One of these Prompts is not Like the Other

About 3 weeks ago I felt in my gut the power of varied writing prompts at our La Plaza writing workshop session. Yes, I know…pedagogical woo-woo galore. And it was magical.

We began with an ekphrastic writing prompt (a.k.a. writing about art). I posted thirty or so postcard–photos and other artworks alike–around the classroom, and our high school writers were charged with writing in the voice of, the place of, or in response to the postcard of their choice.

I watched as a number of writers got on board with the freedom of this prompt, writing about what it would be like to live on Jupiter, or how an abstract painting of a woman with a yellow, blue and green face was actually a Brazil fan on her way to the recent America’s Cup futbol match.

Ishmael was just not digging the prompt. He sat at Nikole’s table, shaking his head, repeatedly saying, “I don’t know what to write.” Nikole was both patient and persistent. “What does the picture make you think of? Write about whatever comes to mind.”

Ekphrasis didn’t click with Ishmael, and it was hard for me to not take it personally: Had I not supplied enough structure? Was the topic too fuddy-duddy for this group? But other writers did jive with ekphrasis. Kat wrote an ars poetica in response to a portrait of Sharon Olds. Udiel wrote a persona poem in the voice of an imagined slave in JMW Turner’s “Whalers.”

Before I could stew too much, we proceeded with the session’s second prompt. “Write the story of what happened when you were affected by violence or abuse.” My interns and I read aloud our own prepared responses. I had written about a school lockdown. Emily had written about the murder of her friend’s uncle.

And Ishmael wrote–head bent over, black ink intense and furious–for the remainder of the session. He even continued to write while his peers shared their work. He had that much to say.

“You wrote a novel!” I said to Ishmael when it was time to collect writing notebooks and pack up for the day.

He shared with me what he had written, about a teacher with whom he had a conflict that resulted in disciplinary action. The injustice he felt had fueled this major writing accomplishment. Our workshop was not lost to him after all.

Ishmael reminded me that no one writing prompt will inspire all students to their cores. It’s just silly to expect that. It is my responsibility to introduce many different–straightforward, structured, zany, strange, woo-woo–prompts with the understanding that each student approaches the prompt in their own way.

And what an amazing thing it is to guide that process.

By: Lauren Mallett



Shaking It Out


I came into this knowing one thing—

I had no idea what I was doing.

I mean, I had my Writing Center training which had endowed me with this interesting perspective of simultaneously understanding every complex nuance that is this world, and understanding that nothing in this world could ever be truly understood. If anything, it had taught me that one can never be prepared no matter how many scenarios we have invented in our minds. And that is exactly where I was—sitting in the parking lot across the street from Charity Childcare Ministry, preparedly un-prepared…and hyperventilating a little.

See, I have a daughter. A ridiculously clever, cloying little two-year-old who is currently peeping out at me from the doorway from her room 2 hours and 23 minutes past her bed time, clutching the satin goodwill XXL nightshirts that she long ago dubbed her “blue blankey.”

She is my control experiment. If I get her interested in a movie that is a bit too mature for her or feed her too much sugar the only person that can get mad at me is myself—I have to deal with that new naughty word she is tittering way too loudly at the kimchi lady in the farmer’s market, I have to stay up an extra three hours to make sure she doesn’t climb on top of the dresser again.

These kids that I was about to meet today, they were the real deal, the big shebang. Any error I made here could be catastrophic.

My preparedly un-preparedness, it had to be perfect.

As I passed out the pens we had scraped together last second—no one had seen a traditional pencil sharpener in a good 4 years—I reminded myself that I was NOT a teacher. I had no qualifications to be a teacher, I had never taken a class with EDU in the course number, I was not here to teach a thing. I was here for the same reason that I had been in the Marian University Writing Center: to discuss writing through a relationship built upon mutual respect, not authority.

And then, over the course of the next 5 weeks I spelled Sharkboy approximately 27 times.

And in that 5 weeks I learned two very important things:
1) That most kids don’t get credit or the extent of respect that they need to thrive.

