Monday, October 08, 2007

Eagle River Elementary School, Alaska

Part two of Debby’s Alaska experience, the teaching part.

After retired teacher Joan Anderson picked me up at the Anchorage Airport, she took me to meet my hostess, Susan Brusehaber. We then went to Susan’s home, a magical haven on thirty-five acres of forest, with turrets and a light house tower overlooking the rushing Salmon River.

That evening, Susan raided her greenhouse and herb garden to make a wonderful dinner for five of us. During dinner, I discovered that Susan and Joan wrote the curriculum for the Authors in the Schools Program.

Here I’ve got to confess that I thought this lesson plan was directed more to processing a crime scene than to writing crime fiction. Treading on eggshells, I broached this issue. Since both Susan and Joan had ties to Eagle River Elementary School, the teachers at the school had already begun to prepare the students for my visit by constructing the crime scene, complete with a paper brick fireplace, a scepter poker, and a rabbit pelt standing in for Viola Hare’s body. Both the kids and the teachers were having a lot of fun with the scenario, and the LAST thing I wanted to do was squelch their enthusiasm. To my relief, Susan and Joan rallied to work with me on how to ease my concerns and still implement their plan.

The day before I left for Anchorage, an email had arrived with my schedule at the school. My first duty would be to conduct an hour and a half assembly with about 150 students. I’ve been substitute teaching for ten or twelve years, and I paled at the thought of trying to keep 150 kids attentive for that long. One thing I’ve learned, both from teaching and from having two boys of my own, is that kids have high energy levels and short attention spans. It’s a fact of life. So I ran out the morning of my departure and bought two mysteries and one book of ghost stories, written by Hawai‘i authors. I figured it would be a gift to the school, a thank-you for having me as their guest.

The school principal and teachers welcomed me warmly, and wanted me to spend the assembly discussing my writing method, especially how much re-writing and editing I do. They thought this would be an important lesson for the students. The students were seated on the indoor/outdoor carpeted floor of a large room that, in a couple of hours, would be transformed into the cafeteria. About two minutes after I began my spiel, they began to squirm.

It was time for plan B. I opened THE KILLER COCKROACHES to a part where the suspense was escalating. This worked, thank heavens. Ten to twelve year olds love gross stuff. And they seemed to know all about cockroaches, so it wasn’t hard for the students to get into the story about how two kids had to rescue their scientist father from cockroach mutants who discovered he was developing a special pesticide. We had lively discussions about how the author developed tension, what words she used to show fear in her characters (chicken skin, chattering teeth, prickling scalps), and whether cockroaches would survive a nuclear blast. The latter wasn’t part of my plan, but heck, roll with the punches. THE SHARK MAN OF KAPU BAY also had a high creep factor, so was a big hit, too. Time whizzed by and I think everyone, teachers included, was happy.

The second half of the day revolved around the crime scene. Again, the groups of students were large. This took place in classrooms and the teachers were present, so we divided about ninety kids into groups of three. One group studied fingerprints, one group drew wanted posters, and one group—mine—got further divided into groups of three to five and wrote an interrogation dialog between the Village Public Safety Officer and an assigned suspect. Assigned because kids arguing about who got what suspect.

There were all levels of writing abilities, temperaments, and attention spans, but I was happy with the groups’ progress. The teachers seemed to be, too, (whew) as they selected students who would act out their group’s dialog to the class later. This was a big hit, and in some cases we had more performance practice than writing, but that was okay. Their imaginations were working at full speed.

I loved the experience. Any time I teach, I find that I learn. Even when it requires a lot of energy and leaves me physically tired, I’m renewed in other ways. This day I learned what speaks to ten to twelve year olds, what stories ignite their creative gifts and grab their attention. I watched for the words that turned them on and paid attention to the aspects of story-telling that captured them. Just watching their smiling faces gave me a glow.

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