Exploring all the nooks and crannies

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Whew! Yesterday, I wrapped up my last school visit of the year. While I still have some camps and conferences coming up in the summer, I get a little break in my schedule.

It was one of my most hectic seasons in recent memory and, as I reflect, I’m very thankful that I have been given the opportunity to work with so many kids and to explore so many different parts of the world—both close to home and afar—that I may not otherwise visit.

In my home province of British Columbia, I worked as a writer-in-residence at schools in Sechelt and in Surrey, and as an artist-in-residence in Coquitlam—where we built a hatchery’s worth of dragon eggs.

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I visited many schools in my home city of Vancouver, including one where many of the students dressed up as Kendra Kandlestar . . . check out all those braids!

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At another school in West Vancouver, the classroom produced an entire “EENcyclopedia” board and booklet, build off the characters, creatures, and settings in the Kendra Kandlestar books.

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I also participated in two separate school tours this spring. The first took place in the central Okanagan Valley, with schools in Kelowna and West Kelowna. It was nine schools and a bookstore in one week! The second tour was built around my appearance at the the Vancouver Island Children’s Bookfest, which entailed visiting many different schools in the city of Nanaimo and its neighboring communities. During that trip, I was taken to the hidden gem known as Protection Island.

There are no stores or businesses on the island, except for a pub situated on the docks. I had never even heard of the island and, if not for the festival, probably never would have. It is a charming place . . . sort of reminding me of Tom Sawyer’s Island. In particular, I loved seeing the heron nesting site.

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Recently, I was also given the opportunity to present at the school in Stewart, BC. This is a very remote community on the border of the Alaskan panhandle. It’s small—in fact, I’ve presented at schools that have more people than the entire town of Stewart. But it is a gorgeous place. Getting there involved a 1.5-hour flight, followed by a four-hour drive through beautiful scenery. It was during this trip that I got to see my very first glacier.

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A big highlight of the fall was presenting at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. This is an event of rare characteristic. Where else do you get to hang out for three solid days with so many creative people in the same hotel. A sort of culture sinks into that place. It’s exhilarating and exhausting all at once. Especially, when they introduce costume events . . . because I’m just not the sort of person who can mail it in!

Here’s a photo of myself and my buddy, kc dyer, as steampunk fairytale characters!

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As for out-of-province, I had the opportunity to speak at the Package Your Imagination conference in Toronto, which also involved doing some library visits, including at the beautiful and historic Wychwood Library. That’s my bag and coat sitting on the ledge in the photo. And, of course, in the bag, is one of my dragon eggs. In retrospect, I can’t believe I left it that far out of reach—even for a moment!

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And here’s me doing actual work at the conference itself, where I discussed world-building for the middle-grade novel:

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I also had the opportunity to teach a creative writing camp with my wife, Marcie Nestman, in Korea just after Christmas. One of our favorite moments was waking up on New Year’s Day in Seoul and going to explore the Bongeunsa Buddhist Temple, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. It was a very spiritual way to begin the year.

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I really want to thank all the people who hosted me: the teacher-librarians, the public librarians, the classroom teachers, the festival and conference organizers, the billets, the volunteers, . . . wow! Without all of you, I’d never get anything done. And, also, there are the PACs and the Canadian Council for the Arts that helps to fund all of these endeavors. I really hope I could help inspire and invigorate our children this past year.

Now, for a bit of R&R before it all starts up again in September!

 

In which we take a field trip to the art gallery

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I’m now knee-deep in my series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History. We’ve made it through the Medieval Ages, explored the Renaissance, and finished off Mannerism just before the start of Spring Break.

One thing that has kept coming up is that very few of my students have visited an actual art gallery. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit many in my time, including heavyweights such as the National Gallery in London, the Uffizi in Florence, The Louvre and Orsay in Paris, and the Chicago Art Institute. Well, we don’t have the budget to whisk my students off to of those vibrant centers of art and culture, but I decided we could arrange a trip to the local Vancouver Art Gallery.

In comparison to some of the galleries I mentioned above, the Vancouver Art Gallery is small and humble. They have plans to move to a new location that will enable them to massively expand their offerings, but for now, what we have is the current location in the former provincial court house. Personally, I love the building and its old-school architecture.

