Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Gang of Four

Van Gogh and Cezanne liked to paint together. Although they worked in front of the same landscape, their own vision and talent led to totally different canvases. Sharing spaces of various kinds often encourages creativity. Many of us have been sharing this space by writing about our school visits. Your experiences have helped me discover, not copy, new ways to do school visits. In that vein, I’d like to tell you about a school visit I recently made with some very special colleagues.

Last fall, four authors – Robie Harris, Elizabeth Levy, Fatima Shaik and I – visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. This trip was part of a program set up after hurricane Katrina by Fatima and PEN’s Children/Young Adult Committee. The committee adopted the school, sent them a children’s library, and arranged pro bono authors’ visits. [For more about this program, please visit CYA in NOLA]

Our plan was extravagant, to say the least. We would visit the school, each work with one class from different grades, and produce a student-authored hard cover book. [The student in this photograph is from a previous trip. At that time, each student produced his own, home-made book.]

Authors are used to working with teachers and librarians in preparation for a school visit, but I for one had not created a common project with other writers, much less with three other writers.
Food for Thought:
First off, we ate very well – in New Orleans, for sure, but also during planning sessions in New York. We met for breakfast at Le Grainne CafĂ© in Chelsea. After the first of endless cups of coffee, along with detailed meal orders, we set to work. Each of us brought to the table initial ideas about what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it. Everyone’s proposal was different. The trick was to turn these differences into a creative whole. [In fairness to my colleagues and our commitment to write about the entire project on the website of our sponsor, PEN, I will only write about the initial planning of my section of this project.] And in fairness to you, dear readers, I will stop writing about food.

My Plan:
Since our chapters were to be based on our latest books, my third grade class would create its own photo essay about dancing. Cheryl Asiola, the teacher who volunteered her class, agreed to do some advance work. Before our arrival, the students would each receive a copy of my book, Beautiful Ballerina, to get a sense of how to represent language with photographs. They would be put into four groups of five. Each group would choose the dance that best represented themselves or their city.

Once I arrived with camera, PhotoShop, and computer, the students would take turns photographing each other, doing interviews with each other, editing both the pictures and words, and making a layout for their chapter of the book.

This process is usually a year’s work for me. We had four days.

The four authors immediately focused on the numerous catch-22s imbedded in my proposal: If one person per group became the photographer, that person would not be in the photo. If the students took turns taking pictures, the chapter would be much too long. Someone was going to be left out – an absolute NO-NO. Also, I moaned to my colleagues, and this is a little nasty, nobody touches Susan’s cameras but her long-time assistant. The cameras are calibrated just so and I worry about changes or breakage.

As the gang of four listened to each other’s sticking points, suggestions flew around the table. Insurmountable conundrums were quickly resolved. No problem seemed to be too big or too small. Some solutions were so obvious I wondered, “Why didn’t I come up with that?” It takes a village – a village of wonderful, experienced writers.

Revised Plan:
Day One: I would spend about an hour working with the kids about writing and photographing a photo essay. Then, the rest of the day was devoted to photography. I will take the photographs! Each group will choose an area in the classroom that would become their stage. The nonperforming students would be the audience and vocalists – clapping and singing for their dancing friends.

Day Two: students in each group will conduct interviews using some of the techniques discussed the previous day. Ms. Aisola and I will go around and give each group personal attention. In the afternoon, all the photographs, downloaded into my computer the night before, will be shown on a large screen. The students would then choose their favorite pictures. We’ll talk about what makes a picture good.

Day Three: Match the words to the pictures. Edit. Copy edit. Edit more. Additional time saved for more photos, if necessary.

Day Four: Put the photo essay together. Upload the essay onto the big screen for one final edit.

Finally, a very important part of the project: meet with the other authors, teachers, and classes for a celebratory pub party!

Once we actually got to work there were changes and setbacks, including the threat of another hurricane which shortened our time even more. Going on the road with Robie, Liz, and Fatima was an intense, bonding, serious, fattening, laugh-filled experience. I highly recommend group school visits. One more thing: the jazz was fabulous!


Deborah Heiligman said...

What lucky kids they were to have you all working with them! Thanks for letting us in on this wonderful visit. And I agree, doing visits (or talks) with friends is so much fun. Coincidentally I just got off the phone planning some volunteer work here in New York city--working with kids in schools. How can I make sure food is a part of that, too?

Unknown said...

Project-based learning is gaining traction in schools. It's amazing how much one learns by doing such projects (we authors know about that!) and the experience of working with a talent like yours can be transforming for those kids. I'd love to see what those kids turned out. Stepping outside your comfort zone was clearly an eye-opener for you as well. Great job! Great post!

Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks Deb and Vicki, I appreciate your remarks.

At first we planned to present a finished book at the pub party. We had an all-night Kinko lined up to make this happen. But the thought of full days at the school and all nighters at Kinko made us realize that this was not reaslistic. We decided to spend most of our NOLA energy working with the kids. Since authors turn in their workand do not get a finished book for months, we gave ourselves wiggle room. We worked on our individual chapters at home and will meet later this month and put the entire book together via an online publishing site.

Deborah, you can be certain that food will be included in this all-day event.