Bravery and Impoliteness: What I Learn from Teaching Young Writers

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Cookies on a Plate

A post by writer Margaret Nevinski:

“Who remembers where Isabel left off reading last week?” I ask, referring to a young writer’s story in progress during my Creative Writing Workshop.

Several young authors raise their hands. “When the giraffe escaped,” calls out an eight-year-old with perfect recall.

Which is just one of the reasons I love teaching young writers in mid-life. Who needs to write things down? All I have to do is ask an eight-year-old.

I’ve been teaching after-school and summer-camp writing workshops for more than a dozen years.

As my students stay the same age (8 to 12), and I somehow get older, the benefits of teaching the young keep accruing. What I see in my students are the things I want to keep in my own life.

Energy.

Enthusiasm.

Bravery.

Laughter.

Love of jokes.

An appreciation of the absurd.

The ability to draw, because they haven’t yet learned to say, “I can’t.”

Willingness to try out new ideas.

Impoliteness.

Impoliteness?

Don’t we want to teach children to be polite, kind, and compassionate?

Of course, and my students are all those things, most of the time.

But aren’t we adults a little too polite at times, especially we women who’ve been told for decades to be “nice?” Wouldn’t it be fun, just once, to grab that last cookie on the plate?

If I had to pick one trait I most admire in my young students, it’s bravery.

The bravery to create a story.

To fill the page with words.

To read aloud, for everyone to hear, a story they’ve just written.

I also teach writing to adults. When it’s time to share our work out loud, hands tend to stay firmly planted in laps, not darting up with enthusiasm. What happens to our kid-like bravery when we grow up?

So in mid-life, with the help of the young writers, I’m trying to cultivate bravery, energy, enthusiasm, humor.

And yes, impoliteness.

At least a tiny bit.

Just once, I want to reach for that last cookie, and oh it’ll taste so good.

Margaret Nevinski is the author of several children’s books for the school market, as well as published poems and short stories. Her young adult story, “The Eve of St. Agnes,”appeared in Hunger Mountain. Currently she’s working on a middle-grade novel. Margaret has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She teaches writing and creativity workshops for children, teens, and adults. Her kid-friendly blog, Yellow Pencils, offers fun prompts for young writers.

Yellow Pencils

Margaret lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington with her husband. When she’s not writing, teaching, or reading, she loves to walk or bicycle around Bainbridge Island and in Seattle, with frequent stops for coffee. You can read more about her at www.margaretnevinski.com.

Margaret

Yellow Pencil Banner: The art is by Alyssa L., age 11.

Margaret on Bainbridge Island: The photo was taken by Sue Hylen.

23 responses »

  1. ENjoyed this post and as I’m about to start a class for middle school kids, it was great to remember all of this. Margaret, I’d like to subscribe to your blog but don’t see a way of doing that. Can you email me at cbaldwin6@carolina.rr.com and tell me how? I love the prompts and would like to use some of them–referencing your blog. I think I get stuck in my own lack of thinking outside the box–these are good!!

  2. Hurray for bravery! I think occasional impoliteness–especially when it comes to saying things that need to be said–is a wonderful thing.

  3. Enjoyed reading your guest post, Margaret! I can only imagine what an inspiring teacher you are. So funny, just yesterday I started revising a manuscript that’s a few years old and reread the comments you made on it!

  4. Thought provoking and fun post! Women do need to throw off the shackles imposed on us by society (aha! I’m turning revolutionary already!) : )

  5. Fun post and a really good reminder. We build up so many layers of “shoulds and shouldn’t s”.
    I could use a dose of bravery myself!!!

  6. Great post, Margaret. You hit a nerve with the idea of ‘impoliteness.’ As a girl growing up being nice and polite no matter what, it has taken me 50 years to discover that being polite (read “quiet”) isn’t always the best idea. Yes, let’s teach our kids to be impolite when it’s important. I like it. 😀

    I also went over to Yellow Pencils and really enjoyed myself. I’m thinking I could benefit from your teachings! 😉

    Thank you, Margaret, for sharing your thoughts. And thank you, Barbara, for sharing Margaret!

  7. Thanks all for the comments.

    “Cyclingrandma,” I agree that teaching is all about learning from your students. That’s what I love about it. Carol, I will email you. I don’t have subscribers on Yellow Pencils, but I’d like to correspond about your teaching. Michele, “occasional impoliteness” seems to be the key.

    Lisa, great to hear from you, and I hope my comments on your MS are still helpful! Susan, “throwing off the shackles” is a great idea. I’m with you there. Judy, I loved what you said about the layers of “shoulds and shouldn’ts.” I always ask my writing students to substitute the word “should” with something like, “You could try this” or “How about this?”

    Patti, I agree that “quiet” isn’t always the best idea. (Editors tell me my work is “quiet” when they’re turning it down.) Have you seen the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain? She talks about the “quiet strength” of introverts. I like that she gives us another view of quietness, equating it with being strong.

  8. Wonderful post, Margaret! Yes, love the perfect recall of 8-year-olds. Memory is a great topic. My short term memory is weak, but my decades-ago memory is still present, as if those moments never left. And definitely grab, or ahem, pick up all-dignified-like, that last cookie!

  9. Bravo Margaret! I think it’s great that you are encouraging kids to just keep being who they are. In this age of helicopter-parenting it is more difficult than ever to buck the current. Especially for girls, who are still getting sent the message that it is polite to assume that other people’s feelings are more important than your own.

  10. What a great post, Margaret! I love the list you made of some of the fabulous things you see in your young students, things you want to keep in your own life. I’m right there with you! All of your students are so fortunate to have you guiding and supporting them.

    Next time we meet, I’ll arm wrestle you for the last cookie! 🙂

  11. This is a wonderful post. I visited my local elementary school twice last week during their “I Love to Write Week,” and working with first and second graders I saw the same thing. I agree, there is something to that impoliteness, that willingness to risk, that I wish we could retain.

  12. Kathy, how great that your local elementary school has “I Love to Write Week.” It puts such a positive focus on writing. I like that you used the word “risk,” too. It is risky to speak up for ourselves.

    Jessica, I also need to keep remembering that it’s OK to be impolite at times.

  13. Great insights. I think some of the computer skills young people demonstrate is because they started using computers when they were brave and fearless of the outcomes. Oh how I want a pinch of that!

  14. Haralee, wonderful point about computers. Most of us adults are afraid we’ll do something “wrong” on the computer, while kids bash away at the keyboard. And then there’s all the new technology–ai-yi-yi!

  15. Margaret, I agree that young writers are brave and impulsive in wonderful ways. I teach creative writing to preteens and teens in the summer here in Berkeley, CA, and I’m always impressed with their energy, their support for each other, and the topics they dive into. Many are, in their writing, wise beyond their years. They are remarkable and inspiring.

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