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So, I suggested the extracurricular trip to my program coordinator and she offered it to the parents of my students. Many of them (and their siblings) decided to sign up and then I was suddenly faced with the quandary of how to make the experience a successful one.

First off, I thought I could use the small footprint of the Vancouver Art Gallery to my advantage. It would allow me to introduce my students to the art gallery experience without overwhelming them.

So, good—I could contain the experience, and not worry about losing anyone in a cavernous gallery. But the more pressing problem I dwelled upon had to do with technology. Most of my students can barely go three minutes without checking their phones. To me, that type of addled behavior is not conducive to immersing oneself in art.

So, my first instinct was to ban their devices. Then, after some contemplation, I decided to take the exact opposite approach and structure the visit in such a way to allow them to embrace technology—specifically social media.

Most of my students are heavy Instagram users. They even set up a group tag for the class on their own, without my prompting. So, I decided to leverage this and came up with a series of hashtags. I then asked the students to try and find shots to fill these categories as they went through the gallery. These hashtags ranged from sentiments such as #mademefeellikesinging to simple gut reactions such as #wow.

Of course, I provided the students with a few other guidelines, too: Don’t rush, or if you feel the need to rush, don’t pester others to keep up with you. Go at your own pace. And, besides your phone, bring a notebook and a pen so you can make some notes or do some writing if you feel so inclined.

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Now that all is said and done, I feel the trip was ultimately a success. I was able to interact with my students in an environment outside of the classroom and engage in some interesting conversations about the different art we experienced. The gallery featured some traditional West Coast Salish art, some modern installation pieces and, of course, what it is best known for—the beautiful dreamlike canvases of Emily Carr. (Incidentally, that’s the part of the gallery I hunkered down in and did some of my own writing.) There was something for everyone.

The hashtag experiment worked pretty well. It gave the students something to chew on, and a bit of a quest. Many of them did in fact post their pictures on Instagram with the hashtags and, of course, my wife Marcie and I made sure to play along, too.

Most of all, it was joyous to see kids making some connections and finding inspiration. After all, what more could you want from a field trip?

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The Unexpected Mummy: combining creative writing with art history

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I’m continuing to lead a series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History.

We started with prehistoric cave art and moved on to ancient Egyptian art. The students built miniature mummies out of clay. Then, after letting them dry for a week, they “embalmed” them with plaster and decorated them with paint and jewels.

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These props inspired the students to write short stories about characters who die unexpectedly and go through the mummification process. The hitch was that they had to write the story from the first person point of view, which meant describing what it feels like to die and enter the Egyptian afterlife.

Here are the final version of their props. In addition to many human mummies, we ended up with a falcon and a couple of cats. Some students chose to do mummies with luxurious decoration, while others took a more humble approach. It all depended on the character situation in the individual story.

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The Prehistoric Painter

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I’m currently teaching a series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History.

I’ve delivered this program several times before, but it continues to evolve. This time around, I was given more weeks than usual to deliver workshop series, so I ended up adding some units. Despite this, I still feel like we are zooming through history and hardly doing anything justice.

For our first project, we explored the very first recorded art that we know of: cave paintings. After viewing images and videos of some of the famous sites from around the world, I introduced a project in which the students could create cave-painting style images on rocks. Afterwards, they were assigned to write a short story about a character who is the first member of a society to paint on a cave wall.

Doing the activity helped them put their minds in the right framework. One of the interesting things about this course has been trying to put everything into context for the young students. For example, they simply weren’t aware that prehistoric and ancient artists (not to mention Medieval ones) had a limited color palette available to them.

Here are some photos of our project in progress . . .

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The dragon hatchery expands

I’m continuing my work as an artist-in-residence with a group of teens at a local specialized learning center. A key goal of the residency is to provide a safe and fun place where the participants can create and do some art therapy.

In the first few weeks, we worked on building and sculpting dragon scales. This quickly migrated into the creation of dragon eggs—a far more ambitious project, and one that requires a great deal of patience.

The students have shown that patience and have enjoyed coming up with the styles, textures, and shapes to go with their eggs. There are many different approaches to this project, as is shown in the photos below . . .