Through interacting with my own daughter, I’ve learned that when I say she is not capable of something yet—like understanding simple directions or learning how to pee in the potty consistently—it is more likely that I am not capable or willing to teach it to her yet. As a result, her progress can be hindered by my caffeine dependence.

At Charity Childcare Ministry, I had gone in prepared to tell students over and over again “it doesn’t matter how you spell it, what matters is your ideas.” But regardless of my continued spiel, students kept asking me to spell little words for them—words that I deemed insignificant at first.
When I caved and spelled a word, I felt like a failure—the other teachers were capable of saying “just sound it out” and walking away, but I was spineless.

And then I started making deals: “I’ll spell this one, if you try to spell the next one.”

Immediately there was a switch in my students—those who looked at their paper crestfallenly when I had asked to sound a word out before, now jumped at the opportunity to try. It made me realize that I have been culturally groomed to believe that when a child told me they couldn’t do something—it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough to do it. But when I began to give them credit for deciding that something—like learning to spell a word—was important to them, something amazing happened. Once they realized I respected their requests, they began to respect my request: to just keep writing. Their constant need to spell correctly may not have been important to us, but it was important to them.

It’s kind of like trying to run a mile. You have this desire to, and everyone is rooting for you, but when you ask someone to teach you how to tie your shoes, they say “Just keep running, you’re doing great!” You will be much more successful if YOU don’t have to live with the nagging potential of tripping over your shoelaces.

And yes, a lot of students began the class raising their hand and asking me how to spell “Sharkboy” because they were simply trying to get that one-on-one attention from a teacher. Jeremiah, one of our youngest fits this scenario exquisitely.

Jeremiah has energy. Lots of it.
He also has this big, cheeky grin that makes up for his excessive chair-wiggling.

During our first few open mic sessions, Jeremiah caused quite a ruckus—crawling under the table, throwing pencils, getting up to cabbage patch. As a result, he was often forced to share his work last in an attempt to reward him if he sat still throughout the course of the other readers. But as I watched closer, dubbing myself the official Jeremiah-Watch, I began to notice each time he got discouraged as he was passed up to read because he had slipped out of his chair. I realized Jeremiah probably dealt with this same situation a lot—he was aware that he would be last, so why not just have some fun anyway?

So one day I pulled up a chair next to him during open mic time instead of standing over him like a security guard—I become just another listener at his table. And each time a turn passed and he stayed in the chair, I leaned over and told him that he was doing great and that I was proud of him.

Yes, Jeremiah needed the attention that he got from dancing around the room, but I made sure that he got it for a different reason—now he was getting attention from a friend for behaving rather than getting attention from an authority figure for misbehaving. I respected his need for attention and he respected my need for him to sit still.

And this brings me to my second lesson:
2) I learned to stop taking myself so seriously.

From the first moment I was called a teacher at Charity Childcare Ministry, I was a teacher. The students didn’t care about whether I had my degree or any experience or what was on my resume. They just cared that I was there to encourage them. As a scholar I spend most of my time in a position where everything I do is judged, and everything I say is questioned. At Charity, no one is judged. Kids aren’t interested in labels and qualifications. They are interested in the fact that I willingly stood in front of 30 kids at a time and “shook it out” twice a week. At Charity, no one laughed at me and said that I was obviously too goofy to have anything important to say.

Because to kids being silly isn’t just okay. It’s necessary.

By: Khirston Sims

Xbox Inspiration

20160630_131849Once, while on my relatively short morning commute to Charity, I was thinking about that day’s prompt—“write about the first time you tried your now favorite activity.” I remembered how, when I was about the age of the youngest kids we worked with at Charity, my older brother told me, “You wouldn’t like this game. It isn’t for girls.”

 So naturally, as soon as he left the house the next time, I fired up the PlayStation 2 my parents had given us three kids for Christmas, and so began my lifelong love of video games.    

