During the month of June 2008, PLWP welcomed 27 middle school students onto the Missouri Western campus for the "Draw Your Own Conclusions…" middle school writing camp. Emphasizing activities and projects that "combined writing with a visual twist," the camp's co-directors, Valorie Stokes and Tyler Carlson, led campers through mini-lessons and "ways into writing" via paint chips, photographs, video clips, comics cartoons and graphic novels, and everyday objects that prompted them to think about how words and images work together to convey messages.
As part of the opening day's orientation and getting acquainted activities, Mr. Carlson introduced campers to a paint chip writing prompt exercise he had participated in at Prairie Lands Writing Project's High School Writing Day breakout sessions earlier in the spring. Before camp participants crossed the threshold of Eder 210 on the first day of camp, Carlson tossed handfuls of paint chips onto the center of the five tables where they would be working and writing for the next few weeks. Once the campers arrived, he briefly explained the purpose of the paint chip piles by inviting the campers to select a chip they connected with for some reason - its color, its name, associations it called to mind for them - and had them write an acrostic or "I Am" poem taking on the persona of that name instead of their own name.
Since they didn't have to strictly stick with the chips on their particular table, this activity got campers up and interacting with one another almost immediately as they went in search of the perfect paint chip. In short order, they returned to their seats, composed and then shared poems from the perspectives of such chip appellations as Purple Dragon, Glazed Corn, Lettuce Alone and Bermuda Onion. For the remainder of camp, several of these initial names stuck as nicknames for some campers and they were also incorporated as "See Also" references in the Student Dictionary Entries camp participants wrote in another opening activity to share some of the elements that currently define who they are to other people.
During the first week, campers immersed themselves in three aspects of words that Mrs. Stokes reviewed with them: connotation, denotation and sound. They then began contributing to the camp's "Word Wallpaper" by generating lists of some of their favorite words and adding selected ones to the larger class Post-It™ posters on the walls. Throughout camp, they were encouraged to scan the walls for ideas and inspiration to create original pieces. In later weeks, Word Range (ranges of 4-5 synonymous words) and Word Sketch Palette posters (groupings of 4 words in some unexpected combinations) joined the original Word Wallpaper as part of some poetry writing mini-lessons to give students more inspirations for writing.
Throughout camp the students could also work off of the choice menu (a menu of writing option ideas) Mrs. Stokes and Mr. Carlson had put together and introduced to them this first week to encourage them to try their hand at different types and formats of writing.
Because Mrs. Stokes and Mr. Carlson wanted each camper to take at least one piece through all the stages of the writing process, every student composed a brief essay on a word meaningful to them and created an accompanying visual word treatment for it that also reflected the word's meaning. The exercise known as Self-Definition (since it was adapted from what was once a regular issue-ending feature in Selfmagazine) worked well in urging students to think about how text and visual components combine to help convey messages. The pieces also gave campers yet another venue to reveal more about themselves and really utilize voice in their writing.
As part of the second week's activities, the campers and camp directors brought in comic books and graphic novels and also viewed a clip from Pixar's The Incredibles to share and discuss various components of those works. The group then brainstormed some typical characteristics and traits of superheroes and villains and broke into smaller groups to collaborate on storylines and practice writing dialogue involving such characters. As part of that week's activities, students also worked through some exercises from Dark Horse Comics' Comic Book Project educational materials and visited the site Make Belief Comix to come up with some of their own mini-comics. As part of another way into practicing writing dialogue, campers also harvested snatches of overheard cell phone conversations throughout the week and contributed some of their favorites to a story starters list from which all campers could draw inspiration.
During week three the focus shifted more to poetry. Campers read, responded to and wrote a variety of poems: word-range poems, poem sketch poems, found poems, object poems and online magnetic poems. They tried to focus on the images the poetic devices and figurative language conjured up for them. They all read Ray Bradbury's short story The Veldt, generated lists of intriguing words or phrases they found in it, and then worked on creating found poems from that list. They also brought in favorite music lyrics, did a read-around-the-room of them, took words or phrases from those and composed pieces inspired from them as well.
Mr. Carlson shared selected poems from Kathi Appelt's,Poems from Homeroom: A Writer's Place to Start. He used these in conjunction with the second part of the book where Appelt describes her process of writing, what ideas began these poems, and offers suggestions for prompts that writers might employ. The group discussed each poem, and then reviewed Appelt's contribution in the second half of the book. A series of One-Minute writings followed corresponding with the prompts that Appelt gives. This was a way to look at poetry that is accessible to teens, as well as touching on "writing about writing" and object poetry.
Following on the heels of those readings and discussions, the group then engaged in the exercise From the Everday to the Odd: Writing Object Poetry and Stories. They first read through, responded to and discussed some poems that focused on objects. Next they arranged a gallery and showing/sharing of ordinary (or unique) objects they had been instructed to bring for the day's activities. After the sharing, Mr. Carlson had them compose their own object poems about one of the objects in the gallery that was not their own. Once again, students got to know a little more about one another and also see that the inspiration for writing can come from anything.
During the closing week of camp, students were given the opportunity to move into the digital realm by working on digital compositions of one of their selected pieces. This work really made them see how visual and textual elements can combine to communicate powerful or subtle ideas depending on all the compositional choices the creator makes since these works can incorporate images, sound effects, music, and/or narrative voiceover. While most students took the leap, a handful chose not to do so and continued working in genres that were more familiar and comfortable for them.
By the close of camp, the middle schoolers walked away with a t-shirt they had designed, an eighty-four page camp anthology full of their own poems, essays, vignettes, mock interviews, top ten lists, observations and advice, a CD burned with their digital composition (if they had completed one and requested it), fresh ideas for inspirations and ways into writing, and new friends they had made along the way.
From the point of view of the directors, Carlson summed it up best when he said, "It was exciting to see so many young writers who were passionate about and committed to their writing." Hopefully, one of the conclusions the campers came away with from the experience and they can take back to their classrooms in the fall is how much writing can truly enrich their lives.