1. Who was I influenced by?
Primarily, by my teachers and schools.
One of my favorite teachers came to school and was talking to the class when a little furry head peaked out of the top of her dress. It turned out to be a baby chipmunk's head. She had found the little animal lying on the ground on her way to school and knew it needed heat and to hear a heartbeat if it was going to survive.
Great teachers, grandparents, parents, & terrific pals can really inspire you. They did me
2. I am a seventh grade teacher in El Centro, CA. What is the best way to get my children into your book, The Pigman?
Great to hear from you! I think the best way to get kids into THE PIGMAN probably is related to the advice we always give kids about writing. We tell them to write about what they know. I think the variation on that would be to have them READ about what they know.
Therefore, a discussion with them about mentors & tormentors who have appeared in their own lives might be lively. The whole motivational thrust might include a grabber by you with a corny joke. Do any of them know people who tell corny jokes? Get examples from them, and move into older people who have had an influence on their lives--short-lived, good, bad, or indifferent.
A kick-off involving anecdotes of mischief also hooks a student's attention. What do they think about kids who drink? What do they think about kids who smoke? What do they think about kids who take advantage of others? I would think of a great visual. I might even kick off the reading of the book by drawing the ASSASSIN/WIFE/HUSBAND/BOATMAN/ LOVER activity from the book and getting a rip-roaring discussion of the assignment of guilt going.
In a sense, I am suggesting you create a thrilling teaser for the adventure to come. To let the kids know how they feel about the adventure as they experience it will be just as important as anything in the story.
In that way, the kids will begin to glimpse one of the basic aspects of why a writer writes a story: to solve a problem. And I, as a teacher, would have a super-objective in mind for the main lesson I wanted the kids to pull from the book. I think I would chose the theme of responsibility. That we are responsible for our lives, we create our own cages--and our own freedoms.
This theme would particular attract me now at a time when much of our society seems hell-bent on blaming all ills on everything and everyone else. And so literature, in your class, gets turned back into life.
3. I am a teacher of emotionally disturbed young adults. Do you think reading to them is still a positive experience? Can you share some of your frustrations and cures with me? - Eileen (To read her letter click here)
Believe it or not, no one has ever asked me a more profound question than yours. I'll be happy to share my frustrations and cures with you.
First of all, I consider myself a writer telling stories for a wide range of ages and people. I don't have to appeal to everyone, though, and I don't place that burden on myself. I get hundreds of letters and reports from teachers each year about the success they have with THE PIGMAN with all sorts of troubled, emotionally disturbed, etc. kids. It always makes me happy to hear that kind of thing, and reaffirms my belief that even many kids who have never read a book before will welcome a story that remotely resembles their lives. Without the teacher, of course, my book(s) would never make it into the lost reader's hands.
Reading aloud to the kids is very important to draw them into a book you feel they would like. I think for most this is a crucial step, and class involvement in a single book is a splendid thing -- particularly if the kids can digress into discussions about things they hate in the book as well as things they may like. Using a book as a springboard for topics that will fire up a kid or a class is terrific, but the teacher cannot be shy. There should be little censorship, and I like the occasion batch of letter I'll get from a class where they tell me how much they hated my book and that John and Lorraine should have gotten laid, and that the Pigman was an idiot and he should have died earlier -- and some of the kids even told me I should try writing porno because it would be more interesting to them.
So, let's just say I've heard it all. I also spoke to a troubled, small group of kids recently where out of a dozen, eleven of them listened to my antic presentation, but a twelfth kid simply could not concentrate for a second. He asked non-stop questions, asked questions even when I was answering his previous question. I set off fireworks, took out rubber rats, Chinese crackling balls, and vampire fangs-on-a-pencil--and still there was no real connecting to him. He couldn't sit in his seat. He kept jumping up and down, and finally jumped out of the room--to my pleasure. Interestingly enough, though, no kid that I've met in the last fifteen years in a mass crowd or smaller unit or one-on-one has been mean to me. Some are, as they say, troubled.
When you have a kid(s) like that, I think reading and writing are truly besides the point. There are bigger problems, the kind that I was afraid to address when I was a teacher in a classroom. I was too young and inexperienced, and too self-conscious.