 That morning at Charity, there was a little boy in the second group who had his head in his hands, not writing anything. He was hiding beneath his blue hooded sweatshirt. I dropped to a catcher’s squat beside his chair, and I asked him, “Do you need help?”

 He shrugged. “I don’t know what to write about.”
“Well,” I asked him, “what do you like to do?”
“I like to play basketball,” he told me, coming out from behind the hood a bit. “And I like to play football. And xbox.”

 I smiled a little, suddenly thankful for the commute. “I can tell you that, the reason I started playing video games is because my older brother told me I couldn’t, because I’m a girl. Do you have a story like that?”

 His eyes lit up, and he nodded vigorously.
“Good,” I said, “now write it.”

And he did.

By: Maddi Rasor

Alien Abduction



I was abducted by aliens last night. They had 3 eyes and 2 mouths. The aliens like to eat zombies. They thought I was a zombie and cut me. They replaced my brain and put me back on earth.

This morning I ate a dog.

This being my first summer with the IWC, I didn’t quite know what to expect coming into the program. I wasn’t quite sure of what my role would be. Sure, I knew I was there to guide the kids in their writing, but in my experiences that isn’t exactly how writing usually works. It always seems like something that just happens naturally. My first day or two seemed to confirm this belief as many of the kids seemed to just be writing away on their own. They didn’t (at least in that particular moment) need me to share their stories. They already knew it.

But then I met Sean. And man, does this kid have an imagination. I went through our prompts for the day over and over again with him, but I couldn’t manage to even get him to talk to me about any of them, let alone write about them. I pushed hard to even get him to tell me about what he had done so far today, the latter of our three prompts, but Sean didn’t bite. What I did get out of Sean, however, was a lovely story about an alien abduction. It was all he wanted to talk about, so I figured I would go ahead and write down what he was saying. After all, it was pretty interesting. Apparently Sean had recently watched an alien horror film on Netflix a short while before then.

Now, unfortunately I don’t think Sean’s masterful story about aliens is going to end up seeing the light of day as he actually told me a story the following week that we both strongly believed should be his featured work in the book. It’s sort of a shame, really. However, maybe we’ll see his work pop up again years from now in a Sci-Fi Novel or in a big screen adaptation. Who knows?

What I do know, however, is just how powerful a kid’s imagination can be. I could’ve just as easily chosen not to write down Sean’s story because it didn’t follow the prompt or because it wasn’t a true story, but it was something that I felt needed to be written down. While several of these kids are confident in their abilities to write and write, some need that extra boost of confidence. Some need you to not only tell them it’s ok to write anything that comes to mind, but to even encourage them to tell their most wild and wacky stories.

By: Nick Smith

What Animal Most Resembles You, and Why?

SF_EvanMy second day at St. Florian, we asked the kids a strange question: What animal most resembles you, and why? I wasn’t sure how it would go. Would they find it too weird?Would they really want to talk about themselves in writing? When I was a kid, I was so shy that the thought of having to describe myself, let alone the prospect of someone reading the description, would’ve been excruciating.

It was a rainy Wednesday. Everyone was tired, a little frazzled. We introduced the day’s prompts and the kids listened carefully. And then the room exploded into life–kids conferring, giggling, debating, and most of all writing. They knew what animals to choose; they knew exactly who they were and how to bring the fullness of their personalities to life on the page.

Alexis chose the giraffe. She identified with its height and its long neck, and the fact that giraffes “just eat all day, chill, and…seem so unbothered!”

Wesley was a night koala, “cute and cuddly.” I learned of his gentile nature, his peaceful, quiet way of being, through the choice of animal and the way he described it. He wrote, “I love the dark night and being inside my treehouse because I can tell all my secrets to myself.”

Evan, whose irrepressible energy and goodwill shines through in everything he does, chose the Cocker Spaniel: “A Cocker Spaniel resembles me by being mixed of three breeds of dogs. One of the breeds is playful, another breed is always tired, the final breed is destructful.” Evan has four dogs at home–Joy, Destiny, Big Brian, and Drake. He writers about them often, with great insight and love, and he also writes about the dogs he has lost over the years, dogs who were true companions.

