Without Fear

Ryan K Lindsay – Writer

Category: teaching

Back to Basics and Having Fun in a Writing Teaching Moment

I love teaching writing.

I’ve rarely learned anything new about writing by teaching it to 11yo’s, but I always have fun, and I always come away with something.

Today was a perfect example – I was teaching basic story structure. I used a modified Hamburger Plan that looks similar to this:

It takes students through an intro; with character/s, location, and some basics of time, weather, etc.

Then it drops a hook – what is the complication, which we’ve boiled down to being: what does the character want, but cannot have?

From there, they try a few things and eventually stumble across or build towards a resolution. The example I give, that is rubbish, and so no student can steal it, but it gives a small idea of it all is what follows:

A young girl wakes up one morning in her room, and she wants some milk. But the fridge is empty of milk. So she goes to the store, and they are out, so she tries a supermarket, and they’re out, so eventually she borrows some from a helpful neighbour [maybe after staging a daring, and yet failed, milk truck raid, if you’re nasty].

That story illustrates character desires, and a complication to resolve, but unfortunately it’s boring. And the main character doesn’t learn anything, they just act like a pest until someone in their sphere of influence yields and gives her the dairy hook up. So I explain that to the class, usually with a few laughs, and then we build another story in front of the class, with their assistance.

I try to do this live, with no pre-prep or set up, so they can see that it can be done with an open mind.

I start with the first interesting character that springs to mind – a giant.

I ask the kids for a secondary character, a friend/sidekick type – they spit out a few responses and I decided to amalgamate two into something I like: a clown on stilts.

I tell them the story is taking place in a city, a New York city type place, big skyscrapers, squillions of people, and then I say it’s Winter because…because I like Winter, and it’s more fun for me to describe, and that’s why.

We talk about possible complications for a giant living in a huge city and the kids circle the idea: he doesn’t fit anywhere, he has nowhere to go, and I add in that the city sees him as a kind of nuisance.

I then tell the class that maybe if we think of a resolution to his problem, then we can build the story’s guts up to that resolution. A student suggests the giant build a new home and it instantly sparks an idea – so I tell the kids to watch and learn, because I’m about to take that idea and spin gold with it.

I say the first thing the giant does in the story is try to fly away, because he knows he doesn’t fit, so he’s off to a farm. To do this, he enlists the aid of a mechanic to build him a jetpack, but all the jetpack ends up doing is making him hover, not propel away, so he’s stuck in the air above the city. He eventually lands to try something else, which becomes the next section of the story.

The giant enlists a builder to make him a huge houseboat, so he can live on the river – because all cities have rivers, that’s why cities popped up, to be on waterways to be able to trade with other cities. But when the giant pops into his houseboat, it displaces so much water that it floods the city. And then the city folk hate him even more.

The giant is pretty dejected by now, he’s failed, and then actively affected others, so now he just wants out enough to simply walk away. Which he does, and it works, but then the clown – I couldn’t very well forget about our clown on stilts – finds him abandoning him and the city and he gets sad – he doesn’t want his best [giant] friend to leave. The giant can’t handle hurting another person, so he stays – which is when he gets his idea.

And this is where I thread it all together for the kids, showing how a story should always build up, having the character also build and grow themselves, while also collecting plot tokens.

So the giant has – the possible ability to hover, a houseboat, and a desire to stay with his best friend. So he puts it all together in a new way creating a hovering house above the city. Problem solved, story resolved, and the end is consistent with the character’s desires and what happened in the story.

Though one student then pointed out that the city would hate this floating shade in Winter, causing people to freeze to death in the excessive cold underneath, so I had to change it to Summer. Stupid Summer. But at least it shows a willingness to edit when plans don’t exactly work out.

With the story ended, I congratulated us all, and one student asked what happens when Summer ends, and I at first laughed her off, saying stories just have to resolve…’for now.’ But then I thought deeper and realised the giant would probably just install a sunroof, and sunfloor, to let the sun through on Winter days – though this might have a magnifying effect with all the window/lenses, and that would just have him setting fire to everything below – at which point we realised we had the basis of our sequel story :]

It was a great lesson, I loved filling in the story and having a laugh, and it reminded me for my own writing that if we drop in our loose resolution, we can then seed plot moments and tokens throughout for our characters to find to inform them, make change, or build growth in them. It’s not something I didn’t already know, but putting this stuff into my forebrain always helps.

We can always be thinking about writing, and we forever should.

ETERNAL Study Hall Guide

I have finally done something in that cross section of comics/teaching/learning/process/nerdy/insane in which I desire to live.

I have written a Study Hall Guide for ETERNAL, and you can buy the digital copy right here!

Screenshot 2018-06-29 22.42.01

This guide helps you unpack the comic I created with Eric Zawadzki, Dee Cunniffe, Courtney Menard, and Dan Hill through Black Mask earlier this year.

