Wonder upon wonder; wonder after wonder

This semester, Mrs. H’s sixth-graders at Mt. Hope School in Lansing are “doing journalism” with me. While I’m volunteering there twice a month, I’ll be helping them form story ideas, learn to ask good questions, and write a story about the world around them.

The first day of our lesson, I turned the corner from the folk-tale lessons we did this winter. The two topics aren’t totally unrelated. A lot of information’s conveyed in a newspaper or storybook: what the writer values, what the culture considers important. The difference in reciting The Little Red Hen or writing about cafeteria fare is simply enabling a student to investigate what’s important to them.

P1010049

Like when I was an editor at a daily paper in Wisconsin, all good stories begin with some wondering. Any sentence that begins with “I wonder” is fair game — it’s like pitching a dozen story ideas to an editor and letting her choose the best one. 

“I’ll be your editor. So, what do you wonder about?” I waited. No one bit. “OK, I’ll start: I wonder how long some of the teachers at this school have been teaching. I wonder how the district can keep up with old school buildings.” Hands started going up. “Yes! What do you wonder about?”

“I wonder why cafeteria food is so bad,” someone said.

Another: “I wonder why this school building has a bomb shelter in the basement.”

“These are great. What else do you wonder?” Three-quarters of the kids’ arms shot up.

“I wonder why all the rich people live on this side of the street and all the poor people live on that side.” Oh. That got heavy fast.

[…]

We told stories

Dave set up a video camera last Friday in Mrs. H’s class. The sixth-graders  nervously milled around, found their seats. One girl’s hand went up as a volunteer to go first. “I just want to get it over with,” she said to the floor, a smile on her face.

She stood in front of the camera, waited for the three-two-one signal from Dave. “My story is,” she said, putting her hands inside her sleeves and swaying back and forth. When she was finished, we clapped and the others looked around to see who would volunteer next. She collapsed into her seat, smiling, and began twisting her hair into a bun.

Twenty kids went after her, each looking at their classmates or out the windows behind us, each retelling tales they’d spent weeks on as part of a Friday afternoons storytelling project I led in their classroom over a semester or so.

Their hard work was my reward. The story-collector in me heard so many that afternoon: so many folk tales, so many yarns woven with laughter and personal style. For really, a story doesn’t live on a page any more than people do. Sharing stories is what brings them to life.

[…]

Telling stories, or what makes us human

Once upon a time, a mermaid, caught in a net, begged a poor fisherman to take her home with him to live. No, he said, I can’t. I am a lousy fisher; I have too many mouths to feed already! But she pleaded over and over: Don’t throw me back!, and finally he relented and carried her home, tucked under his arm (for do you know? Mermaids are quite small in real life). 

1mermaid005bw

His wife initially protested, but the mermaid’s charm warmed the woman. The family widened the circle for her; she became the daughter and sister they’d wanted. Most days, the mermaid sat outside, watching silently from a cart (she can’t walk with the fin). She loved to watch people talking, working, playing, singing there in that Italian seaside town. 

[…]