BULLIES, BAD WRITING AND BABY STEPS by A.B. Westrick
When I lead writing workshops in middle schools, I try to get students to think the way fiction writers do. First, I tell them to put the words BAD WRITING at the top of the page. Teachers sometimes raise their eyebrows, but I keep going.
My novel Brotherhood has to do with bullies (it’s set during Reconstruction; the fourteen year-old protagonist joins the Ku Klux Klan), and I introduce the workshop by getting students to read one scene out loud from the book. Then I ask them to recall a time when they were bullied or saw someone else treated badly. Or perhaps they were the bully. “We’re going to write about those bully moments,” I tell them. “So, let loose, and don’t worry about choosing the right word, or about spelling. Just write. Get your thoughts down on paper. Write badly. No worries.”
So they write. And write. Some glance around the room. Some scribble wildly. Some hunch over and scratch at their foreheads. Some ask questions for clarification, and I tell them, “You’re not getting graded on this.” From the corner of my eye, I see the teacher cringe. I move on. “Just write down every detail about the moment when the bullying happened.”
They keep writing. After about ten minutes, I interrupt to ask what their scene smells like. They give me blank stares. “You know… smell,” I say. “Where is your bullying moment happening? Are you in a locker room? Maybe you smell sweat or B.O. Are you in the cafeteria? Maybe today’s meatloaf smells like onions. Add a smell to whatever you’re writing.” (Later when we skim the first drafts, it seems that many have mentioned onions. No big deal.)
Another few minutes go by and I ask them about texture and temperature. Blank stares again. “Is the air conditioner on, or are you outside? Does a chair or bench have a scraped-up spot that snags pants or scratches a leg?”
Another few minutes go by and I ask about sounds. “Is there a bird chirping? Do you hear an ambulance in the distance? The hum of florescent lights?” I get them to describe what they can observe through their senses. Their writing is all over the place, and that’s okay. The students are entering into their scenes for the first time. They’re not just writing about bullying. They’re feeling the moment—tasting, touching, hearing and smelling it. Their writing begins to come alive.
On Day Two, we revise. Students re-title their writing. They edit out bad parts and keep the good. Then they take turns reading out loud to a partner, an exercise that does wonders for hearing what works and what doesn’t. They revise again, and in the final stage, each reads his/her piece out loud to me while I audio record them in the most soundproofed spot the school has.
A decent digital recorder costs about $100, and you can download the program “Audacity” for free, letting you adjust the audio recordings, convert them to mp3 files, and post them on your school website. Check out this page of my website http://abwestrick.com/students to listen to middle school kids reading their own bully-essays. Pretty cool, huh?
Penguin will send a signed copy of my book, Brotherhood, to the first twenty teachers who email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me you’re going to (1) use my book to get your students to think and write about bullies, (2) post some of your audio recordings online, and (3) agree to email me again with the link to your online posts so I can listen to your class’s recordings. Please use the subject line NERDY BOOK CLUB OFFER, and email me your name, the grade and subject you teach, and the school’s name and address.
When students enter into the moments when bullies have affected their lives, not only might they produce some decent writing, they might think more about the problem of bullying. They might even do something about it. My protagonist tries to make a difference, albeit in a small way. We all start with baby steps. Novels begin with bad writing. Hey, we have to start somewhere.
A. B. (Anne Bryan) Westrick is the author of Brotherhood (Viking/Penguin Young Readers), a Junior Library Guild selection. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, she received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011. She lives in Mechanicsville, VA.