Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Exploring Nonconformity as a Writing Theme

Nonconformity as a theme appears throughout literature for young people. To encourage innovative thoughts, deep analysis, and creative joy, novelists and poets and biographers who write for kids often present nonconformist characters as role models. I remember learning the word "nonconformist" from one of my favorite children's novels, A Girl Called Al, by Constance C. Greene. I rediscovered my joy in that book when I lent it to one of my elementary school students and we then ended up discussing the novel like two excited girls in a book club! As I pointed out to my student the line in that novel in which I first discovered one of my favorite words,"nonconformist" (a word she promptly added to her vocabulary list), I realized that my older students who were coming for lessons after hers, were both working on the same theme, via poetry prompts.

One of my middle-school-age students studied and wrote about a poem I gave her, by Shara McCallum, "The Perfect Heart," which introduces a little girl desperately hoping to please her teacher by cutting out a perfect heart using red construction paper. The girl displeases her teacher, however, because she somehow missed the directions and cut out hearts a different way, yielding what she considered imperfect hearts, which she ended up crumpling into a large pile of wasted paper. The teacher berates the poor girl as "wasteful" and "rude," rather than encouraging her nonconformity and praising her different-looking hearts. Readers naturally root for the sad girl who has been sent outside of the classroom as a punishment, and in rooting for her, root for nonconformity, too. My student's prompt was to write her own poetic memoir of a time when she differed from others in her approach to a task. She wrote about the day she solved a math problem, on the board, in front of the class, using a "more efficient," advanced method from a section of her textbook that she had not been assigned to read yet, although she had done so on her own. Her teacher examined her work, smiled as he realized that she had obviously read ahead in her book, and then proceeded to teach her method since most of the class seemed capable of understanding it as she had. This student's nonconformity affected not only her own progress, but the progress of her fellow students. She took McCallum's sad tale of repressed nonconformity and responded with her own tale of celebrated nonconformity.

My other older student that day had studied and written about a poem from TeenInk, by Farah Momen, a teenage poet. The poem, "Against the Grain," recounts Farah's experience as a little girl wiping off the classroom tables with her classmates after school. Farah's teacher instructs the kids to wipe carefully, with the grain, but Farah, noticing that the "grain" is only an image on plastic, sees no point in treating the table as though it is wood. She wipes against the grain because she can finish more quickly and proceed with more important tasks. She refuses to conform because the directions seem illogical to her. My student wrote an essay in response, using a list of quotations about nonconformity to add support for her thesis: "Society will always try to conform people into sameness because they will be easier to control; however, there will always be people who resist this pressure because they see another way to achieve success."

After meeting with both of these students, I came up with a nonconformist's dream assignment: Write a story in which Shara and Farah, the two poets, meet up as teenagers and discuss their shared experiences in a fictional scene that enables both of them to come to a shared realization about nonconformity. I gave this assignment to a third middle-school student, who immediately began writing after reading both poems, clearly inspired by each girl and wanting to connect them in a world of her own creation. She turned them into randomly assigned writing partners in an English class, and led them into a discussion that would surely have sparked a friendship if the two poets actually had met as teens.

Isn't it amazing how one word, one concept, can have such a pervasive influence on writers, readers, and even teachers!