When Writing Became Fun
Life is filled with little ironies. In some grade schools, the fun-loving class clown grows up to be the stoic pillar of the community. The kid who breaks the school record for detentions might end up in law enforcement. Then there’s me. Despite having had patient, kind and dedicated teachers, I couldn’t wait to get “sprung” — freed from the shackles of school! As an adult, I have been in 500 grade schools — and I look forward to my next. I’ve appeared in front of 95,000 students in 42 states.
Author Brian P. Cleary Kickin’ it with the “kinder” in Germany
I remember my final day of college with great clarity. Having completed my last exam, I sprinted across campus like a 5th grader running headlong into a summer of bike riding and baseball. No more pencils, no more books!
Fast forward to my middle-30s. I had written a few pun books for kids that had sold very modestly, but then I authored a series of books explaining, in humorous rhyme, what nouns and verbs and adjectives are. The series (Words are Categorical) sold very well, and the next thing I knew, I was back in the classroom, being invited to sign books, put on workshops, and…well…teach.
Since the late 1990s, I have been in public schools, Hebrew schools, Amish schools, Catholic schools, and charter schools. I have been in inner-city schools, and rural ones. I keynoted the North American Reading Recovery Conference a few years back. I signed 1600 books in a wealthy San Diego school, and I visited two one-room schoolhouses in rural Michigan. I’ve won a bunch of awards, (including the Children’s Choice Award, which listed my book right next to Shel Silverstein’s) ended up in an anthology with Kenn Nesbitt, Jack Prelutsky and Lemony Snickett. I have now sold 3 million books. I put words in the mouths of Smokey Robinson and Dolly Parton. I’ve written more than 50 curriculum-based titles covering language arts, math, poetry and more.
What made someone who didn’t really dig being in school spend so much time there as a grownup? First off, I’m not sitting in a long row of kids, six deep and five across, as in my childhood. I am following my passion, using my gifts, playing to my strengths. I am sharing what I am good at: writing, rhyming, and explaining sometimes-complex concepts in simple, often funny ways.
When visiting schools, I typically do two types of sessions: presentations and workshops. Presentations are typically in auditoriums or gymnasiums in which I do nearly all the talking. I walk students through what I read when I was their age, when I started writing, the importance of influences, and who mine (Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings, The Beatles, Muhammad Ali, Mad Magazine) were.
Workshops are smaller, and are only 30 minutes in length. Ideally fewer than 50 students. I have workshops for every grade. Here are some examples of workshops going from lower grades to higher grades: Making a paper noun quilt, the “verb train” game, the rhyming pairs of nouns contest, anagrams game, the word well, acrostics, personification, poetry writing. And, irony of ironies, I even “teach the teachers” with my in-service sessions, which I’ve done all over the country.
The workshops I conduct during my author visits work equally well for students who see themselves as budding authors, writers, and poets, and those who really have no interest in writing at all. For instance, with 3rd graders on up, I have had great luck with sensory poems. I start by asking students what they think a sensory poem (and I underscore the first 4 letters of the word as I ask this) has to do with. Someone usually guesses the senses. “Yep — and how many senses do we have?” I ask. Then they list them. Next, I show seven abstract nouns on a screen:
They need only choose one of those words and then they have three things —
The title of their piece, the subject of their piece, and the first word of each of their five sentences. Plus — no writer’s block! They’re up and writing! Next, they will tell me what (for instance) anger smells like, looks like, tastes like, etc. Before they write, I share a dozen or so examples of sensory poem lines. Then, they end up crafting poetic lines such as:
“Peace smells like the inside of a candle store,” and “Anger looks like a one-eyed bulldog.” A word of caution: the stuff they occasionally write will make you want to burn everything you’ve ever written.
In 30 short minutes, they go from never having heard of a sensory poem to sharing their completed five-sentence piece.
I’ve dedicated a book to each of my elementary school teachers, and even swap Christmas cards and emails with five of them. Schools and teachers — the very thing I ran from in my childhood, I ran toward as an adult.
Brian P. Cleary