Sitting before a semi-circle of her peers at Chabot Elementary, fifth-grader Nyah read aloud from her story, Alia and Andrew and the Story of the Odd Objects. It’s a novel, and she wrote the whole thing this fall. “Sometimes, Alia gets sad that she has no brothers and sisters,” said Nyah. “But she eats ice cream and then she feels happy again.”
Her audience, consisting of nine fellow classmates and instructor Sondra Hall, giggled collectively. On a Tuesday, they were gathered for the semester’s last session of “Take My Word For It!,” an afterschool workshop developed by Hall. The students were practicing for a presentation the following evening, at which each of them would read an excerpt of their novel in front of family and friends.
Hall is a nurturing, stylish woman, fond of bold clothing and colorful jewelry. An Oakland resident and writer by trade, she started the program five years ago. “I woke up one day thinking, ‘These kids are so hemmed in. There’s no room for creative thinking,’” says Hall. “And then I realized, all you have to do is just open the lid and it comes out.”
Five years later, “Take My Word For It!” is Hall’s epiphany realized. What began as a small venture is now an afterschool program with eight instructors at twelve schools around the Bay Area. Parents who elect to enroll their children pay a modest tuition at the beginning of each semester, and each class meets with a “Word” teacher once a week to work through a curriculum centered on fostering creativity. They start with the basics of how to be a good writer, and move into topics like imagination and language.
This fall at Chabot, “Take My Word For It!” sprang into new territory. Partnering with National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, Hall guided ten third to fifth graders through the process of thinking up, and then completing, an entire novel. Each child set a personal word count goal, and Hall’s only requirement was that every story center on an adventure.
Participants in NaNoWriMo are challenged to write a novel in thirty days, but Hall created a modified workbook for her students, since their class only met once a week. First, they learned about the art of novel writing. Next, they developed plot and characters. Then they sat down and put it all into words.
The authors in Hall’s Chabot workshop had a mixture of reasons for being there. “Many of the kids that come are there because their parents feel they need more writing,” says Hall. With budget cuts affecting arts education, she said, “parents are really seeking these kinds of opportunities for their children. And they’ll pay for it. They want arts for their kids, and that includes literary arts.”
There’s one group, however, that is self-selected. Two girls in the class have taken Hall’s afterschool workshops five times. One of them, a fifth grader who would prefer to be known by her pen name, Paige Parker, set a goal of 2,500 words for herself. By the end of the semester she had written 1,700, but intends to keep going.
Parker’s working title is A Rippled Reflection, and in Tuesday’s class, she talks about her main character, a girl who must go on a long journey to find Lakewood Pond. “Why does she need to find Lakewood Pond?” Hall asks the young author. “Because,” says Parker, unblinking. “It’s her destiny.”
This unarguable logic is evident in each and every novel the “Take My Word For It!” class produced. Molly, a spunky third grader, wrote The Adventure of the Dragonfruit, about a magical red fruit that will keep you full for a year. Before her main characters set off on a whirlwind international adventure, they stop at CVS for supplies.
In ten-year-old Kobi’s Tom Takes an Unintended Trip, Tom, the protagonist, is a boy who lives on a planet called Feet. “He’s just a normal boy,” reads Kobi’s text. “But he doesn’t live on planet Earth.” Violet, who is ten, wrote an ominous tale involving black flowers and a substitute teacher named Mr. Mask. Violet said her mother enjoyed the book. “My mom likes it,” she said. “But I mean … she’s my mom.”
Violet’s mom isn’t the only parent who’s a fan of the program. Tony, the nine-year-old author of The Crystal Journey, said his mother enrolled him to help improve his grades in writing. While he was hesitant at first, Tony, whose favorite subject is math, said the experience has proved rewarding, and that he enjoyed Hall’s teaching style. “She gave me ideas of what I should do,” he said. “She doesn’t usually say, ‘That’s good or bad.’ She just tells me how to make it better.’”
Tony’s mother, Sharon Todd, said at the reading on Wednesday night that her son has shown improvement. ““I think it has helped, yes,” she said. “His teacher sent me an email recently saying he has improved a great deal.”
Nyah’s mother, Nedra Ginwright, also attended the Wednesday night reading, held at Musically Minded Academy on Broadway. Folding chairs were set in rows, and the young novelists read their pieces into a microphone to a crowd of their most adoring fans. This exercise, according to Ginwright, was also of huge value to her daughter, whom she described as shy.
“Nyah really enjoys writing and always has, but I think this motivated and pushed her a little,” said Ginwright. “She was hesitant to present her work, but Sondra gave them an opportunity to read out loud in class, and that gave her courage.”
For Sondra Hall, passing on her passion is her reward. Suggest to her that in an age of technology, book-writing is a dying art, and she scoffs. “It’s a nice counterpoint to the digital engagement of today,” she says. “But it’s a human inclination to tell stories and write stories down.” And if the kids are forgetting about the written word, Hall is here to remind them. “We’re a word incubator,” Hall says. “My mission is to enchant the kids with the written word. With the art of writing.”