A unicorn, a gladiator bunny, and an epic adventure

This week, I started my work as a writer-in-residence at an inner city school. The school was awarded a grant to bring in two authors, and chose me to work with the intermediate grades (4-7) and my friend and colleague Kallie George to work with the primary grades.

I’ll be going to the school one day a week until the end of February. It’s a great opportunity for me as writing mentor. I do many writer-in-residencies, but often times they are compacted into a short period of time. When the school is in my proverbial backyard, it allows me to go over a sustained period, allowing me to really help the kids practice patience and percolate on the process.

I started today by leading my entire group in an introductory presentation, telling them about my own desire to write and create when I was their age, then described my current process. Finally, I engaged them in a visual plotting exercise. This can be quite the challenge, especially when you have 200-plus kids in a cavernous and echoing gymnasium, but they were amazing! Their enthusiasm and creativity lifted me up and we ended up producing a wonderful story map that included a winged unicorn, a gladiator bunny, and a quest for a missing brainstorming book.

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Each of the students also created an individual visual plot. The purpose of this activity was to introduce them to my process and to get them to approach writing in a way that was different and unexpected for them.

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Afterwards, I led two sessions, one with the Grade 6s and one with the Grade 7s. In each session I set them up to write a story based on the idea of “Mischief in the Market.” In this writing prompt, a character enters a magical market to buy a certain something, but doesn’t have enough money to do so. And, so, the story begins . . .

They began brainstorming ideas for their market settings and the characters and objects found within. Of course, they already had their story maps from the morning session, so just within one day, we’re already beginning to build a catalogue of ideas.

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To further inspire them about their market, I brought in many of my own props and magical items.

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Next week, I will be working with the Grade 4s and 5s, but we’ll do a different topic: Secret Doorways!

 

Favorite doors of Shanghai

During my trip to Shanghai, I was able to find a lot of inspiration from the gardens, the architecture, and the overall sights and sounds of the city. Most of all, I found many wonderful doors!

Students, friends, and colleagues know I have a bit of a door obsession. I photograph them, write about them, and collect door knockers. I even have a trunk that is made out of an old door.

Here are some of my favorite doors and details that I was able to find during my recent trip to storied and exotic city of Shanghai. These come from Old Shanghai, Ancient Town in Qibao and the French Confession . . . or, otherwise, just here and there throughout the city.

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A Magical Morning in Old Shanghai

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After spending a week in Korea to teach a creative writing camp, my wife Marcie and I have arrived in Shanghai for a bit of R&R.

The_Adventures_of_Tintin_-_05_-_The_Blue_Lotus.jpgThis is our first time in this city, but it’s a place I’ve long wanted to visit. I’ve associated Shanghai with adventure since I was kid, which I think is largely thanks to Hergé’s graphic novel, Tintin and the Blue Lotus . . . not to mention the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Since Shanghai has been so romanticized in my imagination, it had a lot to live up to! Marcie knows how I’m wired, so she made sure to pre-book us a hotel just a few minutes away from Old Shanghai. This is a traditional section of the city, filled with beautiful architecture, history, and culture.

We headed over to Old Shanghai mere moments after dropping our luggage off in our room. This was mid-afternoon, and the place was teeming with tourists. We found the sights, sounds, and smells intoxicating. Incessant vendors were vying for our yuan, plying us with everything from cheap knock-off watches to luxurious jade necklaces. And, of course, everything in between.  We found that we were shoulder to shoulder in many of the quaint alleyways!

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The queues for the food stands were seemingly endless and there was a horde of people at the entrance to the famous Yuyuan Garden. Marcie and I looked at each other and knew at once what we needed to do: come back first thing in the morning.

We enacted our plan, arriving by 9am the following day. By comparison to our experience the previous day, we felt like we were ruling the old city. The avenues were clear, the lines absent.

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We headed straight for the Yuyuan Garden and at once stepped into a magical realm. I cannot express how much we love this place. Here is a perfect marriage between nature and human architecture, a harmony that is expressed through one scenic sight after another. Every time we turned a corner, we found ourselves gasping.

