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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Dragon scales at the Magic, Monsters, and Mystery camp

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I’m currently in Korea where I’m teaching a creative writing camp with my wife, Marcie. Our theme has been magic, monsters, and mystery . . . so, needless to say, we’ve been very dragon heavy.

I decided to share my prop-building passion with the students and have them build dragon scales. I’ve only done this project for myself, so to roll this out in a classroom with over twenty students was like trekking into unknown territory!

I’m pleased to say the project—both the process and the result—turned out very well. Working on the props taught the students a lot of patience and gave them something to work on between writing their stories and poems.

Step 1 was cutting out all the plastic shapes from plastic bottles.

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Step 2 was coating the plastic shapes with the plastering material to build up the thickness and detail.

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At this stage, some students were done with the sculpting and had to just wait for their plaster to dry before painting. Others, however, decided to add extra detailing in the form of acrylic jewels or by adding a layer of leather.

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The final step was to paint. We had to do this in stages, starting with a base coat and then letting it dry before dry-brushing to add extra texture and gradation.

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As you can see, there are some other small props here. We decided to introduce a thief character who wants to pinch something from a dragon, so the students made tools for their thief characters. Some students decided that their thief characters would steal treasure from the dragon characters, while others decided that the thieves would steal part of the dragon—such as a scale!

The final scales turned out really, really well. I find them hauntingly beautiful. Here are just a few of them . . .

Making magic with magazines

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I just wrapped up a busy two-day creative writing camp with fellow author Kallie George. We decided to go “old school” and have the kids design and mock up their own magazines on paper dummies.

Kallie and I both used to do these sorts of activities when we were kids. We would hand-make and “self-publish” our own magazines and books. There were crudely drawn illustrations, dedications, table of contents, and self indulgent copyright pages (every job in the book publication or “impressum” was assigned to ourselves).

So, we thought we’d nudge the kids away from the pseudo-polish and falsely perceived instant gratification of the Internet and work on something a little more immediately tangible.

Over the two days, students developed a theme, wrote articles, interviews, advice columns, and product reviews, and came up with advertisements and games for the activity pages.

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It was so much fun to see the kids embrace their passions and work with their hands. We had magazines on the theme of sports, some on the theme of Harry Potter, another on Greek Gods, and some on magical creatures. We even had a few magazines based on reading and overall creativity.

Some students chose to handwrite and illustrate everything in their magazines, while others typed up their stories then turned the raw text over to me so that I could print them out in columns. This is where my years of graphic design experience came in to use; I was able to quickly mock up templates for comic books, word searches, and masthead designs to allow the students to achieve a bit more structure in their magazines. They would then paste these elements into their magazines and organize illustrations around them.

Here are a few more photos from our hectic workshop . . .

That last image is an advertisement for ketchup and eggs . . . because every student who I mentor knows how much I hate those things! So, inevitably, I am attacked by advertisements promoting them.

Next, my wife Marcie and I are off to Korea to teach a writing camp on Magic, Monsters, and Mystery. And, somehow, amidst all this hubbub, we’ve found time to celebrate the holidays and even do a bit of our own writing.

Telling our family stories: the box of memories

This week, I held the final workshop in my series on creative writing told through the lens of family stories.

As part of this workshop, we created “memory boxes,” a project we started way back in Class 3. Below are photos of the beautiful boxes created by the students. They are also filled with personal items, but I chose not to photograph the insides—they are personal!

 

They are theirs to keep, but we also used them as a prompt for our last assignment.

In an earlier blog post, I described my own experience of opening my own memory box for the first time in twenty years. So, taking inspiration from that, I had the students imagine a distant descendent stumbling across their own memory boxes and wondering about their original owners.

They then read these stories out loud to their parents and classmates as part of our end-of-term celebrations.

Wow! The stories, like the boxes, were incredible.