“The limons [sic] are my babys [sic]. If you hurt them, I will hunt you down and kill you.” Alex* read his surprising response out loud to the group. His rotund face raised up towards me with questioning eyes as if to ask, “Was my writing okay?”
“The tree sounds like it is a mother,” I replied to his questioning gaze.
“Yep. It’s a mama protecting her babies,” Alex said.
We were approaching the end of a creative written expression session that focused on a poem called The Tree Is Older Than You Are by Jennifer Clement, a poet and novelist from Mexico. I developed CWE (Creative Written Expression) workshops for a five-month, pilot program in an underserved elementary school near San Jose, CA. Alex’s third grade class consisted of 20 children with a demographic breakdown of 90% Latino, 5% Filipino and 5% Caucasian. Most of the children who participated in the workshops spoke Spanish as their primary language. Some of the poems were written in both Spanish and English to ensure comprehension. The Tree Is Older Than You Are was one of those poems.
Alex had responded to a writing prompt that invited him and others in the group to imagine what a tree might say if it could talk. Although Alex’s last sentence was written in an aggressive tone, he wrote empathically from the perspective of a tree as if it was a mother paying attention. It was the first time that Alex paid attention during the writing group, which was drastically different from the previous two workshops when he could barely sit still. Alex’s emotional writing is interesting because of his infamous reputation as a class bully and disruptive student. He spent much time in class making strange noises with his mouth, throwing things, and touching his neighbor on the head or poking the girl who sat on the other side of him. He was quick to get into a fight and was often reprimanded. He was one of those kids who always had to stay in during recess. During many of my creative written workshops, Alex’s disruptions were clearly annoying to the other children in the group. Often his writing was illegible and he made it clear that he was not interested in participating.
At one of the final sessions, I noticed a change in Alex. The day’s topic was on coping with bullies and the group read a poem called Stanley The Fierce by Judith Viorst. When we began our discussion about bullies, some of the children in the group pointed out that Alex was a bit like Stanley and that sometimes he hurt their feelings. In response, Alex raised his hand (this I had never seen him do) and disclosed, “Sometimes I get angry and I don’t know what I am doing.”
“So, it sounds like when you get mad, you stop thinking,” I responded
“Yes, that’s it,” he said frowning a bit.
“How do you think it makes others feel when you say mean things about them?”
“It makes them feel bad and mad?”
Alex tested the waters to find out if his response was appropriate. He remained quiet after sharing. It was the first time Alex asked others in the group about how his behavior made them feel. I looked to the members of the group and invited them to answer Alex’s question. Most nodded and Randy* told Alex that he felt bad and threatened by Alex’s bullying. Randy later wrote about bullies, “This bully tries to threaten me. Sometimes he makes people bleed but sometimes he looks scary. He always makes me feel so bad and so sad.”
Alex became very quiet during the rest of the workshop and he had a remorseful look on his face when Randy read his writing out loud. I invited the children to draw a comic strip about a bully, which Alex did without a word. It was the first time I had ever seen him quiet, sitting in his chair with his hands in his lap. He shared his comic strip and told the group that the bully in his drawing was scary and that the boy who was being bullied felt very bad.
Perhaps it was the first time that he had spoken out loud about making another person feel bad. It seemed that Alex was thinking about his behavior during the workshop. His behavior indicated that he was troubled in some way and writing gave him a small window view into how to act empathically rather than acting out in anger.
For children who have lived through or are living with distressful situations, writing can be a tool to express thoughts and feelings. Many children want to tell their personal stories. Most of the children participating in the pilot CWE workshops shared stories about fathers in jail, brothers that beat them with brass knuckles, communication problems between racial groups, dreams of going into the military or of becoming rock stars, and dreamy summers eating watermelon under trees in their homelands. When given an opportunity, the children shared many of their thoughts and feelings related to emotional events. I developed the workshops to increase the children’s emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and communication skills. My role as facilitator was to model listening and respectful communication. The poems’ metaphors did the rest of the work for me. During the bully workshop, Alex had the chance to look into a mirror and learn how his own behavior affected others around him. He was able to do this through the eyes of Stanley, a character in a poem. Alex’s peers bravely shared the challenges they faced when dealing with real bullies in their lives.
When I was a child, I too wanted to feel safe enough to tell of the challenges I faced as a child witness of domestic violence and alcoholism but instead, I turned to my journal, a safe place where I shared my stories with the blank page. It is for this reason that I am drawn towards work that furnishes an outlet for children to share their personal narratives if they choose to do so. I believe that children who experience various types of distressful events are in need of emotional expression and the long-term consequences of silence can be dire if no outlets are available.
The possibilities are many but there are also limitations that should be pointed out. Children who are appropriate for creative written expression workshops need to be distinguished from the children who are diagnosed with serious psychological disorders. Children in these circumstances should be assessed and treated by a licensed therapist or child psychologist. This creative written expression model was developed for use with developmental groups and may not be appropriate for children who are in crisis situations in which their lives are in jeopardy. For the child who is victim to ongoing physical or sexual abuse, the focus should be on providing a safe environment and crisis counseling first before group written work can take place.
The stories that are shared during CWE workshops are especially relevant for educators, counselors and social workers who take an interest in children’s well being. For counselors and social workers, the model can be used to determine what is going on in a child’s home. It is a process that uses metaphors to help children easily express thoughts and feelings about themselves. In addition, the model can help educators determine why a child might display disruptive behaviors in the classroom. The workshops may also be modified for use in group homes, domestic violence shelters, or other organizations that provide services for underserved or at risk youth. These are the children who can benefit from talking and writing about their lives.
In these times of fear politics and buzzwords such as “Axis of evil” and “Terrorism”, we need more than ever to model for our children how to listen to one another. It is critical to teach them to communicate with words rather than fists, guns and bombs. This is the time to teach non-violent ways of communicating. This is the time to nurture our children’s voices. They have much to say and we adults must be willing to listen and give them the space to speak.
This is the work that will unlock children’s minds and hearts. These narratives open our eyes to the silences behind closed doors. Writing is about sending words out into the world and children without voices need those words to bring the dark, untold stories into the light.
Author’s Note: Names that have been changed are marked with an asterisk (*) next to them. The children’s writing is reproduced exactly as they wrote it. I obtained written consent from each child’s guardian(s) to include their writing in public documents.
Heather Mandell recently graduated from Goddard College with a Master’s degree in Transformative Language Arts. She works at her county library where she enjoys performing baby, toddler and children’s story times. Through a local non-profit organization, Heather currently facilitates creative written expression workshops for children and young adults who have witnessed domestic violence. She lives in Northern California where she enjoys kayaking, hiking and writing about her experiences.