I want it to be used by teachers, but also by interested readers, and by people who want to write and are considering how much thematic stuff to layer into their work.

I’ve really enjoyed making this study guide, and there will plenty more to come. Hold onto your butts, because we aren’t finished delving into the curriculum of comics just yet. But I hope you’ll start with me here, and maybe have a little educational fun.

Comic Rewriting – Teaching Words through Pictures

Take a single page of comics you love and rewrite it as a prose narrative.

This is a simple activity but one that you’ll find draws together myriad skills involving literature analysis, image to word synthesis, and great language exploration. It’s also crazy fun to do.

You can do this with a class [I’ve done it successfully with kids aged about 8 and up] and you can also do it yourself for fun or to hone your writing craft.

All you need is a quality page of comics. Be sure to pick something you know will translate well to prose [and easily depending on the class you are instructing]. Also try to pick something moody, something rife to describe. The idea is that in writing the prose you describe the scene in detail [using figurative language and turns of phrase for effect] and you also get into the characters’ heads.

This can be done in books, on printed line sheets, and the example I’ll give below uses Google Drive for the classroom.

HAWKEYE AND THOSE DESPICABLE A.I.M. GOONS

I selected a page from SECRET AVENGERS #1 with art by Michael Walsh and colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Secret Avengers - Hawkeye AIM

I picked this page because it’s got pace, it’s relatively simple [yet with room to take it places], and it has a start [in media res] and an end moment [cliffhanger].

I had each student type their prose version of this page in a shared folder so I could easily access them all, and they could access each others’.

Once typed, I had the students use the Texthelp Study Skills add on and start highlighting the text with the following factors in mind:

Screenshot 2015-10-12 22.21.55

Once done, I then copy-pasted all the prose pieces into one file [though I could have the students do this themselves in the future with nearly as little fuss] and I put together a front page for it:

Screenshot 2015-10-12 22.24.41

From there, a quick check to ensure that every prose piece has the student’s name on it, and that it fits one page each like Goldilocks [not to little, not too big – and just select what you want and resize the fonts to make this happen], you can export it from Drive as a PDF – and PDFs are wonderful because you can print them in booklet form, which automatically prints it to A4 so you can fold it and the final product is A5 in size. [Hint: if the total pages count doesn’t equal a multiple of 4 then you’ll have blank white pages at the end – if you want, fill these pages with Curriculum links, or any other kind of stuff you might like, maybe a class ‘printing house’ logo for the back page]

You can then print your booklet off and fold it. I staple it with a special turning stapler that can do book spines a mate of mine located in Japan for me. And once this is done, you have a resource for your classroom, and your kids will feel ‘published’ [and they’ll be paid like they are too – #womp]. But it’s something they can share, cherish, learn from, and it looks great in the spinner rack up the back of the room.

IMG_3125

You can also set this as a writing warm up gig for yourself by getting a warchest of quality comic pages that suit your writing style [or don’t, if you feel like growing] and you set yourself 5 minutes to rewrite one. Maybe do one a week and at the end of a year put them into a booklet like this – comic page on the left, your prose reinterpretation on the right – and see what comes of it. Anything that gets you writing, stretches your brain out, makes you push, has a deadline, and you enjoy is always going to help whether you are a tween student exploring language and its practical and emotional uses or a thirty-something writer climbing the sheer cliff face of writing one precarious handhold at a time.

For clarity, I put my own rewrite in with the students, and it was a blast to do. Here it is:

THIS LOOKS BAD

by Mr Lindsay

This looks bad. I know.

Lasers whistle by like broken radios and Clint Barton sprints like he can beat them.

Hint: he can’t. He never can.

Clint is the world’s unluckiest man. Or the world’s worst superhero. Ask him once a day for a week and get seven different answers, with twenty one varied [though universally lame] excuses.

He sails over the gap between buildings – because he’s always been good at doing recklessly silly things. Usually for fun, sometimes to save the world.

It’s a Sunday morning and the sun is rising. Most people are on the street buying bagels and reading the latest Calvin & Hobbes. They have no idea what’s about to transpire above them.

A slew of underpaid and over-important henchmen from A.I.M. [Advanced Idea Mechanics] float, preen, and posture behind Clint. They might be fools but that uniform still looks good today. Clint thinks about Kate on the West Coast and then stops. He’s got things to do right now.

He momentarily pauses, an itch on his ear, and one of the henchman coughs. Clint is mostly certain the boomerang arrow is the third one in the quiver.

I know this looks bad. But trust me, it’s worse for them. I’ve got them right where I want them, stupid A.I.M. goons…

And that’s the comic rewriting activity. I hope it finds you well. I’ll try to collate and share some sample comic pages on here soon.

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