Friday, January 25, 2013

How to Teach a Child to Write a Novel

Why teach a child to write a novel? It makes them sharper readers, more critical thinkers, and gives them a vast sense of accomplishment, the confidence to tackle a grand task by breaking it down into bits and knocking them out one by one. A child who understands the construction of a book from the inside, even on the most rudimentary level, will approach the next book she reads more thoughtfully, with better questions, and a deeper grasp of what goes into making books work.

I've been homeschooling since my son was born, and always have tried to keep books at the center of our studies. I first published this set of lessons on my homeschooling blog in 2009, when I took my son and a bunch of his elementary school friends through eight weekly lessons about heroes, villains, plot, and conflict: The Junior Secret Noveling Club. I've updated the PDF this year, prompted by several requests for more info about the lessons, and I'm posting the new link here with this excerpt from the intro.

Download the free 40 page lesson plan booklet here

The process of writing a novel can be broken down for your child into eight lessons. This curriculum is less a curriculum and more a club. Kids will name their club, choose a secret handshake and “oath,” and earn “badges” by doing weekly lessons, games, and activities. By completing these lessons, the student prepares him or herself for the task of writing a novel, without ever getting spooked by the enormity of the task.

To form your own Junior Secret Novelist Club, you will first need some kids. Six is a good number. For optimal fun and awesomeness, these should be mostly kids who are pretty game. Naysaying kids who are nervous and uncertain will definitely benefit from this course, but there should be a good percentage of kids who will jump in with both feet and not be afraid to get a little crazy. With a few enthusiastic little writers in the mix, the hesitators will be more likely to cast aside doubt and join right in.

You’ll need a notebook for the kids to write in, do their homework in, and use to collect their exercises. Choose a small notebook, not a standard size, so they can really fill it up. A 3x5 is too small, but an 8x10 is too big. 6x9 is perfect, and recycled paper is cool. Ideally the notebook will have a sturdy front and back cover, since this is where the students will be collecting their badges. You will also need eight very very cool stickers per child that are more like badges than paper stickers. I found three dimensional glossy flower ones for the girls, and metallic compass/clock stickers for the boys. Look in the scrapbooking aisle for something that will really make their eyes go wide.

The key concepts are as follows:

Writing a novel is fun.
Writing a novel can be broken down into easy, manageable steps.
By the time you get to the part where you have a blank page in front of you, you have a solid, detailed plan and lots of material to use in your book.
Planning and writing your own novel helps you become a better reader of books that others have written.
Finishing means getting all your badges, not writing a complete novel and typing The End at the end.

On the front cover of the notebook, mark off four spaces, and label them GENRE, HERO, VILLAIN, and CONFLICT. On the back cover, mark off four more spaces, and label them SETTING, PLOT MAP, ANALYSIS, and CHAPTER LIST. Each week, as the children complete the exercises, you’ll hand out their badges.

The final thing you’ll need is something really super ridiculous to award them at the end of the course. I used a cool-looking paper clip, which became the Official Novel Writing Paperclip. After the final meeting of the club, you will pass out these official totems, and authorize the students to write their novels. Yes, it will be silly, but yes, you very much need something tangible. You could use hats, t-shirts, socks, necklaces, or whatever can be turned into an official, authorized novel writing item.

Kids, notebooks, badges, and a final prize. If you have all that in order, you are ready to begin!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Open Letter to the White Van Parked on 38th St. and Granby

Dear Large White Van Parked on 38th Street and Granby,

The van is on the north side of 38th, hidden by that building. 
Since moving to my neighborhood, I have driven past you countless times in anger. I have often shaken my head while flattening my lips into a resentful line. You have been parked there... let me see... let’s call it forever.

I understand: what you are doing is legal. There is a parking space on this street, and you are inside it. But you are the biggest vehicle in the world, parked nearly *on* the paint lines, the farthest possible distance from the curb and the closest possible proximity to the intersection.

