Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Blogging & Creative Writing in an Author Community: the Author in Residence Program at Chenery Middle School

            Since 2010, I’ve visited Chenery Middle School in Belmont, MA every year to give author presentations and creative writing workshops to the fifth grade. Belmont rolls out the red carpet for authors! I love the enthusiasm I find there in the teachers, in the administration, in the library, and in the kids.

Over the summer of 2012, Chenery library media specialist Karen Duff proposed we try something different. We met at Starbucks and she outlined for me her vision of a yearlong program that would harness the kids’ enthusiasm for creative writing and sustain it beyond an annual author visit. Together we brainstormed and developed an ambitious author-in-residence initiative to engage and instruct 300 fifth grade students in:
·       Avid, thoughtful, enthusiastic reading
·       Relentless creative writing
·       Revising and preparing their work for publication
·       Peer critiquing skills as part of participation in an author community
·       Digital publishing tools
·       Safe and appropriate social media engagement

We might have been a little crazy. But we believed it was possible. Karen and I wanted the kids to live like authors live for a year – reading the way authors do, writing freely and regularly, revising bravely, critiquing kindly, publishing professionally, and responding thoughtfully. I thought of it as a 5th-grade MFA.
The program that emerged from our planning was made possible with support from the fifth grade teachers at Chenery, the PTO, the Foundation for Belmont Education, and the wonderful students and families themselves, who responded enthusiastically to the program.
            Our author-in-residence initiative kicked off in November with a two-day author visit. I gave a creative writing assembly presentation “Adventures with Stories” that walked through the storytelling process and reviewed the essential elements of fiction. Afterwards, I met with each class for hands-on creative writing workshops entitled “Let’s Make a Story” where they used what they’d learned to develop their own ideas, characters, and plots, step-by-step. Here's a playlist of short clips from the workshop. 

Karen unveiled the new feature for this year’s initiative: blogging between the classes and me about books and creative writing. Over the year I read titles along with the class and composed blog posts about them with accompanying writing prompts, and the students blogged back responses to the book and the prompts. I tried to reply to as many blog posts as I could with individual feedback, but the response to the blogs was overwhelming.  I also posted to a general creative writing blog with periodic musings on the creative process, and more writing prompts. Teachers assigned blog responses as homework for the kids, so they learned how to log into the blog from any location and enter their responses. The classics we discussed together were (links will take you to the blog posts about each title): Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Fromthe Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsberg, Esio Trot by Roald Dahl, Holes by Louis Sachar, Love that Dog by Sharon Creech, and a collection of folk tales. (Visit the blog at Word to the wise: "CFG" is shorthand for "Chenery Fifth Graders." Do visit the blog links -- these kids' posts will amaze and amuse.)
The blog was kept anonymous and moderated by Karen Duff, who coached students on how to compose respectful, relevant blog comments on the titles and prompts. Students and teachers drew from the blogs to develop new creative stories and to enrich their reading experience as they examined titles from an author’s point of view. In a year-end survey we conducted about the program, more than half of the students called the blogs a high point of the entire program. They loved interacting with an author online.
Author Erin Moulton & a fan, Winter Book Festival.
In early December, we put together a Winter Book Festival and Author Panel for the entire school. We invited other authors to discuss their titles, sign copies, and meet with students and parents at an evening event. Jack Ferraiolo (Sidekicks, The Big Splash, The Quick Fix), Erin Dionne (The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, Moxie and the Art of Rule-breaking), Erin Moulton (Flutter, Tracing Stars, and new release Chasing the Milky Way), Diana Renn (Tokyo Heist), and I rounded out the lineup. Author Diana Renn told me afterwards that the best part of the evening was having so many of the kids tell her, “You’re an author? I’m an author too!” These were fist-pumping moments for Karen and me.

As the winter progressed, students worked on creative pieces derived from our first workshop and the writing prompts. Most students wrote at least four or five pieces, while a few enthusiasts reported writing 20 or more!
Revision workshop in February
In February, I returned to the classroom to give a new revision workshop I developed specifically for this program. The workshop, “The Revision Show,” leads students through a fun, interactive set of worksheets and guided exercises focusing on eliminating confusion and fluff; using stronger, zippier verbs; maximizing word choice; and manipulating the flow of time. This was harder, more cerebral work, but Chenery’s fifth graders rose to the challenge. They turned around and started holding me accountable for following my own suggestions! Brilliant.
Author Tea: Karen & I present awards as parents watch.
Working with the students to develop their own stories encouraged kids to see themselves as strong writers and creative thinkers. Other the year, they got to see their own progression, from their initial pieces, replies to prompts, and efforts in the revision workshop, to honing their editing and self-publishing skills. In the spring, a combined Author’s Tea and end of year party commemorated their hard work over the year as students presented a complete portfolio of their pieces to parents and peers. It was a well-deserved celebration of the kids’ creative growth and animated interest in reading. 
Silliness hoping to inspire a student writers' club. 

We hoped they would start to see the vital role author communities play in developing a writer's craft. Few writers work in utter isolation. Critiquing others' work, and having one's own work critiqued, cultivates vital editing skills that help all writers move from ebullient creativity to polished work worth sharing. Plus, it's fun. I urge students everywhere to form writing clubs. It's wonderful to see them popping up in middle and high schools everywhere, led by inspired teachers and librarians. 
By integrating reading, creative writing, and online media, Chenery’s author-in-residence program created a unique overlap between a classical grounding in literature and storytelling and a primer of modern communication skills. The excitement of doing something groundbreaking showed everywhere throughout the year. I was honored to be part of it.

The project team and I will present at the National Council of Teachers of English 2013 Annual Convention this month (November) to discuss the program and how to adapt it for other schools and grade levels. Our presentation, “Book Blogging & Creative Writing in an AuthorCommunity: Integrating reading, writing, digital publishing, and social mediaskills in the fifth grade classroom,” will be Saturday, November 23rd, from 4:15 – 5:30 p.m..
            We hope to take what we learned in this ambitious pilot year and fine-tune it for future years. I would love to see more schools develop similar programs, and Karen and I would be happy to talk with any schools considering it about what we learned along the way.