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Many of the students have ambitious ideas and plans for their eggs, so there has been a lot of problem-solving required. Depending on the student’s plan, I’ve had to go and fetch very specific materials or tools to help them achieve their vision. As part of this process, we’ve decided that we should now build “nests” for these eggs. That’s going to be tricky, since I’m sure everyone is going to have a completely different plan . . . but oh, well! That’s what I’m here for.

Quiet moments as a writer-in-residence

Whew! It’s been quite a week, weather-wise. I’m not sure what that groundhog was doing, but I’m convinced Jadis the white witch had wormed her way into our world to spread winter strife. I can’t remember ever having to postpone or cancel a school visit due to weather, and this week I had to do it twice.

That’s turned what was supposed to be a busy week of hustle-bustle into one of hunkering down in the studio to catch up on some personal writing and blogging.

Even though I was supposed to spend today at the inner-city school for my third session as writer-in-residence, instead I’ll show some of the work that my kids did last week.

With my grades 6 and 7 groups, we continued working on our main project based on the idea of a character visiting a market in search of a specific object. I was pleased to see that they had worked on their brainstorming in earnest in the time between my visits.

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This one detail particularly amused me:

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Pesky trolls, always causing problems in the kitchen. Though, I guess the food still smells good, so maybe I’m doing trolls a disservice.

My meager brainstorming worksheet wasn’t enough for some students. They had to gleefully expand into their notebooks to develop their ideas. Whenever I see that, I’m greatly pleased.

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My next phase with the grade 6 and 7 group was to work on world-building. I delivered a workshop on some of the key aspects of creating a world from scratch and, specifically, had them design symbols for the world in which their markets appear.

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The overall goal is that the students will ultimately write a story based on this project, but, truthfully, my main desire is to see them trek carefully through the creative process so that they can understand how a story is developed. It’s not simply a lightning strike of inspiration and then you have a book. You have to take that lightning strike, find many more bolts, then develop, develop, develop.

Of course, I do want the students to do some writing as well, so I gave them the specific assignment of writing a scene in which their character finds their desired object in the market. This is also a new concept to many of them—writing out of order. By concentrating on this one scene, I hope they won’t be distracted by the overall plot and will just focus on good description of their objects, and how it makes their characters feel.

For the grade 4 and 5 group, we are working on a project about doorways. I’ve done this project several times with much success. It’s a fun way for young writers to feel invigorated by an idea. Here is some of the brainstorming that they produced last week . . .

One of my students knew we would be talking doors, so she brought in a key as an inspirational prop. (This girl gets my process!)

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This student leafed through my personal brainstorming book, with my blessing, to steal some ideas for character and place names.

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So, this week is an unexpected break from the school and I’ll head back next week.

I do really love having the opportunity to do repeated visits at the same school. It gives me time to really connect with the students and develop a rapport. I’ve been spending my lunches in the library instead of the staff room, which also gives some students the opportunity to come sit with me and work on whatever they please. This hasn’t been an official part of my residency, but I know there are always those kids who just want to be in a creative space and doodle, brainstorm, and write alongside someone else. In many ways, these times are my favorite part of a residency—those quiet moments working with one or two kids and not really doing anything other than creating.

To cap off, here’s a couple of snapshots of my own brainstorming from this week. I didn’t expect to have so much writing time this week! But when the opportunity arrived, I seized it.

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Art therapy, dragon style

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I’m currently working as an artist-in-residence with a group of very creative teens at a local specialized learning center. A key component of my program is to provide a safe and fun place to get creative—in other words, it’s a sort of art therapy program. (Though, for me personally, I rarely think of creating art as anything other than therapeutic.)

For my first few sessions, I decided to introduce a theme of dragons and magical creatures. I recently was able to roll out a workshop to build dragon scales in Korea and it worked so well, that I thought I would get these teens to try there hand at the same activity.

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I knew the dragon scale project would serve as a nice warmup for us before we get into the more ambitious endeavor: dragon eggs.

Scale or egg, the process requires a lot of patience and attention to detail, but I have personally found it wonderfully cathartic.

We’re still finishing up the scales, but many of the students have now moved on to the egg building project. Along the way, we are sketching pictures of what will come out of the egg and we may even get to sculpt baby creatures as well.

Yep, we’ve got our own little hatchery going!

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I’ll be sure to post more photos of these creations as they progress. So far, they are looking great.