Sunday, April 19, 2015

Maybe we'll host our own Writing Conference

Skyping YA authors into the classroom started five years ago for me. We had some really great experiences with Kathi Appelt, Mitali Perkins, Sarah Albee, Gayle Forman, and many others. We tried hashtag chats on Twitter and engaged with Rebecca Stead, Steve Sheinken, and Laini Taylor.

In each case I found myself thinking: I wish all of my students could experience this too.
Pam Munoz Ryan and me at NCTE 2014

Over the past year I've attended two SCBWI conferences and one NCTE conference. In each case, writing was celebrated, shared, examined, and discussed. I had the opportunity to rub elbows with and learn from writers such as: Pam Munoz Ryan, David Levithan, Jack Gantos, Nikki Grimes, Kate Messener, Jacqueline Woodson, Georgia Heard, Paul Janeczko, and so on. I sat and listened to educators named Michael Smith, Jeffrey Wilhelm, and Penny Kittle.

And I found myself thinking about how enriched my life has become through these conferences that it all cycled back to one overarching thought nagging at me: I wish all of my students could experience this too. 

Along the way, I collaborated with several educators across the country to co-author a piece in English Journal. One of the collaborators, Gary Anderson, had been talking-writing-Tweeting about Writers Week at William Fremd High School in Illinois. The more I read the tweets and watched clips of their videos (they livestream the entire event--incredible) of students, faculty, and professionals celebrating writing I found myself thinking...again...

I wish all of my students could experience this too.

Recently, I proposed the idea to the 8th grade teachers--fortunately, another 8th grade teacher had been thinking of a similar project involving block scheduling. The block schedule would last one week. This would work for us because it would still allow all of the teachers to see their students the same amount of the time as they normally would in any given week. Our special area classes remain undisturbed. Our music lessons and end of the day study hall/extra help period remain status quo.

Our version of the William Fremd High School model would include all of our core subject areas: Math, Social Studies, Geography, Science, and English. Each subject area will be responsible for planning how its time will be used. Science has already speculated that they can try some unique and engaging labs that they never have the time to get to in our traditional schedule. Social Studies has kicked around bringing in guest speakers.

We are in the brainstorming phase at least seven or eight months out from the first proposed dates. We will have even more time if the week gets scheduled after the holidays.

Part of our early conversation has been about an overarching theme--something to build all of our individual blocks around. Some have offered "The Real World" and "Reaching Out" but again, we are just brainstorming. We know we need a theme, a hook, and something to help all of us come together as we plan.

As for English, this is where--in my mind--the writing conference comes into play. I'd love to set up a variety of workshops where students, faculty, and staff share and celebrate writing all week. Another colleague and I will be (soon) reaching out to the professional writing community to see who might be interested in being a part of our 8th grade Conference of Writing.

All of that said, this kind of leap only works with support, collaboration, and enthusiasm. In that, we are lucky to be surrounded by colleagues willing to take a leap and we are fortunate to work in a building and district supportive of creating innovative learning experiences for our students.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

8th grade class publishes a novel

A year-long experiment became tangible on Friday. We received the Proof for our 8th grade class novel from CreateSpace. It arrived at about midday so only two of my classes saw it.

Their reactions were charming. Many flipped immediately to the author page to find their name. Some flipped back and forth through the 100 pages to find their sections. One commented it looked so small. Another wanted to know how much we would charge for it.

The most ardent reaction was a boy who joked--maybe he was serious--that he was putting it on his resume: "Yeah, hello, Harvard, I'm a published author...I'll let you know."

And there were some who didn't react at all--perhaps fatigued by the multiple revisions, editorial suggestions, and months of scrutiny and change.

We started in September by reimagining the Verdi opera Don Carlo as a middle grade (MG) story. Looking only at the triangles of relationships in the opera, we asked ourselves what they would translate to into the world of an 8th grade student.

Six major characters emerged in our 99 scene outline--one 250 word scene per student.

Why 250 words? Because of the costs involved with professional editing services. Also, 250 words proved to be just enough to challenge the students. Each scene was a moment. By asking for 250 words about a moment, I put my student writers in a position to dig deeper by considering multiple elements: setting, character, action, dialogue, point of view, etc.

Each student wrote their scene six times--from all six character perspectives.

Then, class by class, students shared their work in small groups and made the decisions about which was the best point of view for each particular scene.

Once we compiled the scenes chronologically, we then rearranged them so that the book would be divided into six sections--one for each character. As a reader moves through our story, each character tells a slightly different version of the same events.

Our novel went through three rounds of professional editing at CreateSpace. Each time, my students were invited to rewrite the suggested changes irrespective of whether it was their initial contribution or not.

Now, almost 8 months after we began the process, our book is on sale at the CreateSpace marketplace today and will go on sale at somewhere towards the end of next week.

All royalties come back to our middle school's Student Council--benefactor of our project--and will continue to forever. It is our goal to at least generate the initial money Student Council invested in our project so that we can repeat the project for many years to come.