Nia, whose smile is lit with every possible color of braces, didn’t let the prompt confine her. The animal that suits her most of all is the unicorn, a creature “mythical, magical and just plain AWESOME. Like me. We are social, happy, cool, capable of ruling the masses, strong, flying, awesome creatures.”

The kids at St. Florian approach writing with an openness and generosity of spirit that I hope to learn from. They aren’t afraid to share themselves on the page, to celebrate their strengths and quirks and the things in life that bring them joy. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be working with them.

By: Hannah Rahimi


The Importance of Encouragement

Yvach_Barnett_June29Since this has been my very first teaching experience ever, I was definitely not sure what to expect. One of my friends asked me the other day, “So if you don’t want to be a teacher, why are you doing this?” And I simply replied,

 “I like kids, and I like to write. Seemed like it was for me.”

 And I was right! Working with the children so far has been a very positive experience. I have learned so much from spending time with the kids, asking them questions, and assigning them prompts. I have found it to be so very satisfying when a prompt clicks with a child and their hand begins to fly across the paper. Many times, especially at Charity, they would pause and ask me to read what they have so far and ask me what I think. I always find something to praise, whether it be content, spelling, or a picture drawn to go with the story. I adore how a child’s face lights up when they are praised and how eager they are to read their work out loud and that look of pride they get when their peers clap for them.

 Working with these kids has taught me the importance of encouragement. I will never forget when one of my little boys told me that he didn’t want to write anymore because he was too dumb. I assured him that this was absolutely not true, and since then, I have tried to give him as much positive feedback as I possibly can. I have noticed improvements in this child’s writing, as well as many of his peers that are receiving positive attention.

 It seems as if something as small as, “Great job! I can see that you are really trying!” can have a massive impact on these children, which also tells me that saying something negative would have an impact as well. I believe it is critical for these children to get as much praise as they can here. I had never thought much of it before this, but I can see now how important it is to encourage these children in order for them to grow up to be healthy, productive adults.

By: Nikole Darnell

The Power of Writing


Coming into this program, I thought getting the kids to write would be a battle. As a mentor for College Mentors for Kids these last three years, I know how challenging it can be to harness the kids’ energy into an activity like writing. But there they were, scribbling away at a furious pace. I was not only impressed with how invested the kids were in the prompts, but how they yearned for our support and encouragement from the start.

That’s what I absolutely love about this program: twice a week I get to sit down with kids who are blunt, honest, and genuine when they share their stories. There are no guards up or mistrust, which is something I envy about the kiddos. Every week they volunteer to read their work and beam with pride as we all share what touched us about their writing; sometime it’s a hilarious moment, other times it’s a somber metaphor.

Not only has writing given the kids an opportunity to feel confident about their work, but the ability to connect. In just a few short weeks, it’s apparent which kids have become attached to specific volunteers and interns. On my first visit to Saint Florian, I immediately bonded with four girls: Autumn, Lauren, Makayla, and Vivienne.

Autumn-is the star of the show. She commands a presence and is a vibrant storyteller. She’s also allergic to everything under the sun.

Lauren-just got braces and catches the giggles when she’s put into uncomfortable situations. Just last week she started participating in Author’s Chair, but only if her friends read her stories for her.

Makayla-is a perfectionist. The first week it took her almost the entire time to write ¼ of a page because she got caught up in picking the right adjectives and making her cursive look neat. I love to read her writing because her strength is creating descriptive settings with specific details.

Vivienne-is someone that everyone has grown to love. I think her level of writing shocked us all. Each piece is imaginative, strong, and well-crafted. In just one short month, she went from a shy girl who we all saw potential in, to a confident writer who is begged by her friends to read her stories. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vivienne’s name on a book or byline in the future.

This is the power of writing: to learn about people in an honest way and to watch the growth, healing, laughter and reflection that happens as a result of their words.

By: Lexa Muehlbauer