Volunteering at Story Planet
For the past four weeks, I’ve been volunteering at Story Planet, http://storyplanet.ca/ a non-profit organization that offers free writing workshops for children and youth. Inspired by the 826 writing centre founded by author, Dave Eggers and educator, Ninive Calegari, the Toronto organization is funded in part by an on-site coffee shop and sales from the Intergalactic Travel Authority (official space travel merchandise for business or leisure).
Each week, 15 grades 5 and 6 students from three area schools have been working with author Sheila Heti http://www.sheilaheti.net/ to write and illustrate their own novels.
My role as a volunteer was to offer support whenever the students asked (or looked like they were stuck). They wrote their stories long-hand in notebooks and didn’t worry about correct spelling, grammar, paragraphs and punctuation. That will be corrected by volunteer typists. But the process made me think hard about how to give feedback. Some of the students said they loved writing but most were beginner storytellers so it wasn’t useful to mark up their manuscripts with red pen. What seemed to engage them and get them “unstuck” was offering very specific praise about the strengths of their stories (I can really see what Sapphire looks like) or asking questions about the plot and characters. “What makes the Lark God hate the Greeks?”
It has been fascinating to watch the change in different children in the group over time. In the first session, most of the students were excited, even giddy, about being in such a cool location for the afternoon. A few were shy, and reluctant to volunteer, while two or three couldn’t stop bursting into the discussion. Not much writing happened. But by session two, everyone had an idea. Several students came back with stories well under way and the chattiest boy had begun a comic-novel with intricate pen drawings of fantastic characters. From then on, even he was utterly focused on writing his story. By week four, every single student had created a complete story and most had drawn complex illustrations or at least a clever title page. Next week, the stories will be typed, printed and bound for each of the new authors. I am in awe of their creativity and focus.