The following however, produced some success:
1) With class of applied chemistry students I discovered their attention span for the academic content of the material. If it was five minutes, that's all I gave them.
I found they liked experiments, so I made things with them that fascinated them--usually things that exploded. But I also discovered they like structure. When they came into the classroom I made certain I had a homework assignment written on the board which they had to copy down. They were soothed by copying down words from a blackboard. To them it was a small success--they were doing something they could do--and, forgive me, I praised them for it. Next, I moved into showing them exciting materials--visuals, flasks and chemicals and charts and bizarre exciting films of locust hordes eating insecticides--anything I could get my hands on which I instinctively thought would interest them and in some way make them see the world was sort of interesting, if not bizarre. I had them conduct as much of the experiment as possible. They liked watching each other mix chemicals and light fuses. They like touching materials, feeling gold or iron ore or a chunk of a meteorite. And they loved it when I made a pile of iron and sulfur too high and it burned off my eyebrows in front of them.
So after a very active twenty minutes of experimenting, I then had them DRAW the apparatus. They loved drawing. But I discovered something else. While they were drawing, I walked up and down the aisles talking to each kid individually. I found something to praise about each one's work . Here was where I think I learned there was nothing like one on one. I would hear about terrible delinquent acts by some of the kids in my classes committed by them in other teachers' classes.
I couldn't help but ask this boy one day about why was he such a great kid in my class and causing so much trouble in others. He looked at me and said, "Because you make me feel that you care." I swear to you he was sincere and not putting me on.
I think he gave me the greatest clue about teaching there can be. It is something that applies across the board. There is simply nothing like being one on one with a kid, leading him or her to small successes. In terms of reading, it means truly getting to know the kid and finding a book that speaks to him/her as a starting place. Unfortunately, it means making absolutely certain that you are open to fiction and nonfiction in all it shapes and forms. I know a kid who hated all books until I led him to one about a rather comic murder mystery concerning a bass fishing contest.
With kids who are in desperate need, we mustn't be surprised if it is a nonfiction work which pulls them into a book. Maybe it's about love or sex or plumbing or dolphins or hang gliding or terror. Somehow, there has to be time to find out what the kid's problems are and help the kid catch on to the fact that most stories are really, underneath it all, problem solving. The challenge is to find the book by an author who speaks to that child in a language and a form that excites. As you know, this is no easy matter. In fact, for a particular kid, such a book might not yet exist. Perhaps then, the kid could write it him/herself.
It is so hard to reach across the ethnic, racial, mental, drug, and class obstacles to understand each kid. I think it is okay, too, as a teacher and writer, to admit that there are some we are not qualified to reach. To acknowledge, especially to the kid, that there are others better suited for a particular personality or passion.
Very often, kids with whom I had the strongest initial dislike for, came around to being the most interesting and cherished. We, as writers and teachers, must be magicians, performers, psychiatrists, disciplinarians, mother, father, uncles, and model for the kid. But above all, we must know who they are.
Tell me your experiences.
Your message haunted me all night, and I remembered one other situation I wanted to tell you about. I proofread a paper last week for a friend who is getting her graduate degree in social work so she can be a therapist. It was an astounding paper about her term's work with a group of emotionally disturbed kids(10-11 year old Hispanic & Afro-American kids). The paper led me through her eventual success in reaching a group of nine emotionally distressed kids using basic group therapy techniques.
I guess I thought of you because when you have such a group of kids in a class, it really does become something of a group therapy experience if one is to reach them. The girls in this group had a commonality of loss. They had all loss mothers or fathers, physically or mentally. One or more parents were gone from the home either through death or emotional problems. The kids exhibited wild and furious behavior, but over a course of time, and following basic group therapy technique, the group worked out, often theatrically and tempestuously, a sense of responsibility for themselves, peers, and even their group leader.
I mention this student therapist's success only because it began in her pain, bewilderment, fear, and frustration--which in time led to a marvelous, tearful & joyous bonding with the woman. Of course, it required enormous honesty on the part of the woman to share with the group, to expose her own vulnerability, and to roll with the punches. I am reminded of my favorite advice to parents. Speak your truth quietly, and wait.
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