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.

 

Telling our family stories: The House with the Secret Cellar

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I’m nearing the end of my series of creative writing workshops told through the lens of family stories. In one way, it’s been challenging to come up with a different subject for each class because there’s so many pathways to explore. So many topics to cover in only twelve classes!

This most recent week, we decided to explore family homes. Most of us, of course, have a sentimental attachment to the place(s) we grew up. I find it especially amusing how annoyed we get when a child draws on a wall, or causes a dent, bump, or scratch somewhere in the house—only to look upon those same “wounds” with a sentimental eye years later. Those scars eventually serve as a visual record of our family life.

Then there’s the marks that we purposely put in our homes, like the lines etched into the doorframe to measure the heights of children, or the paintings and murals that we might paint purposely on the walls.

Our home is no different. We have a dent in the wooden floor upstairs; I’m pretty sure that happened when Marcie put on her tap shoes at our annual Yoda Yulefest party and decided to perform for our friends. There’s a gash in the wall from when we were heaving our entertainment stand up the stairs and it slipped from our hands. Then there’s the hidden cubby hole, hidden at the back of the bedroom closet; the walls are covered top to bottom with children’s drawings. Most of these came from our goddaughter, Charlotte. When she discovered that the children from the previous tenant had drawn in there, she asked for permission to do the same. And so I granted it to her and off she went. This year, when she came to visit as a fifteen-year-old, she crawled inside the cubby hole and reminisced. She’s pretty insistent that we never paint over those walls.

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So, for this week’s assignment, I decided to ask my students to write a poem about a family home from the first-person perspective of the home. I asked them to think about the age of their home; would it talk as an old person or a new person? How would the home feel about the life burbling inside of it?

As with all the work I’ve assigned for this course, I did the assignment as well. I decided to choose a home from my childhood—sort of. Below, is a page from my mom’s photo album showing the first orchard my parents owned, and the house we lived in. It’s the first home I remember living in.

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It was quite old and humble and, eventually, my parents knocked it down and built a new one in its place. As you can see by the photo in the bottom right, there was another house on the same piece of property, just a stone’s throw away.

It was even older and in more disrepair. It had no plumbing and I remember it always had a certain pungent odor. Many people lived there: sometimes people who came to work on our farm for the summer, and one time my aunt and uncle for a season. Otherwise, the house stood empty and my brother and I would play inside of it.

When we knocked down our old white house, we knocked this one down, too. That’s when we found the secret cellar. Hidden underneath the linoleum was an old trap door. We pried it open to find a set of stairs disappearing down into the murk.

So, with a bit of trepidation, down we went.

No one had clearly been there in a very long time. It wasn’t very big, but it was stuffed with long-forgotten items. Newspapers. Bottles. A pair of woman’s shoes. Or, you might say, junk—though, not me. I love old treasures, for they are tellers of stories.

Now, when I look back on the photo of the old house, and remember the hidden cellar, I imagine that there were all kinds of secret and enchanted things squirreled away down there. Most likely there were canisters of magical ingredients waiting to be consumed by a witch’s cauldron. Or perhaps the skeleton of a fairy. The coffin of a vampire. Hmm . . . I probably just wasn’t looking properly at the time. That’s what I tell myself now, anyway.

However, for the purposes of my assignment, I decided to keep magical whimsy to a minimum and focus on fact.

Here is my poem about the house with the secret cellar . . .

I am so very old.
Some would say ancient.
The skin is hanging
from my bones,
peeling, sliding away.
I creak and bend towards the ground.

My eyes are weary
and bleary;
I can barely gaze through them
to see the chickens pecking
at my doorstep
where the weeds are overgrown.

My insides are deteriorating;
you can whiff the pungent odour,
for my ribs are dripping
rancid ooze and poison spores;
The walls of my stomach are
curling, peeling, rotting.

I bear many scars,
earned from all my years.
Here’s a dent—
a dog once crashed into my frame;
there’s a scratch—
a child poked me with a fork;
this is a burn—
A candle held against my joint;
and this tattoo,
I tell you, is permanent—
Auntie painted me with flowers.

But all those things
happened long ago.
Now I brood in somber silence,
alone and abandoned.           

But while, on the surface,
I am frail and falling to pieces,
there is one thing that remains strong;
the secret place that dwells deep within,
one long forgotten
by everyone . . .
everyone except for me.

No one knows about the hatch,
the hidden handle that leads below
to a realm of damp and darkness,
where I harbor a trove of treasure,
curios and charms,
relics and remnants,
memories from distant times.

The place is dusty now,
sagging, draped with cobwebs,
creatures scurrying and scuttling
between the artifacts of time.
Soon I shall collapse,
and they will haul me away.
Only then,
you might discover
my secrets.

And then I know what will happen;
I will be dwelled upon no more,
except, perhaps,
when someone
chances upon my brooding countenance
in a photograph,
old, discoloured, and faint.

 

The dragon and the thief

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Had a fun day at Mulgrave School today, working with the Grade 2 classes on a fun writing project to do with personal perspective and point of view.

I started by reading a scene from my book The Box of Whispers, in which Kendra faces off against Rumor the Red Dragon and they have an argument of ownership about the box.

