School Visit: Philadelphia, Pa.

Last week I spent two days with Kiri Harris’s sixth-grade class at Greene Street Friends School in Philadelphia, talking Jupiter Pirates, writing and storytelling.

An author's-eye view
An author’s-eye view

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true: I think I learned as much from the kids as they did from me. And I know I had a huge amount of fun.

The Greene Street kids were already pretty sophisticated storytellers — before I came, they sent me a Twilight Zone video they’d created together. I knew we could talk storytelling at a pretty high level, so I decided to use this visit to try out some new techniques.

On the first day I talked about how I became a writer, pirate lore, Star Wars and Hunt for the Hydra. One of the students immediately identified a woodcut of Blackbeard and noted his real name was Edward Teach, which was a pretty impressive start. I got a lot of terrific questions — some I’ve come to expect (I’ve never met George Lucas, and Diocletia is pronounced “die-oh-CLEESH-a”), and others that were new to me.

The Greene Street kids were very interested in storytelling, so I moved up some of the stuff I’d saved for Day 2. We talked about how writers pick names — something I’ll address in a soon-to-be-published blog post on another site — and delved into using your own life as a springboard for stories, which I think is critical for writers of any age. On Day 2 I showed the clip from Star Wars that I tried out in Litchfield, Conn., once again asking the kids to think about the fantastic/sci-fi elements and to pay attention to what the characters were talking about. Then I asked them what Luke was feeling when he stared out at the twin suns. I was curious if the sixth graders would respond as quickly and forcefully as Litchfield’s eighth graders had — the older kids immediately grasped that Luke was angry at his stepparents, felt trapped, and yearned to be somewhere else. The sixth graders didn’t zero in on the sense of feeling trapped, which is what I’d expected — they haven’t reached that level of angst quite yet. But they absolutely understood the rest, and got immediately that the science-fiction aspects of the scene had nothing to do with its emotional core. Success!

Dropping science.
Dropping science. (Photo by Kiri Harris)

As for the two new storytelling exercises, both went pretty well.

At the end of Day 1 I picked two kids and gave them assignments. One had to open Day 2 by telling a joke. (It was a pretty good one, too.) The second kid didn’t know what his assignment would be, and he looked understandably stricken when I asked him to retell the joke we’d just heard. (He did a great job, and his classmates helped him out, which was awesome too.) The point of the exercise was to show that you don’t need all the little details to tell a joke, just its main elements — the building blocks of the story. I wanted to try this because I think it brings home two lessons. The first is about how stories are constructed, but the second is about writing: When I was a kid I’d get hung up in the details, when it was the building blocks of story that had made me want to write in the first place. I think deconstructing the joke was a good lesson about how not to fall into that trap: Keep your eye on the story, and you won’t get as frustrated when the writing bogs down. (Plus: Revision helps! Revision always helps!)

Trying out our newspaper exercise.
Trying out our newspaper exercise.

The second exercise we tried worked better than I’d dared to hope. We divided the kids into five groups and gave each group a page from that day’s Philadelphia Inquirer. (I worked around the truly awful/depressing news of the day, of which there was an excess.) The kids had five minutes to scan the page and come up with story ideas, and they did a great job, whether their jumping-off point was the 76ers’ losing streak (imagine a gladiator spectacle in which the Bulls are actual bulls), the missing plane (anonymous wreckage turns out to hold the key to a deeper mystery), an actress’s fight with cancer (visiting the doctor leads to very strange news involving the dinosaurs’ return), or the obituary of a man who might have been the sailor in Eisenstadt’s famous Times Square photograph (time travel, with a very, very nice side of poignant, real-world regret). I gave one group the classifieds to see what would happen, and they quickly transformed a want ad for a spa attendant into a tale of secret alien agents and Elvis.

Not bad for five minutes’ work, and a good lesson in being alive to stories — I saw eyes light up when I pointed out that there’s a new newspaper full of story ideas created every day.

We capped my visit by talking about their movie, discussing how they’d used their own everyday experiences to tackle some pretty sophisticated storytelling techniques, including “make the subtext text” and the question of whether or not to “show the monster.” (As explored on this post from my Tumblr.) I left exhausted but also energized — and eager to discover what the Greene Street kids will do next with their own writing and storytelling talents.

Enormous thanks to Kiri Harris and the kids at Greene Street, and to my dear friends Jerome and Val for putting me up for the night. And to Walk a Crooked Mile bookstore, which had a very old, very cheap, very cool copy of Treasure Island that I knew I had to snap up to give away at the end of my visit.

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I have more school visits in the works — I’ll be in Charlottesville, Va., later this week and in Baton Rouge and New Orleans next month. If you’d be interested in having me visit your school or library, please contact me at I’m comfortable with classes K-12 and can talk books, storytelling, tips for a happier writing process, or most anything else you can think of. Since time spent visiting is time not writing, I do typically charge for author visits — my baseline is $500 a day depending on location, situation, and so forth — but if that gives you pause, let me know what you have in mind and we’ll see if we can figure something out. I love watching kids get up from their desks excited about reading, storytelling, and writing, so if I can help, give me a shout!