by Candace Kearns Read
When I entered the classroom, the students sat quietly, full of respect and good manners. They seemed eager to learn and perform, and I was excited to teach them the craft of dramatic writing, which I assumed they knew nothing about. I introduced myself, told them I was going to show them how to write movies, and got ready to lead them in an icebreaker exercise to start the course. But one of the kids had his own icebreaker in mind for me:
“Do you speak Spanish?”
As an instructor with Lighthouse’s Young Writers Program, I had come to Monterey Community School in North Denver to teach two fifth-grade classrooms how to write screenplays. This was daunting in and of itself, and now it appeared there would be a language barrier.
Dozens of pairs of huge, hopeful eyes stared at me, waiting for an answer. I’m not fluent in Spanish by any means, but I did grow up in L.A., where you learn the language by osmosis, so I gave it a shot.
“Poquito,” I said, and shrugged lamely. Their serious faces softened, broke out in smiles, and from that moment on, I was okay.
Over the course of the next seven weeks, the kids learned how to write short films. I screened a series of Pixar shorts—which they found hugely entertaining—for them to use as models when writing their own five-minute dramatic narratives. Most of them struggled with spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, and sentence structure. But these kids had stories to tell, and they weren’t going to let a few mechanics slow them down. Characters, plots, and dialogue bubbled up freely from their wells. They knew all about antagonists, irony, and conflict. They wrote pages and pages of it in their black-and-white composition books, only occasionally stopping to ask how to spell a word.
As I got to know them, I learned that most of the students came from Spanish-speaking homes. Even though many of them were born here, their parents weren’t, and English was still their second language. They struggled with common ESL issues, such as articles and subject-verb agreement. But when it came to writing funny dialogue or creating scary settings, they were fluent. They may not have been completely on top of their “a’s” and “the’s,” but they definitely knew about theme. They knew about life.
These were 9-, 10- and 11-year-old kids. But their stories were about robberies, murder, pregnancy, adoption, and social justice. One boy wrote about a rich man who refused to help a homeless man, only to find the man dead the next day. This caused the rich man to rethink his priorities and become a philanthropist. One girl wrote her short film script about two teenage best friends fighting over the same boy. The boy ultimately chose the one who was the most mature.
I taught them the basics of screenwriting—how to write dialogue, format scripts, structure dramatically. But my real mission was to allow the conflicts and dramas of their own lives and imaginations to take shape on the page. To give these kids permission to express themselves through the transformative magic of creative writing. Ultimately, I came to realize that no matter our language of origin, we are all in the process of learning how to speak the universal language of story.
Candace Kearns Read has worked for more than 20 years in the film industry as a story analyst, screenwriter, and screenwriting instructor. She has taught screenwriting for Metropolitan State College of Denver, Antioch University, and now for the Lighthouse Young Writers Program.