The play that I remember as a child would not have had an observable narrative, but it certainly was continuous. On the playground the next day, we would pick up where we left off (more or less). We played on a big grassy field and the common theme was that we were almost always pretending to be horses– sometimes invented, or sometimes based on book horses like Black Beauty or King of the Wind. As we galloped and trotted, the narrative was there, but it was dada.
Thinking about this reminded me of a collection of superhero stories that kids in a Dorchester afterschool class wrote ten years ago. During a breakout session of about 45 minutes per week, a group of nine eight-year-old kids and I would sneak into the classroom from the hallway, literally crawl under a square formation of desks, and then pretend that we were an elite group of superheros. I, as their leader, would get a phone call which would give us instructions about our challenge for the day. This structure was my answer to a rather restrictive writing component that the afterschool program where I worked required; all kids in my class had to produce stories in about four weeks, and there were core learning components that I was supposed to convey. I didn’t exactly ignore what I was expected to teach, but I thought it was more fun to work on collectively playing and crafting a narrative together; I felt that, if it had to be about skill building, then perhaps that experience might lay the groundwork for later writing.
Each kid developed a superhero character for themselves and then– to some degree– would record how the superheroes played together. What I love about the kids’ resulting stories is not where they shape some kind of beginning, middle and end (the stuff I was supposed to be teaching them), but where their writing offers a glimpse of dada, all-0ver-the-place, suddenly-my-race-car-is-an-airplane play.
All of the characters in the below piece of writing (the author, Christian, was Teleboy) are characters other kids invented:
One day in a town called Anaheim, there were villains called Dare Devil Supreme Girl, Lightning Strikes, and Dragon Boy. They all came out of nowhere and attacked the good guys called Dare Devil Supreme, Spider Kid and Teleboy.
“We meet again, girlfriend,” said Dare Devil Supreme to Dare Devil Supreme Girl. “But we are mean enemies so that means we broke up.”
So Dare Devil Supreme did the stunner to Dare Devil Supreme Girl. Then the bad guys were mad so they all used sock attack. Then they were bleeding and bleeding to death. And when they did that, their blood destroyed half of the city. After that they were really, really mad so they just stood there and Reggie came out of nowhere and threw a piece of lava at them and they all caught fire. Then the good guys hit them with everything they had, and they gave up.
Wait, they bled out and then got mad? And who the hell is Reggie? If you were in the know, you would understand that Reggie was another kid’s character, a character that had a very well developed set of abilities and dispositions. And that one of the kids had witnessed a shooting a month before. There was a lot going on. As a teacher, I probably should have intervened to tell Christian that he needed to offer Reggie a proper introduction and coached him in reining in the story. But something would have been lost there, and I wasn’t willing to do that.
Looking back on that time, I wish that writing in the classroom could be as open to possibility as the writing those kids created through play (understanding, of course, that this was play facilitated by/interfered with an adult who was ostensibly being paid to teach them writing skills). 826 Boston does a good job of mixing the joy of storymaking with skill-building, but the more typical model of classroom story-building– thanks to standardized testing, in part, is based on a template– like the “creative” version of the five-paragraph essay. Boston Public Schools is adapting Vivian Gussin Paley’s early childhood play/storytelling techniques for BPS kindergarten classrooms , and that’s great– but what about the older kids?