But a lot of the ones that got you to that place were made for you.  Long before you were born.


If That’s Not What Happened, Turn to Page 10.

Or let’s just say you are born in America, to ambitious parents who emigrated here from two different nations.  They are loving and work very hard because want the best for you.  You speak two languages from the start — your home language interspersed with pieces of English. There are not a lot of books in your house.

Your neighborhood school is crowded.  The teachers vary widely in their quality and approach, and your parents never know which kind of teacher you will get.  The principalship has turned over three times in the last five years because test scores have not been as good as everyone expects. When it is time to apply for middle schools, you discover a little too late that your attendance in fourth grade was one of the factors in decisions.  That was the year you took a long-awaited trip to visit your grandmother’s home country.

It was a good trip, but now you go to a school that was not your first, second, or even third choice.  Sixth grade is OK.  The teachers are nice to you and keep the kids focused on their schoolwork.  You don’t get in trouble, as long as you keep your hands to yourself and don’t call out. You’re not so into reading, really.  They have some textbooks in school, but the library doesn’t let you take books home to your house.

One day you do half a writing workshop, and write a half a page.  It is page eleven of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

You wonder: what will happen next?

You wonder which parts of your adventure you get to choose.

This is not the story that makes the front page.  But it is the story of your life.

Am I wrong to think we all need to do more, so that you are ready to write it?

GailNHB May 26, 2011 at 3:22 pm

You are a wonder, Launa. You observe, consider, write, rewrite – and blow my mind every single time. Every single time. Thank you yet again.

What a great way to tell the story. And a sobering evaluation of who gets to do the whole workshop and who doesn’t. Harrowing.

I cannot wait for more. Although I’m kinda scared too…

Dermot May 26, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Yay, good to have you back. Keep up the good work and hopefully see you soon.


PS – I’m still expecting royalties if you use my title for your book ;)

Launa June 3, 2011 at 9:25 am

Certainly, Dermot. If the book is 150,000 words, you can have full credit for your four.
Which means that the next time I see you, I’ll buy you a Beer in Provence.

David Anderson May 26, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Good stuff, Launa, and great to hear your voice again (as it were). My daughter Erin voluntered there for quite some time while going to NYU, so I’m well aware of its awesomeness.

Kathryn May 31, 2011 at 10:00 am

Welcome back to the blogosphere. It has missed you! Am so glad you are up and writing here again. Cannot wait to read more…

Launa June 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Thanks! It’s awfully nice to be back!

Samantha June 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I love your pairing of your own choose-your-adventure with those of children in our public schools. I’d love to see this piece become an Op/Ed or other such essay. Really insightful paradigm that pokes holes in our cherished mythology of making our own destiny. What’s next? Waiting eagerly for more!

Terence October 18, 2011 at 9:01 am

I very much agree with Samantha – I hope somehow many people get to read this specific and evocative portrait of the difference between a rich educational background and an anemic one. A vastly unequal society has a myriad of small effects that add up over time, effects that are not the fault of any single group.

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