The angry eight year old screams, “Ms. Raegan, she pulls my hair all the time!” Standing dramatically she thrusts an accusing finger at her persecutor like a tiny Abigail from The Crucible. The hair puller’s head snaps up from her work. “I do not pull your hair!” she shouts and lunges towards her accuser’s ponytail. Sliding over the top of a table I barely manage to fall between the warring parties in time to save the rope of hair.
I’m teaching school. More precisely I am teaching* children how to write autobiographies for a program called “We The Children”, which is funded by the SAG Foundation and Woodcraft Rangers. The goal of the program is to increase literacy and give children pride in their heritage.
The program requires the kids to examine their lives in detail by answering questions like: Who do I admire? What do I like to do? Where are my parents from? What do I want to do when I grow up? The children have a folder full of these questions, which we work on in each class. Once they’ve answered all the questions they will illustrate the pages of their manuscript, and then the SAG Foundation will professionally bind the book so they are “published authors.”
After discussing the days assignment with the whole class I walk around the classroom for the rest of the hour answering questions and giving the children one on one help. The children range in age from 8 to 11 so the behavior in class is as varied as the questions.
Child 1: “Ms. Raegan, how do I spell Rottweiler?”
Note to self - buy a dictionary.
Child 2: “Ms. Raegan, I don’t know where I was born.”
Me: “You were suppose to ask your parents over the weekend.”
Child 2: “I did! They said it was a secret.”
Me: "Then I guess you were delivered by stork."
Child 2: "What's stork?"
Me: "A large bird."
Child 2: [Eyes Go Wide!]
Most of the time I spend class time trying to extract details.
Me: “So your mother's name is Linda, that’s great, but what does she like to do and what does she look like?”
Child 3: [Long 3 minute pause while wrinkling nose and forehead] “She likes Tacos.”
Me: “Anything else?”
Child 3: “Nope.”
Sometimes the answers to the questions bother me. The question, “What do I dislike?” led to some disturbing answers including:
Child 4: “I don’t like it when my Dad drinks with his friends and they get loud and weird. I also don’t like cigarettes or lettuce.”
As the opening paragraph indicates I have had to discipline a few children. Most of the time I just separate them. It always makes me feel like a witch, however, the problems have been few and far between in the two weeks I have completed so far.
This afternoon before class dismissed a table of girls called me over and asked how to spell my name. I figure if it’s going to end up on the bathroom wall it might as well be spelled correctly so I bent over and wrote it on a scratch piece of paper in the center of their table. The girls promptly started to write my name into a section of their folders. I took a closer look at what blank my name was filling – "I would like to dedicate my book to _______." They all had written Raegan in the empty space. “Don’t you want to dedicate your book to a family member,” I said shocked. A tall girl at the table answered, “No, it’s dedicated to you cause you helped me write.”
"We the Children" isn't the only program that encourages children to write to improve their literacy and find their voice. Other groups that teach creative writing to children are Stories that Soar!, Voices Unbroken, and 826 Boston.
* Because I am being paid a small stipend for my 8 week involvement with this program it is technically not a volunteer mission. However, I was planning on volunteering with this program before I found out about the teaching position. We the Children does need volunteers.