Engaging teenagers in writing
The challenge was this: how to get a group of fourteen to eighteen-year old boys, all of whom had been through the court system in New York City and had now landed at Andrew Glover, a program for at-risk juvenile offenders, to write something. I knew it wouldn’t be easy because anything that smacks of schooling is problematic for these kids, many of whom have a history of academic failure, not because they’re not smart but because in many cases the system has failed them.
I write crime novels and so I decided to introduce them to this genre because I thought it would be something that would interest them. But going in I knew I had to do something a little different, if I was going to get them interested. What I wasn’t going to do was to make them sit down and write. That would have been too much like school, and I wanted to show them writing can be fun. I figured I’d introduce them to an essential part of writing: deciding what you’re going to write about.
“Okay,” I said, as six of us sat around a long table, “we’re going to write a crime story but the first thing we need to do is decide what crime we’re going to write about. So we’re going to make a list of all the kinds of crimes you can think of. What have you got?
Hands immediately shot up and within a few minutes we had a whole list:
Breaking and entering
“Okay, so what crime are we going to write about?”
After some back and forth it was decided that we’d combine bank robbery, kidnapping and murder and that a gang would be involved. Not a bad start.
Slowly, we put together the nuts and bolts of the “crime.”
A young woman who worked as a bank teller comes out of work one evening and is immediately abducted by a gang of four young men. She’s thrown into the back of a van and taken to an abandoned warehouse where the leader of the gang is waiting for her. He ten reveals why she’s been taken. The gang is planning to rob her bank and only she has the code to the vault and they have to get it from her. But a last minute twist was added. It seems the real brains behind this scheme is the young woman’s husband, who came up with the plan in the first place.
Now that we had the basic set-up, we needed the details. “Who are these guys in the gang?” I asked. “What do they look like and what are their names?”
After ten minutes we had four characters, all of them patterned after friends of these boys, even down to their names and quirks. Only one character remained.
“We need a leader,” I said.
One of the boys quickly offered, “his name is Charles, he has grey hair and he wears glasses.”
“Really?” I said. And since this character was obviously a version of me I decided to push the envelope a little. “How old is he?”
“Around forty,” said one of the boys, as the others nodded assent. I was far too flattered to tell the boys I hadn’t seen forty in quite some time.
In the end, here’s the plot they came up with:
The young woman is threatened until she finally breaks down and informs the would-be bank robbers that the code is not a code at all, but that safe can only be opened by using her handprint. When two of the gang leave and the other is on the phone to the leader, the young woman’s husband, she manages to escape from the warehouse. As she’s running across the street to safety, she’s hit by a car and killed.
It turned out to be an incredibly complicated, imaginative and sophisticated plot, but working together these boys managed to put it together. The next step would be more difficult but I could see from the smiles of satisfaction that they were anxious to give it a go.