On the Importance of School Visits

Many of us authors get to do something that complements our writing lives beautifully – we get to go on school visits, which are some of the best experiences I’ve had in the writing world.

Here in Austin, there’s a wonderful program through the Writer’s League of Texas called Project Wise. Project Wise enables authors to visit underprivileged schools. Each time I go on one of these visits, I see the passion and endless generosity of the librarians and the library staff – all committed to bringing children enriching creative experiences, and often doing so with limited resources. Children’s librarians are some of the greatest heroes you’ll meet. Anyone committed to enriching childrens’ imaginations, and therefore broadening their opportunities in the world, is doing exceptionally important work that too often goes unsung.

On my last school visit to a group of fourth graders in Austin, I was struck by the kindness and passion of the librarian and her staff. In my presentations I tend to interact a lot with the kids. They help me create a character and we put this character through as much of a story arc as time will allow. Essentially I storyboard in front of the classroom, drawing what the students suggest I draw. They get only a little guidance from me. The kids came up with the most brilliant ideas, and this school was no exception. Their character was Bob the mummy, who lives in Seattle and just wants to get out of the rain. The kids came up with several hilarious ways in which Bob might accomplish this, all of which fail spectacularly. Bob picks himself up again – what is a mummy if he isn’t resilient? – and eventually ends up in his native climate of Egypt, chilling out with his mummified puppy.

The kids were ecstatic to participate. They were also really, really creative, so much so that I assumed they had this kind of interaction regularly. However, the librarian informed me later that they definitely don’t. She told me several of the kids who’d been extra participatory are in fact reluctant readers who generally don’t say much in class. She was surprised and happy at how vocal they were during the presentation. I was surprised too, because these were some of the kids with the most sophisticated sense of story.

After the presentation, one boy came up and regaled me with his in-depth understanding of graphic novels. He showed me some of his own drawings and stories. He was the most charismatic, openhearted, engaging kid. My mind immediately fast-forwarded to his future book signings and convention appearances. He will shine in that kind of large, interactive, creative arena. After he left, the librarian told me he’s a reluctant/troubled reader but was always hungry to express himself, and that since he’s discovered graphic novels he’s burst out of his shell and has become obsessive about storytelling. She had no doubt about his future success either.

Stories are so important. The kids getting the chance to know that this is a skill worth cultivating is vital. It’s not just about getting words on paper. It’s about understanding that your own unique perspective is valuable, that the way you perceive the world will shape and inform your own and others’ lives, and that the playful, creative corner of your mind might be the biggest asset in your working and relationship life later on.

Which leads me to reiterate how very important it is that kids – all kids – have an opportunity for visits like this. Visits where they get to see someone creating stories professionally, where kids get to engage in their own process of storytelling and forming narrative. Where skills that are often considered distractions from learning become the most important qualities a person can have. Qualities like daydreaming, pulling pertinent and hilarious references from popular culture, expressing a harmlessly subversive sense of the absurd, and, of course, endlessly questioning the world.

An inherent sense of narrative is part of the human blueprint, and, of course, exists far outside the bounds of socioeconomic status. If anything, kids in underprivileged areas often have a deeper understanding of the need for story: because, often, they have had to hold a witness space for their own lives that translates well to storytelling.

I visited another elementary school in an underprivileged area last year, where the librarian told me the kids had never – and I mean never – had an English lesson that didn’t revolve around prep for standardized testing. As in, the kids had had no creative writing English lesson ever. And no author visit ever. The kids were in third grade. I couldn’t imagine it. And yet, these kids, when given the chance during a school visit, blossomed. All that creativity and critical thinking and ability to form narrative – and sophisticated narrative at that, complete with logic and a sense of the absurd – came out without a glitch. It was all in there already, it had just never had a place to be important.

So, yes. We need stories, and kids need to be able to tell the stories they carry around with them. Thanks to all the authors, teachers and librarians encouraging all the creative spaces that lead to storytelling. Thanks, Project Wise, for some of the wonderful schools I’ve had the honor of visiting. And most of all, thanks to the kids: I hope you’re writing away.

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