Monday, June 18, 2012

Monday Mini-Lesson: Generating Ideas

This morning for TeachersWrite! we got some terrific ideas from authors Jody Feldman and Rosanne Parry for helping those students of ours who struggle with generating ideas.  I've always tentatively used Nancie Atwell's Writing Territories with my students, but I find that many of them still struggle with that right at the beginning, especially for writing narrative fiction.  Some kids are able to pull twelve ideas out of thin air, and some struggle mightily for even one.  I was always a twelve idea kid, so as a teacher I struggle with providing my students as much scaffolding as they need to get to where I usually start as a writer.

Jody Feldman's ideas for Mining Ideas From Thin Air feels a little closer to Atwell's writing territories, so I might be using that to complement my work with that.  It's based on methods and questions you ask yourself, writing from a single word, etc.  It's a great diving board to jump off of when you're reading to dive in.

But I find that there are a lot of students who won't even walk up to the diving board because they're too scared, they don't feel prepared.  They've faced the struggle before and felt the sting of failure, the panic of having nothing to use, a brain so bare of ideas it must have been squeegeed clean...Blank Pagephobia.  The fear of beginning.  I think Rosanne Parry's idea of Story Hunting using a pre-written character, setting, and life experience bank is a great idea for those readers.  It would be a great quick-write each day for the first few weeks to have students make these lists in their writers notebooks, then when their writing territories section of their notebook is starting to have less white on the pages, then it will be time to introduce them to Feldman's and Atwell's methods.  This looks like a great three-step process for generating strong ideas for my students.

In fact, I'll be practicing it myself later today.  I need to create a mock-up of what a student's writer's notebook should look like.  Maybe I'll start there.  Hrrrmm. Time to buy a new composition notebook.  Yay! An excuse to go shopping at an office supply store! (I have dreams about this - some people dream of shopping at Prada or Saks - I get tingly over Office Depot.)

Our assignment was to go to a random noun generator and do a quick-write based on a noun that it spat out to you.  We could either A) write a list of ideas based on that word  B) write a quick journal based on that noun or C) using characters from a current WIP (work in progress) we could write a scene based around it.

My word was "Neighbor".  I'm choosing to quickwrite/draft the scene where my WIP's main character, Marlon Grunt, meets his neighbors in the trailer park (and future best friends) Blue Bennett and her older brother, Chick.

Before moving into Gramma Barb's trailer the Happy Trails Mobile Home park, Marlon's Sunday afternoons had been spent playing hoops in the driveway, helping his mom with the garden, or grilling out with friends.  The only garden around was the large potted aloe plant looking like a browning, dried-up alien next to Gramma's front steps.  There was a grill, but it was nothing like the bid, round kettle grill that his dad had used that made the whole neighborhood smell like charcoal and fired meat.  Instead, it was a little square hibachi grill that sat only a foot off the ground, so you had to squat over it like a tribesman of old tending the home fires, and it could only cook a few hot dogs or hamburgers at a time on it's tiny wire rack.

The one thing that was even close to the same was the basketball hoop.   Sure, it didn't have a net, but the hoop was there.  The pole it was attached to was placed only 20 feet down the little road from Gramma's and was situated so that you had to play in the street, since all available driveway space was occupied at Happy Trails.  Marlon was currently practicing freethrows, ricocheting only one out of every five shots off he scarred and weather-beaten backboard and through the bent metal ring.  It was not going well.  There was no concrete or asphalt at Happy Trails, only gravel, and it was hard to dribble the ball so that it came directly back to your hand.  Little rocks and pebbles would shoot out from underneath the bouncing ball and sting his legs.

It was on one of these unpredictable, gravel-driven bounces that the ball got away from him and bounded, caddy-cornered, across the road and into his Gramma's neighbor's little patch of yard.  He sighed and trudged after it, wincing as it bowled into a patch of irises that were planted close to the ramshackle white and powder-blue trailer.  He jogged to go pick it up, leaning carefully to avoid breaking any more iris stems.

"Can you swim?"

Marlon stood up so fast, his head cracked against the underside of the window ledge above.  The pain was sharp and he clapped his hand over it, ball forgotten.  Where had that voice come from?

"Are you okay?" the sweet voice asked in alarm.

He looked up to find a pale, wide-eyed girl studying him seriously through the window.  Her nose was pressed against the screen.  She looked to be about his age, maybe a little younger.  Rubbing the sore spot, he carefully leaned down to get his basketball from the irises and backed away from the flower bed a little before answering.

"Fine. I'm fine."

"I'm blue."

He could believe it.  She seemed sad and a little disheveled, like maybe she'd been crying.  She took her nose from the screen and he could see her white-blond hair was in messy pigtails, one of which was loosened almost completely.  Her lips were chapped red, and as he studied her, she began to chew her lower lip nervously.

"Oh."  Marlon struggled to find something to talk about.  The silence drew out as they studied each other.  "I'm sorry."

"Why?" she seemed confused.

"That you're or whatever," Marlon explained.  She thought about this for a moment, her brows knitted, then her face transformed into an understanding smile.

"No, my NAME is Blue.  Blue Bennett.  Can you swim?"

He felt stupid, and so his answer came out a little pissier than he meant.

"Yeah, of course I can swim."

"I didn't know. My daddy told me once that black people don't learn how to swim like white kids do."

Marlon just stared at her in silence.  What could he say to that?  Tell her was mixed?  Tell her that he used to swim in his old neighbor's backyard pool every summer, that he learned to swim at the University's aquatic center?  Tell her she was a cracker and that her racist daddy didn't know his ass from his elbow?

"Um, yeah, I can swim just fine."

"Wanna go to the creek today?  It's hot and Chick won't go because he's playing Halo and Momma and Daddy haven't come back yet and I can't go by myself."  Her smile was radiant, trusting and hopeful.  How could he say no?


Okay, that's all I've got time for right now, but it's a good start for a flashback chapter, and I think I'll keep working on it!

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