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Sarah Minor is an MFA candidate in non-fiction at the University of Arizona, and writer-in-residence at Corbett Elementary.
On a warm Saturday morning this September I headed to the Poetry Center to lead my first Family Day activity. The event fell during the Poetry Center's Speak Peace exhibit and we had planned peace themed activities combining visual art and writing for the families to participate in. Having only worked with high school and college-aged students before I was, of course, terrified of young children. Not young children exactly, but the idea of inspiring young children to sit down and write, to come up with a message about peace--a topic adults have a hard time discussing--all while overcoming the limits of spelling and handwriting. What if the activity was too simple? What if they grew bored quickly or couldn't sit still? And how old were third graders again?
As I fanned out the flat rainbow of construction paper across the long worktable between the PC's tall bookshelves, I thought about how my own 5th grade paper folding skills were a little rusty, and how all the peace messages I could come up with seemed used, cliché. My activity involved the kids writing messages for peace on construction paper and either folding the paper into a crane, or stringing it up as a peace flag for display.
I was sitting alongside a group of pre-K students drawing peace pictures for flags when a small shoulder bumped mine. A little brunette girl wielding a blue crayon stretched out her arm to plop a bright pink sheet down in front of me. "Can you help me write a story?" she said. I paused in surprise, and then "Heck Yes!" said my brain and "Of course!" said my mouth. A story? And all it took was a pencil and some colorful paper? Could it always be this easy to inspire a child to jump into the writing process? I suspected not.
Like me, the little girl had just moved to Tucson and was missing her best friend from back home. She wanted to write a story about them playing together and going on a walk through the desert. She wove the story quickly aloud, animating with her hands and dictating as I wrote. With very few prompting questions, soon she and her friend were walking down a path with their dogs and had come across a snake! "That one happened for real," she told me of her encounter with an animal from her new desert home.
Across the table from us, her audible tale had excited some other visitors, who were telling each other a story about princesses and creating "peace crowns" out of construction paper. "The Queen of Peace," said one as she slipped pointed yellow circlet with a peace sign in the center through her ponytail. "And I'm the Princess," responded the other. Next door at the table, a little boy was drawing "Peace Robots" complete with messages for his chain of flags.
I read the little girl's story aloud and she smiled, pulling the paper from my hands to begin work on an illustration. I had somehow looked up to find myself surrounded by inspired writers working excitedly. They had each found their own way around any writing limitations, and were lost in peace-based imagination, all without detailed instruction or the folding of a single crane.
I guess the lesson here is not just to be able to adapt a lesson and forgo structure, but to trust in the creative energy inside the youngest of writers, and to look forward to those you hope to inspire, inspiring you in return.