As you might know from my earlier columns, I teach creative writing at a small private high school. My most complained-about but most successful class requirement is that the kids write for at least twenty minutes, five days per week. Early every school year, the kids are plagued by the fear that what they write won’t be “any good.” The first few entries in their journals are a mess of scribbles and erasures; I’ve even had journals returned to me with pages torn out, so horrified were the students with what they’d produced.
A few days before school started this past August, I had an epiphany. I bought a box of Legos and took it to school with me on that first day. Once we’d made our introductions, I dumped all of the Legos in the middle of our conference table and told the kids to build something – one construction per student. Sure, they looked at me like I’m crazy, but I’m me and they’re teenagers, so it’s expected.
As they slowly started to pick out Legos and fit them together, I strolled around behind their chairs, observing them and nodding. Then I swooped in and took a blue Lego out of one boy’s hand and told him, “That’s not going to be a good color scheme. You shouldn’t add it.” I tossed it back into the pile.
The reaction was immediate (and hilarious). Since the first day of school is always about sizing up the teacher, I could see in their faces that they were pretty close to horrified. As soon as all the students had turned their attention back to the Legos, I swooped in again. This time, I actually took a girl’s assembled pieces from her hand and took a couple of bricks off. “I don’t think that’s a good shape.” I smiled into her bewildered face and handed the pieces back to her.
I repeated this until I’d disturbed each student at least once, and then I finally grabbed one student’s nearly-finished masterpiece and said, “Augh—you need to just start over with this one. I don’t know where you were going with that.” I separated every piece and dropped them all back into the pile, leaving the student alarmed and empty-handed.
At this point, all the kids stopped and didn’t look like they’d be starting again any time soon. Which was perfect.
“So,” I said, nodding toward the empty hands of the student I’d just accosted. “What’s she got now?”
There were murmurs, out of which I picked out the word I was looking for: “nothing.”
“Nothing,” I repeated. “That’s right. And the rest of you have less than you could have if I’d left you alone. Right?”
There were grunts of assent, and kids glanced at each other, trying to sort out precisely what kind of a weirdo I might be. When they quieted down and I knew they were listening, I said, “That’s what your inner editor does.”
I went on to explain that, when they were supposed to be writing (building), they needed to focus only on that. They could not invite the inner editor to the party—building up and tearing down can’t happen at the same time.
I gave each student a Lego to take home that day, to place on their desks where they could see it when they sat down to write—to remind them of who was not invited. I don’t know what they decided about my sanity, but I do know one thing: this year’s class did a lot less erasing, scribbling, and tearing-out those first few weeks. That’s worth the price of a few Legos.
About the Writer: Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy's work is represented by Sally LaVenture at Warner Literary Group. Her web site is www.mandybrownhouk.com.