Wednesday, April 7, 2021

First Author Visit Jitters? Teach What You Know by Carol Coven Grannick

As a clinical social worker, I've done extensive in-person teaching in workshops and classes. But when it came to planning my first author visit shortly after the debut of REENI'S TURN last September, I had the jitters, particularly about the missing part of my presentation, a fifteen minute writing lesson.

I'd done some writing lessons in the past, working with after school programs and occasional classroom visits, and felt quite comfortable with the idea of talking about why I wrote REENI'S TURN and what the journey had been like, as well as answering any questions students would have.

Still, I felt I lacked the authority I needed to teach a lesson, mostly because the content of that short lesson continued to evade me.  


But I learned something about myself as I problem-solved that may be helpful to you, if you're ever in a similar position. 

DON'T THINK TOO MUCH!

The harder I thought about what to do, the fewer ideas I had and the more nervous I became. 

It was as if I was a kite without the wind to fly. I was so ready to take off, but was missing the one crucial thing that could lift me. 


So I stopped thinking about what to teach.

Instead, I changed direction, and reminisced about the lessons I'd done with after-school writing groups and occasional classroom lessons, always using mentor texts to demonstrate points. 

My mind wandered to a time during the writing journey I would share with the children.

I'd worked hard in early drafts to make sure I was "showing" instead of "telling" Reeni's varying emotional states created by joy, longing, fear, anxiety, self-deprecation, hope, persistence, and more. 


That's when I realized that I could use not only my own journey to teach, but my own work. REENI'S TURN could be a mentor text for the students. First, and then later drafts of the short verses could clearly illustrate "telling" vs. "showing", and how the latter changed the emotional depth of character and story.

I checked in with the teacher of the fifth grade class. I wanted to be sure that it would work for her students. In fact, she replied, they were working with students to find ways to deepen the emotions of their characters, and my plan would be a perfect match!

I relaxed. I knew what I had done in my manuscript, and how I had done it. I could teach what I knew—and that was completely comfortable. 

ONE STEP AT A TIME



I had four steps in the lesson:

1. READ:

I read a poem from REENI'S TURN which shows her extreme performance anxiety when asked to come to the front of her dance class:







FROST

In a minute Ms. Allie's voice peels away my cocoon. 
Reeni, come to the front and do it alone,

and a flicker of something
changes inside

like a tingling frost
on these winter windows

and the noise begins—
Is my turnout good enough?
Are my arms soft or stiff?
How is my arabesque?

I breathe in, blow out to warm the frost
and try to pretend no one's watching

but everyone is
and my noisy brain and mixed up feet

know it.

©Carol Coven Grannick 2021

2. FEEDBACK

I asked the children what feeling or feelings the verse showed about Reeni, then used their responses ("fear" and "anxiety") to demonstrate an early draft "verse", including an earlier title, that simply named those feelings:

AFRAID

In a minute Ms. Allie's voice scared me
when it said, "Reeni, come to the front and do it alone."

I was afraid and anxious.
My brain was full of noise.
I couldn't catch my breath.

I wish they'd all stop looking at me.
I'm so nervous I don't know what my feet are doing.

* * *
The children spoke perceptively about the difference between the two works, including the emotions shown in the first, and felt by the listeners. 

3. CHOOSE AN EMOTION YOU KNOW AND TELL IT:

I showed the children a list of strong emotions, and asked them to choose one that they could remember feeling. Then I asked them to write a simple sentence with themselves, or a fictional character, as the person experiencing the emotion, using the name of the emotion ("I felt scared," "I was happy", etc.).

4. SHOW IT:

Next, I asked the children to find a different way to describe the emotion without saying what it was, and write a new sentence or two.

READ IT AND GUESS!




After the class had finished writing, one student after the other read sentences out loud, and listeners guessed (always correctly!) at the character's emotion. Hearing the comparison a dozen or more times really "proved" the difference between telling and showing—and gave the students the ability to replicate the technique in their classroom writing.

Teachers present during the visit told me that students who rarely speak up were among the many who chose to share their work and have listeners guess what emotion they had "shown".

We had so much fun, and it was rewarding to hear the students' differentiation between telling about and showing emotional depth.

Since that first visit, I've used this lesson comfortably in multiple virtual classrooms. It has always worked well to optimize my four goals for my author visits: 
  1. Engaging interest
  2. Encouraging experimentation 
  3. Inviting participation
  4. Using memory to create character/story depth without self-disclosing

What I re-discovered so happily in this experience was that I have always been most comfortable teaching others when I deeply understand and have integrated what I am going to be sharing with students, whether adults or children—when notes are no longer really necessary.

Apparently, in my new role as "author", I had temporarily forgotten that. 

Once I realized I could be myself, the content of my brief writing lesson became clear, and the jitters went away. I could relax and have fun as I re-focused on what I know instead of what I do not know. 

And that's when a warm breeze lifted me.



Carol Coven Grannick is the author of REENI'S TURN, a middle grade novel in verse (Fitzroy Books, 2020) that tells the story of a shy and introverted girl searching for courage, body acceptance, and her own strong voice. (Curriculum Guide available for download here.) Carol's children's poetry and short fiction has appeared and is forthcoming in Cricket, Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, and Hello. Her poetry for adults appears in numerous print and online literary magazines, and her upcoming chapbook, CALL ME BOB, will be published by Oprelle Publications, LLC in 2022. In addition to being a GROG member, she is a regular columnist for the SCBWI-IL Prairie Wind and Cynthia Leitich Smith's award-winning blog, Cynsations.