Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Reaching Readers: What Does An Author In Residence Program Look Like?

My daughter likes to pet dogs. All dogs. Big, little. Fluffy, coarse. Known, unknown. Despite my repeated warnings that she needed to ask owners if their pet was friendly before sticking her hand out, it wasn’t until she heard the exact same message from a legitimate dog trainer that she actually (phew!) paid attention.

 That’s the same thought process behind the Author In Residence program I’ve been doing this year with my town’s middle school. Hopefully I’m able to pass along my “expert”, in the trenches, experiences to the (very talented!) students and have it resonate in a different way from a teacher-led lesson. 

Here’s how the program (funded by the PTO and a small education grant the school has access to and coordinated between the school’s librarian, a lead English teacher, and myself) works:

 The focus, in alignment with Common Core curriculums, is “combining technology with writing”, so my job is to show these students all the tools writers have at our access when plotting and writing our stories. I want them to know that even professional authors get intimidated by a blank page and show them some of the tools we use to get inside our character’s head or inside the world of our stories so we can face that blank page with confidence.

 Our first project this fall was writing and posting fan fiction based on their summer reading books. I love fan fiction for beginning writers because two of the three main story elements (character and setting) are already there, crafted by the original author. That just leaves plot. My budding authors posted their (touching, hilarious, inventive) stories on Storybird in a private classroom where their peers could practice using the compliment sandwich to critique one another (another valuable tool for writers at all levels).

Next up, we returned to those other two story elements: character and setting. I showed them a whole collection of Pinterest boards generous authors shared with me to illustrate one way authors get to know their characters before drafting. The kids had so much fun assembling their own Pinterest boards (although we used a “look-alike” program called EduClipper, since Pinterest is rated for ages thirteen and up and some of my students are still twelve) to show what their character would wear, what hobbies he or she has, or what he or she looked like physically. Others chose to focus their board on their story’s setting.

Our last project of the year is going back to plot. We’ll take those characters and settings from the last assignment and use Save The Cat beat sheets to come up with our own outlines for a full-length manuscript. While actually writing the book is not part of this program, I’ve already heard from a few students that they plan to attempt it over the summer!

My main goal was to demystify the writing process a bit and show them how something as intimidating as writing a book could be broken down into steps. But seeing the creativity in our first projects and knowing this has inspired even a few to give novel writing a try, is so rewarding. Going into this, I was confident I had something to share with these kids, but I never expected how much I would learn from them… or how much I’d love every minute of it!

 Now if I could just get my daughter to listen to me, all would be well.

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