Coolest Eva: TikaTok & kid author empowerment

Children as Storytellers: The Making of TikaTok (Part One)

When our son was three years old, we began the practice of having him compose stories for us before bed. We traded off nights. Some nights we’d read him a story. Some nights he would make up a story which we typed out on the computer for him, word for word, without changes. Sometimes he would take a few friendly prods to get moving but we were very careful to preserve the structure and details of his imagination. We would print out the stories and have him draw pictures to illustrate them. We would then photocopy the whole and send them to his grandparents on birthdays and other major holidays as a time capsule of his creative life. The process emerged, no doubt, because both his mother and father were fans and we knew the value of fan fiction. It benefited us as a family because it gave us a regular time when we could talk about the media he was consuming — trust me, key themes of the stories came from television shows, movies, and from the Haunted Mansion at Disneyworld, which was a core influence on his thinking from early on. It allowed us to share our values with him, including the sense that he was empowered not simply to consume media but to rewrite it. And it helped him develop skills and a self identity as a writer which he has carried over into his adult life. I included an essay we wrote together in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. He also wrote and published an essay about his evolving relationship to professional wrestling in Nick Sammond’s Steel Chair to the Head.

All of this came back to me when I went on a walk recently with Neal Grgisby, who graduated a year ago with a Masters from the Comparative Media Studies Program, and has now taken on a job as the Director of Online Community for a startup company, TikaTok, which is trying to promote the idea of children writing, illustrating, and editing stories to share with other children. Interestingly, he’s ended up working for a company started by an alum of the MIT Media Lab, so part of the story he shared with me had to do with the value of collaborations between the two groups. In the interview which follows, Neil and Orit Zuckerman, the company’s CTO, talk about what they are trying to accomplish and in the process, they share some cutting edge thinking about how and why we can help children discover the power of authorship.

Confessions of an Aca/Fan: Children as Storytellers: The Making of TikaTok (Part One)

(As always, there’s much, much more to that story– just click the link above and read the interview associated)

Okay… raise your hand if you participated in that Authorship contest in 3rd grade– the one where you wrote a story, made it into a book in class, and teachers submitted it to some book/author contest with the rest of your school.

I did.  Mine was called “The Lost Puppy”.  It won for my grade and my school.  I don’t remember much more than: writing on the 1/2 page (1/2 lines for sentences, 1/2 open space for illustration), putting it into a already bound book and coloring it (my teacher rewrote my sentences), and then standing up at an assembly in the gym when they announced my name.  My parents made copies and sent it to families.

I had forgotten about it until High School when I was going through my old baby stuff for a project and stumbled across the last copy.  I don’t remember how i wrote the story, or what my inspiration was– or even why I found it necessary to add a clown character as a hero (especially since I’ve always despised clowns).  But there it was, and with a gold ribbon sticker on it too.

I loved writing as a kid.  After my 3 year foray into public school I joined Montessori– the ranks of which only the truly weird, imaginative kids can blossom (we played with brooms, ate the gerbil food sunflower seeds, convinced ourselves that purple gluesticks were raspberry flavored, and had a class wedding in recess a week).  I spent most of my days writing (we make our own schedules).  I wrote TONS of stories and wished upon wishes to get them published and share them.

I was battling the beginning of ADD and was having trouble with vocab words & memorization.  My teacher told me to start creating stories using the vocab words– and I began to care about using them (as opposed to forced swallowing of lessons that battled my brain).

Writing is, was, and always will be a form of empowerment.

I JUST returned from an early lunch with a lovely new friend.  She’s looking to be a writer, has taken undergrad courses and is apply to Masters programs in the UK (she’s Irish).  And she said something that echoed everything I believe in– and have believed in…

“You can’t be wrong in creative writing.”  Sure critics will argue this– but for the pure storytellers?  Hells no.  You can’t be wrong.  It’s YOUR world.  Yours.  You have the power to shift characters, follow storylines, explore, build, grow, destroy… For kids who don’t have a say in ANYTHING in the world– for kids who have to bow down to the rules of others (rules they don’t understand to begin with)– for kids who earn, wish for magic and chance… writing is the place to cement creations of their own imagination.  Their rules. 

As I mentioned– a child (and young adult) of ADD, writing is where I found empowerment, where I found confidence.  I may have struggled with a math project, or remembering facts about history… but writing?  I gained a bit of myself back. 

This is why it’s so important for kids to find their freedom– if but for a moment a day– in creative writing.  When I was teaching, one of my FONDEST memories was our 20 minutes of creative writing at the end of the day.  I put on either Star Wars soundtrack, or Harry Potter soundtrack, and gave kids their canvas.  Paper.  They could draw, create a comic, or write a story– as long as they could tell me the story and how it exists in their work. 

I actually get a bit misty eyed thinking about it.  Every single one of those kids– 3rd graders– knocked my socks off.  The power in that classroom was amazing.  And they got excited about it– and supported one another.  When I left, they presented a book to me– they had written it ON THEIR OWN during recess.  I don’t know what was more precious – the collaborative story, the secret effort, or the pride on their faces.

If TikaTok is an opportunity for kids to find that online?  AMEN TO THEM.  I will dive into TikaTok this week and come back with a review.  But it’s great to know that places like TikaTok and exist for the budding story-based adventurers of the world.

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  1. April 18, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    I’m eager to see your review. The MIT Media Lab spits out some smart folks.

  2. April 19, 2008 at 11:51 am

    We’ve been doing this sort of activity with our kids too, and it’s fun to watch their creativity blossom. Write down word for word what they say, then let them illustrate the scenes in crayon. Eventually, we would like to get books printed up as a permanent keepsake through some vanity publisher that likes to do small (or single) copies.

  3. October 9, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Hi Izzy, Neal from Tikatok here. It’s been a while but I’m still anxiously awaiting your review of Tikatok. Your site is a great resource and I’d love to hear what you think. Since you last visited, we have recently added an easy teacher registration process so that whole classrooms can sign up and work together on books. Hope to see you on the site!

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