I Am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories

I Am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories

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by Sam Swope

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A teacher discovers how reading, writing, and imagining can help children grow, change, and even sometimes survive

A few years back, children's-book writer Sam Swope gave a workshop to a third-grade class in Queens. So enchanted was he with his twenty-eight students that he "adopted" the class for three years, teaching them to write stories and poems.

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A teacher discovers how reading, writing, and imagining can help children grow, change, and even sometimes survive

A few years back, children's-book writer Sam Swope gave a workshop to a third-grade class in Queens. So enchanted was he with his twenty-eight students that he "adopted" the class for three years, teaching them to write stories and poems. Almost all were new Americans (his class included students fom twenty-one countries) and Swope was drawn deep into their real and imaginary lives, their problems, hopes, and fears. I Am a Pencil is the story of his years with this very special group of students. It is as funny, warm, heartbreaking, and hopeful as the children themselves.
Swope follows his colorful troop of resilient writers from grades three to five, coaxing out their stories, watching talents blossom, explode, and sometimes fizzle, holding his breath as the kids' families brave new lives in a strange big city. We meet Susie (whose mom was a Taoist priestess), Alex (who cannot seem to tell the truth), and Noelia (a wacky Dominican chatterbox). All of the children have big dreams. Some have big problems: Salvador, an Ecuadorian boy, must cope with a strict Pentecostal father; Soo Jung mystifies Swope with sudden silences - until he discovers that her mother has left the family. Preparing his students for a world of adult dangers, Swope is astonished by their courage, humanity, but most of all by their strength.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Children's book writer Swope (The Araboolies of Liberty Street, etc.) was in a slump. And what better way to liven things up than by accepting an offer to teach a 10-day writing workshop to a class of third-graders in Queens, New York City, a prime destination for immigrants to the U.S. and one of the world's most ethnically diverse areas? Swope became so intrigued by the children, he devoted himself for the next three years to teaching them, unpaid. This delightful, sometimes heartbreaking work relates how, as Swope taught, his writing lessons extended into story-writing collaborations with his students, lessons in how to draw a tree and assignments to play in the snow and write about it. Swope's affection for the kids involved him deeply in their lives, which were often ridden with familial stress. His teaching (and writing) approach is seriously playful; he bestows on his students the power of words (as when Miguel, infuriated by his home life, uses the word "stalwart" to keep himself from giving up during troubled times). Swope shows how children flourish when their imaginations are nurtured and they are challenged to find inner discipline and write what they see as truth. He also reveals the painful seesaw of hope and limitations in their lives. Agent, Gail Hochman. (Aug. 3) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Swope, a writer with a wacky imagination, was asked by Teachers & Writers Collaborative to run a ten-day workshop with a group of third graders in Queens. He fell in love with this class of children from twenty-one countries who spoke eleven languages, and continued to collaborate on stories with them for three years. This man who had pared his life down to "the essentials: a small Manhattan rental, no kids, no car, not even a TV," suddenly finds himself sharing his sense of wonder with children. His resulting memoir is a record of their stories and his journey into the art, frustrations, and magic of teaching children the pleasures and pitfalls of writing. One of the strengths of this book is Swope's insightful, well-written discoveries about writing, teaching, children and life. The other is his honesty. Transcribed conversations reveal much and it is not always pretty. It is painful to read about an intriguing child who suddenly tells him that she hates him, or that he's missed clues to really understanding a student. Swope is dedicated to his students. He tries to understand their families and even helps them find middle schools that will support their learning. He gives them so much and yet, it is clear that he's also receiving much from them. This is a man who will never forget these children. Swope understands the art and spirit of teaching and thrives watching their thoughts and imagination expand and unfold. 2004, Holt, Ages Adult.
—Susie Wilde
Library Journal
When Swope (Jack and the Seven Deadly Giants) was asked to present a ten-day writing workshop to a third-grade class in Queens, NY, little did he know that he would spend the next three years following these children through school. They were mostly immigrant children, with a wide variety of backgrounds and problems. Swope's immediate connection to the kids gave him an idea: he would help them learn, get to know more about their lives and their dreams, and watch them grow as both people and writers. With the permission of the school, Swope was given a small storage closet to use as an office and set himself up as the writing teacher. His book details his experiences while also presenting selected stories and poems. It doesn't provide any earthshaking new educational theories but instead draws readers into the true-life stories of these children. It will appeal to both educators and the general public. Recommended for most libraries. Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Children's author Swope (The Krazees, 1997, etc.) chronicles his three years conducting writing workshops with a group of elementary-school students in Queens. Although this is a throwback to those teaching memoirs that proliferated in the 1960s and '70s by John Holt, Herbert Kohl, et al., the author seems unaware of these ancestors in his generally blithe and often self-flattering report from the front lines of American urban education. After falling in love with the third-graders in what was supposed to be a ten-day workshop and continuing to work with them through fifth grade, Swope does his best to battle the organizational demons that rule his new world: bureaucracy, burnt-out or incompetent teachers, parents who seem to have no aspirations for their children, and youngsters who cannot make themselves behave in ways beneficial to them. Following his first year with a classroom teacher he really admired, he found himself working with colleagues he did not completely respect; the kids' fourth-grade teacher in particular comes off as dim and dysfunctional. (The author has changed all the students' and teachers' names.) Swope had great advantages denied to classroom teachers: he met privately with individuals and small groups; he worked with a principal who supported his efforts to take students on frequent field trips; he was free to create nontraditional projects that caught the youngsters' attention and earned their affection. (Two long-term activities on islands and trees were especially engaging.) The novice instructor became deeply involved in his students' lives. He interviewed and visited their parents, helped the kids apply to magnet middle schools, talked with them on thephone, discussed with them the intimacies of their lives. Some produced good writing; others managed only drivel. Swope's tale is occasionally vitiated by his need to tell us how wonderful he is when a simple recounting of his deeds would have sufficed. A dedicated teacher sends a valentine to some charming students-and to himself.

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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