In one spot, a dragon swims across the top of a stone wall. In another, a spritely creature peers from the lip of a roof tile. Turn a corner and you find yourself glimpsing a lion state through a whimsically-shaped doorway. A walkway meanders across a serene pond where giant carp tipple near the surface. Rock formations with “spy holes” grant amazing perspectives of the pagodas and pavilions.

It’s hard to put into words, and the photos also barely do it justice. But, below, are a few images from our exploration . . .

First of all, I loved all the various doorways. I do not (yet) know the symbolism of the different shapes, but they were a variety of kinds. Aesthetically, my favourite one was what I call the “ice cream” doorway.

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Water is an important aspect of the garden’s balance. Many gates, bridges, and canals are featured throughout the space.

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Bats are a lucky symbol in Chinese architecture. You can find them on door latches, window shutters, and roof tiles.

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Throughout China (and the world, for that matter), you can find the pair of lion threshold guardians. The male has one paw raised and placed on a sphere. The female has her paw raised and placed on a cub on his back. I saw many of these on a previous trip to Beijing and there are many throughout Shanghai as well.

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Below are photos of a pair of stylized lions. They look different than the traditional ones, but the key elements (the sphere and the cub) are still there. The male represents the external world; the female, the internal.

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At one point during our explorations, I spotted Marcie sitting in a quaint pavilion . . . daydreaming, I suppose!

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I was quite intrigued by the holes through the rocks, which afforded interesting views of the garden architecture. So many children’s books feature items such as “seeing stones”, so I kept peeking through these natural windows to contemplate the garden details.

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I loved the sculptures that decorated the walls and roof tiles. I was especially enamoured with this dragon wall. You can imagine this magnificent creature oscillating along the wall. His claws are splayed, his maw is open, and below his beard is a delightful frog. This was my favourite place in the entire garden.

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Here is a traditional guardian figure decorating a roof. You can find these details throughout the garden.

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And, finally, here is our “selfie” in the garden, gazing into a mirror at once spot near the entrance of the garden.

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Of course, it goes without saying that we highly recommend this garden. Get up early to visit Old Shanghai and enjoy a magical morning!

 

Potions and spells at the Magic, Monsters, and Mystery camp

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Even though my wife and I have left Korea behind and are now exploring Old Shanghai for a bit of R&R, we are still reflecting on our wonderful writing camp and basking in the glow of its success.

We tried out many different writing, artistic, and acting activities and they all turned out really well—one in particular was to my great surprise. This was a workshop on magic potions. I’ve done this workshop many times before back in Canada, but what I would call the deluxe version: the students actually mix different magical ingredients and record their observations and sensory reactions. Afterwards, they use the experience to help inject more detail and description into their stories.

I didn’t have the ability to bring all my magical ingredients on a long-haul flight over the Pacific, so decided to take a different approach to the potions. Instead of having the students brew them, they would use the workshop as an inspiration prop-building exercise.

So, instead of bring overall liquids and powders, I brought over beads, feather clippings, moss, and different coloured sands to help inspire the activity. (Even so, a security officer still opened my box of “ingredients” at airport customs and surveyed them with a skeptical eye.)

We started the activity with an ice-breaking quiz: So You think You’re a Wizard. The main purpose of the quiz is to bring some humour to the class, but also to start getting the kids to think imaginatively. (Also, the student who scored the highest to make her potion first!)

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I supplied the students with very tiny bottles. My instinct would be to normally give them bigger bottles, but, once again, packing was an issue, so I brought a zip-loc bag of the miniature vials and each student was given three.

What surprised me was how careful and pedantic the students were with building these props. Because the bottles were so small, they filled them bead by bead, grain by grain, clipping by clipping. Some added a bit of paint water, drop by drop, left over from our dragon scale activity to help add a bit more magic to their brew.

Here are some of their wonderful creations . . .

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Afterwards, the students took inspiration from their props and wrote spells and stories. Here’s a glimpse of some of their ghastly imaginings . . .

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