Friday, January 18, 2013

Warping the Brains of the Next Generation

This week I got a strange and unique opportunity dropped into my lap, an offer that basically ran along the lines of : “come teach a class about fantasy to young impressionable minds.”

In a nutshell I was asked to put my own idea together for a class for a local private, cooperatively-run K-8 school. Though my first impulse was “hells yeah we throw on some Sabbath, play D&D everyday and then I lecture about some books to read for 8 minutes” I rallied and tried to put together something that has a fig leaf of educational value.

I tried to frame the class around worldbuilding broadly speaking, titling it “Imaginary Worlds” with an emphasis on the kids (I'm orienting to the older half of the school) creating their own fantasy world setting as a springboard for the real meat of creative writing and delving into real world mythology (Nordic, Greek, and Native American), physical geography, history and fantasy literature (I'm thinking some readings from Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Tolkien's The Hobbit, The Dark is Rising and maybe a few others if we have time). In other words, a class I would have given my proverbial left nut for when I was a tween.

Shockingly, the school gave the thumbs up and class begins in early February. But now I am left with the rather awkward question of: how the hell do I pull off such a class? I'm not a total greenhorn having taught English to grade school children in Slovakia and writing classes to interns at my last journalism gig, but the task does seem rather tall when I sit down and try and think out a real curriculum.

Of course the point here is not to crow (though as a Texan I am not above extended public braggery) nor to hem and haw (again something I do from time to time), but to plug back into that hive mind for ideas.

Have any of you, as educators, parents, aunts/uncles yadda yadda, had any experience trying to teach kids how to think about fantasy (broadly or a specific aspect)? Any specific recommendations for books and other material or just suggestions/tips in general?


  1. My buddy Dean, a fellow English teacher here in Korea, has been using D&D and group world-building with one of his classes. You can read about it, and maybe get a few ideas, from his blog over at WotC:

  2. Awesome of course. Could become a wider opportunity if that's what you'd like.

    How about dumping a big bunch of appropriate junk-store paperbacks on them and letting them mix and match? They'll pick covers and titles that interest them and you won't have to cut too many darlings.

    Allocate maybe 1/2 hour of the session to very quick reports and they'll get each other excited about the breadth of what's out there. And then you can spend most of the session on larger themes, connections, origins and the building blocks of fantastic setting.

    It sounds like this is slotting into a Creative Arts place instead of an English Lit place. If so, consider embracing final projects that break the "setting bible" sourcebook format. Short films. Calligraphic maps. A radio travelogue, whatever. Most will probably stick with the text-heavy but you never know!

    1. I had this long-standing half baked idea to run a contest where people developed a one-shot adventure based on a book they grabbed at random from the dollar bin at a used bookstore. I like your idea even more as I want to break out off that dull box that seems to accompany world building talk.

    2. My wife is running a gaming class for you kids and part of the project is that they are making up their own card games.

  3. Scott---

    I recently refound the class materials I used to run after school programs in the early '80s teaching D&D.

    I've got some of my other syllabi/etc. from my Comparative Literature minor in Myth and Folklore too, as well as notes from a Tolkien class I took in high school.

    I can dig through those if you think they'd be useful for this class?


  4. This is awesome.

    It also gives you a chance to emphasize some skills -- research, media production, etc as the students create the final project.

    There could be really nice conversations about how elements of culture influence one another. What's the relationship between food and religious belief, for example? How much of that matters in the creation of a fantasy world? (All those GRR Martin food descriptions could be used as examples). Or language? (Tolkien here).

    You could point out how specific real-world elements influenced the creation of fantasy worlds.

    Very cool!

  5. A Wizard of Earthsea would be near the top of my list for such a class.

    In addition to being a great book, it fits the idea of world building perfectly. It would also add some cultural variety.

  6. I have to second A Wizard of Earthsea. I read it in elementary school and was captivated by it.

  7. I advocate focus through the idea that real creativity is hiding your sources. Explain the utility of using randomizing to get anchor points that you must weave something plausible between. Show how taking elements of one genre or culture, and elements of another, and then putting in a third element, creates something new but familiar.

    Talk about the value of formula for feeling familiar, and the value of fresh interpretation of old ideas. Some Campbell mythology, take one core concept and show how it is played out in various genres.

    For example, show how the story of Pocahontas (the Disney version) and Avatar (with the blue skinned aliens) is the same. Point out similarities in stories with a focus on "humanity cannot out-invent nature" like Frankenstein and Aliens.

    This sounds like a lot of fun. Good luck!

  8. When my son was still interested in bedtime stories told by dad, I'd tell him, "Name two animals and three things here in your bedroom," and then I'd weave a story on the spot for him. Earlier comments about randomization as well as common everyday items are spot on.

    Grab a bunch of dollar store junk that can fit in a bag... pull three or four out at random in front of the class, then give them fifteen minutes to use all of them in a short story. Collect them and read them all out loud (or have the kids read their own works...). Discuss how the stories differed because we all bring something different to the table. If any are beyond the mundane, focus on those as an introduction to fantastic themes.

  9. Is this a group project or individual efforts? I recommend microscope for a group project. Start out by banning all the standard fantasy race tropes.. just a thought.

  10. Awesome! I'd like to recommend that you use short stories more than novels, so the students can finish reading complete stories rather than excerpts, I think it gives a bigger picture. I highly recommend Hank Reinhardt's Age of the Warrior for one of the readings, some really good themes there.

  11. Wow. I'm really late to the party on this. Did I ever tell you about a course I took at UT called Parageography?