Yesterday, I completed teaching a twenty-week novel-writing course with students from grade six to eight. We met for three hours, once a week, online. Each one of them has now completed a novel of between 10-15 chapters that had gone through at least two drafts, designed a cover, wrote up a book blurb for the back, offered a bio and a dedication and an author photo of themselves. Yesterday, their parents were invited to a group book launch where we celebrated the achievement of this marathon-comparable project they took on. I recorded each of them reading a passage from their story a week earlier so that I could edit a video and thus avoid internet glitches and nervous stumbling. As in all the writing stages leading up to this moment, in which students either soared or hobbled depending on their commitment to the project or their relationship with words and sentences or their relationship with themselves and their imagination, the book launch was also a learning opportunity. To take a creative endeavour that started from an idea, that for many months had been a private pursuit (supported only by me as confidant), and then release it into the world, and to do it with grace and love, understanding that it now has a life of its own, is a lesson they are just beginning to understand.
From a teacher’s point of view, having all those small squares before me, filled with the faces of students I would have otherwise seen in person, I had the illusion of a classroom setting and had to occasionally remind myself that each of them was sitting in a room by themselves, just like me. The reticence in volunteering to share their writing, when I assigned them a “fun, no-pressure” exercises spoke to the challenge of creating a supportive environment in this isolation, that allowed energy to flow between them. Like many working through this pandemic, I found myself exhausted after each class. The urge to reach out to a student in order to connect is natural, but sometimes it felt as if I was trying to crawl through the computer screen, as if there were a tunnel system of ducts on the other side, leading to each of them. Victories were counted in small moments. A smattering of smiles or (literally) muted laughs during one student’s sharing of writing. A short, semi-volatile give-and-take between a couple of students during some of our weekly book discussions. The flower garden of waving hands at the conclusion of each class.
From a writer’s point of view – and to be honest, a writer who is currently struggling to find my way back to writing – observing their progress has been enlightening. There were students who started off strong and then sputtered towards the end. There were students whose engines didn’t ignite at the opening flag, but later sped to the finish. There were students who wrote slow and steady, like Aesop’s tortoise, a chapter a week, every week. I saw remarkably mature writing by some, and diligent prep work with dense character profiles for the whole cast. I saw unsteady writers who still outshined their peers in their ability to take risks, to attempt a metaphor, sometimes falling flat and sometimes getting it dead-on.
The finish of an online creative course, especially one this long, is expectedly anticlimactic, which is why I’m writing down these thoughts as part of my transition, before I take a few weeks off prior to prepping for a two-week comedy writing course I will teach teenagers who are online in Korea. One recent thing that has lifted me up during this emotional dip is a book given to me by Joon Park, the creator of the CWC, the creative writing program of which I, among other children’s writers, are part of. The book is called School Blues (Chagrin d’école in the original French) and written by the author and retired educator, Daniel Pennac). In the same way that I felt I found an early childhood education mentor in reading the books of Vivian Gussin Paley, School Blues also brings a philosophical (and yes, even a grammatical) prism to understanding the student/teacher relationship, what it means to learn and what, at its heart, is its purpose. So much to digest and to ponder, and in the process of doing so, reminding me that I’m still a student too.