Can you imagine waking up as a piece of chalk? One child did in a new course cultivating young writers in Los Angeles schools. Aimee Bender and Cecilia Woloch of English — and undergrads — help them find their voices.By Pamela J. Johnson
July 23, 2009
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Video by Mira Zimet
Fourth grader Alex Flores clamps down hard on his pencil to finish his story that begins, "One day I came to school and no one was there."
In his tale, Alex turns invisible and hears Mario singing the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song in the shower. Mario shrinks to the size of a “puny egg,” then becomes a giant. Kirby appears and inhales Mario, morphing into Mario-Kirby. The story ends when a sumo wrestler enters the scene and inhales Mario-Kirby.
Only one writer could have shepherded young Alex into a world so curious that people morph to the size of puny eggs and can inhale each other through their nostrils.
“Shake your hands out; you got it,” writer Aimee Bender instructs Alex, who mimics his teacher by rigorously flapping his tired little hands.
“That, my friend, is called writer’s cramp,” Bender tells Alex inside his classroom at 32nd Street Elementary School near USC.
Bender, associate professor of English in USC College whose waggish, fantastical novels once compelled the Los Angeles Times to dub her “Hemingway on acid,” was coaching school children in a new course called, The Writer in the Community.
The children were treated to one-on-one mentoring from Bender, whose novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own (Doubleday, 2000), is being made into a film starring Jessica Alba.
In the course, College undergraduates learn to teach fiction and poetry to elementary and middle school students. Bender and acclaimed poet Cecilia Woloch — both of whom have worked in elementary schools — invented and teach the course, funded and administered by the College’s Joint Educational Project (JEP) and the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching.
“The results have been nothing short of amazing,” said Woloch, who has taught poetry in hospitals, homeless shelters and prisons.
The 32nd Street School students always greeted the USC poet-teachers with enthusiasm. “It was both humbling and thrilling to see the torch of poetry being passed along,” Woloch said.
The course begins with classroom instruction at USC before undergrads develop their own curricula, then venture out to local schools and observe Bender and Woloch instructing the children. Then the undergrads try their hand at teaching.
Students enrolling in the course are majoring in subjects from East Asian languages and cultures to philosophy to biology. But most like Lorna Alkana are creative writing majors in English. Alkana said breaking down fiction writing into lesson plans helped her become a more organized writer. One lesson plan asked youngsters to create their own monsters, listing the contents of their creatures’ refrigerators.
“It helped students focus on the details of their unique characters and their writing as creation,” said Alkana, a senior recently hired by Teach For America. “The lesson plans reminded me to hone in, and slow down with my own creative writing.”
The program also benefits the elementary and middle school students, who first learn the craft by writing rather than studying technical aspects like theories and plot.
“The kids got to take a step back and look at poetry through a purely creative lens, rather than from an academic angle,” said seventh grade teacher Sarah Bruno, whose students were taught by Woloch and the undergrads. “Later, when we did eventually have to talk stanzas, hyperboles, personification, etc., the kids had a context.”
Back at 32nd Street School, Bender’s student, Cory Scholl-Spencer, stands at the blackboard teaching children the dreaded chore of story revision. In orange chalk, he writes in large letters and underlines: REVISION.
“Revision is when you add certain things and subtract what doesn’t fit,” he tells the fourth graders, before jotting another word on the board. He backs up and studies the word. Shaking his head, the sophomore English major grabs an eraser, quickly realizing he has misspelled “grammar.”
“See everyone?” Bender tells the class. “Cory is demonstrating how to revise the word, ‘grammar’.”
In spring 2008 and again this spring, Woloch, a lecturer in the College’s Department of English, and her students taught poetry. The semesters culminated in an event at USC, where the schoolchildren read their poetry to an audience of teachers, parents and College students.
Woloch’s spring 2008 students compiled an anthology of the children’s poems titled, The Smallest Shadow Ever Heard, after a verse in a poem by fourth grader Naomi Oregel:
The fall comes on flamingo-colored leaves,
Calling the fog to arise again,
Leaping into the dark cloudy night.
Swinging around the furious fire,
The last time again tonight.
The fall, dancing, wills leaves,
Turning the flowers into trees.
The river running fast
Like the nature in the past.
Enter the willow tree, dancing in the meadow,
Singing with Ara Lee, the robin bird,
The smallest shadow ever heard.
In the fall semester, Bender and her students taught fiction writing. The course ended with children reading their work at USC and creating an anthology of their short fiction stories, aptly titled, The Imagination Machine.
“What was one of Albert Einstein’s most famous quotes?” Bender asks audience members at the culminating event, before students step up to the microphone to read their fiction. “Imagination is more important than knowledge.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t pursue knowledge; knowledge is extremely important. But imagination is an important muscle to develop. And sometimes when you’re in the third or fourth grade, you have a little more access to this muscle than some of us who are a little bit older.”
Fourth grader Deztenie Toscano flexed that muscle with her story, “Chalk.” The story begins when she awakes one morning to find she is a piece of white chalk:
I was very mad I had to wake up at seven o’clock just to write 10 math problems. What got me even madder is that the teacher dropped me and broke me in half. Now, chalk doesn’t, I repeat, chalk doesn’t die, so I was still alive. I was just a little sore.
The yarn ends with her cheering up when a student throws away her archenemy, the eraser.
“I’ll never look at chalk the same again,” Bender tells Deztenie, who had read her story aloud.
A semester earlier, inside a seventh grade classroom at 32nd Street Middle School, Woloch and her undergraduates instruct students to name something they would want to exalt in an “ode to” poem a la John Keats.
“Mac and cheese!” one student yells.
“Forever 21!” hollers another.
“Soft shell tacos!” another shouts.
Then students elaborated: “Oh, soft shell taco, you’re as soft as a pillow, as big as my size 13 shoes . . .”
But in the end, many students’ poems were thought provoking and deeply felt. In a heartbreaking poem titled “Iraq,” fourth grader Gabrielle Jenkins wrote:
Rest in peace, Papa.
It’s really nice that you wanted to devote your
heart to our country.
You’re a hero.
He gave his life for us.
The family misses you, Papa.
Inside Bender’s office in Taper Hall of Humanities, a quote by André Breton, the main founder of surrealism, hangs on a wall above her computer. It describes the beauty of expressing oneself through writing:
“Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.”