It seems to me that kids have two very different needs during the pandemic — to have happiness and playfulness in a hard time, and to make sense of the strange events that have upturned their worlds. Writing can address both those needs. I try to balance them by writing lots of playful, imaginative things with my students, and by giving them space to directly address the pandemic in their writing.
A couple weeks ago, I had my students talk to covid. Getting to talk, face to imaginary face, with the amorphous boogeyman of their lives is a powerful thing. We did something similar last spring, but this time I wanted them to imagine they were talking to a person, with all the quirks and wants and feelings of any person. Not because viruses are like people exactly, but because I wanted them to talk to someone they felt could hear them, and listen to someone they knew how to hear.
Which brings us to our exclusive interview:
OK, before I say more, I have to share something a student wrote. Tilly is a new student of mine, nine years old, only just finding confidence and enthusiasm for her writing, a subject that has been challenging for her. She wrote this faux TV interview, where she pretended to interview COVID-19 on air. I am frequently delighted by the (frequently delightful) things my kids write, but this one hits it out of the park.
She read it aloud, in a swanky news anchor voice and a cheesy teen pop star covid voice, grinning the whole time. Try it:
Tilly: Hello, my name is Tilly and this is KNN, the world’s most trustworthy kids news network. Tonight I'm in the studio talking with covid-19, the world’s most known pandemic.
Tilly: So, Covid-19, do you feel you've made an impact on the world? If so, what impact have you made?
Covid-19: I think I've made a big impact. The kind of one that spreads. I think it's really catching on.
Tilly: What do you like to do? What are your interests?
Covid-19: I like to travel, and I like to surprise big and small gatherings.
Tilly: On that subject, what is your favorite drink? A kid from Arizona asked us this one.
Covid-19: Well, I'd have to say Corona beer, mostly, because it has my name on the bottle.
Tilly: What is your favorite movie or show?
Covid-19: I like CNN because they’re always talking about me?
Tilly: What is your family like?
Covid-19: They push me a lot to do bigger things.
Tilly: How did you evolve into this?
Covid-19: My bat-friend, Bob, really helped me make the jump into big time. I could never have done it without him...So, THANK YOU BOB!
Tilly: Okay well, you’ve been a very interesting subject to talk to. Thank you for coming, and I have one last question: What do you say to the people who don't wear masks?
Covid-19: Thank you for supporting me!
Tilly: There you go kids, you've heard it from the one and only Covid-19 himself. Once again, this is Tilly,and you are watching KNN the world's most trustworthy kids news network.
I love seeing examples of when kids’ humor and creativity pull their writing along, when writing becomes a medium to express their own awesomeness rather than just a challenging form they work in for the sake of literacy. And I love seeing kids find humor in hard things.
Where did this covid character come from?
The prompt for this piece was to write something (I called it a poem) where you got to talk to COVID-19.
You could ask it anything.
You could tell it anything.
It could answer your questions.
It could tell you anything it wanted.
Before we went off to do this, we did some character building work. I asked them to imagine if COVID-19 were a person — or at least a human-like creature. I asked them questions about this covid person and had them take notes:
What does their voice sound like?
How do they dress?
How do they move and walk?
What kind of objects do they have with them?
What kind of vehicle etc. do they arrive in?
What kind of music do they like?
Can they dance?
What makes them sad/mad/scared/happy/ashamed?
What do they want most of all?
What do they do when no one is looking?
Some of them had created some pretty fantastic villains (one was a ghost who lived in a sewer and had rats living in his hair, another was blue), so I told them they could go into this imaginary conversation with any support or protection they wanted. They could bring a brave friend, a parent, a loyal dragon. They could talk from inside a moat of hand sanitizer, with any PPE they desired. It could be a Zoom chat. They could be inside a protective bubble. Whatever felt good.
I told them to say what they wanted to say, but to be polite, not for the least reason that just writing “you terrible #&$#^$%@ virus” wouldn’t be a very interesting poem. And I told them to listen, because who knows, maybe this character would tell them something new. And once or twice at least, I think it did.