01 July 2013

Learning From Teaching

Whenever I'm asked to speak to a group or participate in a conference or seminar, I try to seize the opportunity. Perhaps you've heard the old adage, "By their pupils, the teacher is taught." It's true. You learn from sharing knowledge with others, especially beginners.

I had the wonderful chance to help young writers this past weekend through an endeavor with Gecko Gals Ink, our five-author Tucson group. We offered Word Magic For Teens, a short (two-hour) writing workshop. Our students were between twelve and fifteen, most in seventh grade heading into eighth. Though we had a small group, I was quite impressed with all of them.

One of the exercises we asked them to do was to choose two photos, then develop character traits. We gave them five questions to complete for each photo:
1) What is the character's name?
2) Where are they from?
3) What do they do?
4) What do they want from life?
5) What are they most afraid of?

The results were amazing. We had characters emerge from Nepal, Egypt, Washington State, Oregon, the Philippines, Mexico, Germany, Argentina, and Ghana. Fears ranged from being scared of monkeys and spiders to fear of starvation to getting caught for committing murder. Enthusiasm filled the room with the scratching of ink or pencil on paper. None of them hesitated, but they pondered and wrote intently for the entire allotted time. We talked about how their characters might meet, what they might say to one another, how their fears might affect their actions.

What did I learn? I learned to think from another perspective. Some of these children are from refugee families; their fears are completely different from the average American kid. I learned to think about reference points they would understand and in doing so, clarify the objective in more simple and direct terms. That helps me simplify my own thinking. We get so cluttered with details sometimes that our characters loose focus.

I'm going to use these questions myself and see how well they assist in defining the characters in my next project. And I can't wait to meet with these kids again and see how far they took their writing.


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