I designed a brainstorming sheet in which the students planned to write a story about a thief sneaking into a lair to steal a dragon’s egg. The idea is that they will write in the first person, and choose a specific perspective—either the dragon or the thief.

As it turned out, most students decided to write from the dragon’s perspective, but we still ended up with enough thieves to create an interesting classroom dynamic.

We then brainstormed some reasons why the thief needed to steal the egg. Was it for pure greed? Was the thief forced to steal it because if he (or she) didn’t the thief (or the thief’s family) would be punished?

We also had fun brainstorming aspects of the characters that made them dangerous in a confrontation between the two sides. The dragons, of course, had different abilities, such as poison or ice breath, or different features to do with their claws, fangs, and scales.  As for the thieves, I took swords and guns OFF the table, forcing the students to brainstorm more creative and magical items, such as camouflage or invisibility cloaks and other special “tools of the trade.”

I even brought in my dragon egg props to further inspire the kids. Some of the kids decided that their thieves could use fake dragon egg props to try and trick the dragon and more easily steal its egg.

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The students will now set to work on their stories. When they share them, they will be able to hear similar stories, but from different perspectives, provoking (hopefully) some good conversations about point of view and perspective.

Telling our family stories: My Cat is More Famous Than Me

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In a previous post, I told the story about my very first pet: a blind chicken. But I would be somewhat remiss if I didn’t tell a story about my current pet, and that is my cat, Griffin.

Kids often ask me if I’m famous. Which I think is kind of funny question, because if you have to ask me if I’m famous, then isn’t that your answer? Usually, I just reply by telling them that my cat is more famous than me.

It’s true.

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We live in a townhouse with a courtyard. (Incidentally, as the senior cat in the complex, Griffin sort of rules the courtyard; he’s the King of Cats, if you will.) Griffin likes to wander  through the courtyard and lounge on the sidewalk out on the upper street. He especially likes to go out there just as the local elementary school gets out. If we’re out tinkering in our front garden, we can hear all the comments emanating from the street:

“Oh, look. It’s Griffin!”

“Hi, Griffin!”

“There’s a good cat.”

Everyone in our neighborhood, it seems, knows Griffin. They pet him, read his name tag, and give him boundless love. One time, we met a neighbor eating his lunch out front who told us that every day Griffin comes out and sits with him while he eats. And, last year, when a kid came to our door on Halloween, he saw Griffin weaving through our legs and exclaimed, “Oh! This is where Griffin lives? Hi, Griffin!”

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Well, to be fair to Griffin, he seems to return love. I’ll never forget what happened when I first moved with Griffin from our old apartment to the townhouse. Griffin had only ever known the old place, so the move was quite stressful for him. For the first couple of weeks, I never let him venture outside, being too afraid that he would scamper off and get lost.

That first week, the phone rang and I picked it up to hear a woman’s voice asking, “Um . . . hello? Is this where Griffin lives?”

My initial instinct, like any normal cat parent, was to wonder, What did he do?

But then I realized he hadn’t even left the house and, at that exact moment, he was sitting on the floor right in front of me. So I simply replied, “Yes. Er . . . I’m Griffin’s owner.”

“Did you happen to move?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” I said tentatively. “We just moved. And Griffin’s sitting here, right in front of me.”

“Well, I live where you live. Or where you used to live, I guess. And it’s just that Griffin’s, well, he’s my cat, Sam’s, best friend.”

Now, I had never met my former neighbor. I had no idea who she was, let alone her cat. So I said, somewhat befuddled, “Griffin has a best friend?”

“I live in the back of the building,” the woman explained. “Every night at 6pm Griffin leaps through our window and plays with Sam.”

“I lived at the front of the building,” I told her. “I had no idea that he was . . . er, doing that.”

“Sam is completely depressed,” the woman continued. “He misses Griffin.”

At this point, I was really speechless. I had no idea what to say.

“I suppose,” the woman hazarded, “you wouldn’t be willing to let Griffin have a sleep-over?”

“Um . . . I . . . ” I fumbled for a response.

“I guess that was a little strange, wasn’t it?” the woman interjected.

“Yes,” I admitted. “I’m sorry about Sam. I’m just not sure I’m entirely . . . comfortable with a . . . er, sleep-over.”

Thankfully, the woman laughed. “I know. I just thought I’d ask. Sam really does miss Griffin!”

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Another question kids ask me is how I came up with the name of Uncle Griffinskitch in my Kendra Kandlestar books. Griffin is responsible for that, too. It happened because of his hair. When Griffin was a kitten, his tiny fuzzy body promised a blissful, short-haired future. But then, a few months later, POOF! He exploded into this long-haired creature. It was about the same time I was designing the character of an old bearded wizard for my book (because wizards have to have long white beards; it’s mandatory). So I decided to name the wizard after Griffin. The “Griffin” part of “Griffinskitch” is obvious. The “skitch” part comes from a nickname we used around the house for him. So I just ended up putting the two names together and, voilà, there was Uncle Griffinskitch.

Alas, as you can see from the photo below, Griffin doesn’t really respect his fictional counterpart. Mostly, he uses my sketchbooks to scratch his back!

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