You know that every honest citizen making a turn at this traffic light feels compelled to slow almost to a stop, worrying if they can make it past. You see them nudge their bumpers into oncoming traffic, causing drivers in the oncoming traffic lane to swerve away and honk. It’s a narrow street. The lanes are not marked. People get anxious.

There is shattered glass around your rear bumper, leaking out of the parking space and into the street. Your wheels are sunken. Whether they deflated from belligerence or despair I do not know. I don’t know whether that shattered glass is from an actual accident or whether it is the large white van equivalent of a middle finger, extending into the traffic lane. Drivers shy away, and there’s really not room for that, on this busy city street.

Until today, I dreaded going past you, wished you would just pack up your spacious running boards and go. I fumed over why your owner wouldn’t just move you twelve inches toward the curb. Or sweep the glass. Something. Why leave this gross abruption in the swift flow of traffic in our lives? It just seemed so inexplicable, and so wrong. I grumbled, and festered, and nudged my bumper into oncoming traffic, and honked, and ground my teeth.

Then today I realized what you are, you decayed, inconvenient old mess. You are Hemingway’s island in the stream. You are Olson’s stone in the shoe. You are Kierkegaard’s imperfection in everything human. Yes, large white van, that is you.

Contemporary author Charles Baxter wrote, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.” Well the story of 38th Street and Granby, an intersection through which I pass on a daily basis, is insanely disrupted by one magnificently ill-fitting detail: a large white van, tires deflating, bathing in a sea of broken glass, parked in the most inconvenient quadrant of the parking space, grinding traffic inexorably through its maw.

I’m writing now to let you know: Van, I capitulate. I won’t grapple with you. I won’t stab at you, from hell’s heart, or spit at you with my last breath. We don’t need another sensible intersection flanked by tidily parked compact cars. We don’t need another smoothly turning gear in the machine. You are the clunking sound in the apparatus. You are the hesitation in the march, the blip on the graph, the gap in the data.

Your end will come. You will be washed away eventually. Every island in the stream is always eroding. But until that happens, grind on, white van. Grind on.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Gödel, Escher, Bach: Preface to 20th Anniversary Edition

I was challenged to read this book after publicly exclaiming "I think I just made peace with the fact that I can't understand my own actions." Upon researching it a bit, I found it referred to as "the secret nerd bible," and my interest was piqued. This book of philosophy, math, music, and art won the Pulitzer in 1979 and has been inspiring AI programmers with its proposed connections between fugues, recursive figures, and the patterns in the human brain. At least, I think that's what it proposes, because I haven't read it yet.

So I collected 50 or so compliant people in a Facebook group, and laid out a calendar to finish the book in a year, one chapter per two weeks. This first two weeks of January, the assignment is to read the preface.

Things I Liked About the Preface: Hofstadter's self-flagellation over the use of sexist pronouns and the word "mankind" and whatnot. Hofstadter's insistence on not updating the book given recent history and making it a CD-rom or whatever. I like that he said it was a statement of his religion at that moment, and that updating it would be pointless. I also loved the description of the ass pain he had to endure to get galleys made with the images and text exactly the way he wanted -- what an effort!

Things I Did Not Like About the Preface: I don't understand the thing he said about how Bertrand Russell was self-referential while deciding not to be self-referential, thereby creating a conciousness within Principia Mathematica (or whatever). I assume we're going to get more about that in the book itself. I don't understand that, so far, so of course that annoys me.

Here are some interesting things I found helpful to look at:

Principia Mathematica by Bertrand Russell. (Yes, Newton also wrote one.)

A video from MIT Open Courseware about the book, introduction to the class about the book:

A video illustrating the logic problem of Achilles and the Tortoise:

Are you reading this book? Have you read it before? Would you like to join our group? I'll be tagging my posts on this subject GEB so  you can find them all if you like, if you're stumbling upon this farther along in the year.