When seven-year-old Kelsey Drake stepped to the microphone, she hesitated. Perhaps she felt nervous about presenting her writing before such a large audience. Then again, maybe it was just the mouthful of prize-winning devil’s food cake she was chewing. After a moment’s pause and a hard swallow, without regard for the goo smeared all over her face, or the chocolate finger prints across her otherwise fresh copy of Yeah Huh!, she calmly clutched the mic and in a sometimes stuttered, sing-songy voice, read her masterpiece:
One day I went hunting with my dad and my big brother and their friends in the woods. I got the biggest deer and it had very big antlers. The big boys cried. We took the deer home and Mom said, “The boys are big babies.” I said, “Maybe next time, babies.”
Though clearly a beginner, in that moment Kelsey received everything real writers want. True, her byline came in a book you can’t buy through Amazon. And her audience was merely a gym full of kids. It’s also unlikely Roald Dahl ever accepted payment in the form of a pecan kiss, a piece of German lebkuchen, or a slice from a cake shaped like a big yellow school bus. But the exhilaration for Kelsey is the same. At that moment, she’s a real writer.
Professionals write to express themselves to a wide audience, to make money, and for that oft-elusive byline. Kids, however, seldom have this opportunity. In fact, rarely do we give them any more motivation to write than to assign a topic and wave their report card at them. These days my students routinely publish their writing on the Web, but while doing so seemed really cutting-edge a decade ago, it now seems to be losing its appeal. The Web appears so vast that a fifth grader’s eloquently-crafted poem about donut holes can quickly disappear in the mud we call bandwidth.
All this has me thinking about simpler days when we used to print real books full of student-writing, books you could hold in your hand and re-read over and over again. I have a number of such books in my classroom. While it would be rare for a current student to go back through the archives of my school webpage to read student-writing from even a few years ago, they still pick up my copies of Fresh Corn, Yeah Huh!, and Mmm!, three lovely little anthologies from more than a decade ago.
I miss those days.
So, I dug out an article I published in Instructor on organizing a school-wide writers’ festival. It’s excerpted below. My hope is that it’ll germinate into getting such an event started at my current school. And, I challenge you to do the same at yours.
At my old school, every student who submitted material–generally about 70% of the k-5 population–became a published author. They also attended a dessert banquet where they scarfed down a smorgasbord of sweets concocted by staff members and parents. They received their contributor’s copy of the anthology, gathered the autographs of their fellow authors, and had the chance to read their work into an open mic. It was all designed to motivate students to hone their skills and reward them for their effort.
“It’s a good feeling,” said then-student Casey C. when recalling the festival. “It’s kind of cool to see your writing in a book.” She credited the event for her enthusiasm for writing. “Before the festival, I didn’t think I was much of a writer. Now I feel like I’m pretty good, so I really enjoy it.”
The anthology validates the kids’ work,” explained fourth grade teacher Matt D. “It makes it more meaningful. Consequently, they put more effort into it.”
Back in those days, the festival went beyond just encouraging young writers. It contributed to a favorable school climate, one that enriched learning in general. Perhaps that’s why those kids were so comfortable with a mic.
“I like reading into the microphone best,” noted one student. Her younger sister Olivia agreed. Unfortunately, she found herself at the end of the line and didn’t get the chance. “It would have been embarrassing,” said Olivia, “but I still wanted to do it.”
Still, are the benefits enough to justify all the work that goes into developing your own festival? Certainly. It promotes a school-wide focus on a subject that, due to its inherent difficulty, is sometimes neglected. The open mike also gives students practice with public speaking, and the anthology itself encourages reading. “I keep the old copies in my classroom,” said one teacher. “The kids like to go back and look for their friends.” Third grader Tim B. admitted to being too scared to read his work aloud. “But I read all the other kids’ when they were up there,” he said. “I was following along.”
If all that’s not enough to convince you to start your own festival, just have a chat with then-third grader Doug V. “When you’re focused on being graded,” said Doug, “you get all worried. But when you’re writing for fun, you do better. The Writers’ Festival makes it fun.”
Ready to give it a shot? Here are the steps we followed:
Promote it. Begin by visiting classrooms. Your personal sales pitch will generate immediate interest. Point out the joys of being published and the gastronomical pleasures of the dessert banquet. You could even share some food samples during your pitch! Also, be sure to send a flyer home with every student. It’s often the parents of a student who most encourage participation.
Give it an identity. Generate extra excitement by holding a school-wide contest to name the anthology. We looked for quirky, easy-to-remember titles that captured the personality and youthfulness of our students. Our first edition, based on a sign along the road near the school, was entitled Fresh Corn. Later additions bore names such as Pinky Toe. Each edition is also subtitled “An Anthology of Public School Writing.” Also hold a cover art contest. In addition to selecting a winner (to whom we awarded a $5 to $10 gift certificate) we also used the best of the rest to dress up the inside of the anthology. Be careful, though, about distracting students from their stories. Wait until after the deadline for written submissions has passed before opening your cover contest.
Enlist the cooperation of your staff. Encourage teachers to devote class time to generating entries. The writing their students do for the festival can double as an in-class assignment, or students can simply select their entry from a portfolio of material they’ve written during the school year. The latter approach promoted reflection and self-evaluation. It also resulted in a broader range of modes appearing in the anthology, though we found we got better material when we encouraged first-person narratives.
Print it. With modern computer technology, publishing a respectable anthology is relatively simple. Still, if you have to type one hundred or more manuscripts yourself, your book may never reach the printing press. Therefore, don’t accept hard copies. Consider using Google Docs or some other mechanism to have kids “drop” their manuscript to a pre-determined electronic location. This will allow you to focus your energies on formatting and editing rather than typing. Because our anthology was produced by a single individual, these requirements were essential. Also allow yourself some time to play with formatting. It’s accomplished with relative ease by adjusting margins and font headings, but in order to get the pages in just the right order and printing front to back, plan on doing some experimenting.
We always wanted our publication to look as much like a book as possible. After reviewing “real” literary anthologies, we decided to avoid spiral binding and instead used a half-sheet format. Standard 8 ½ x 11 inch sheets are turned horizontally and folded, then bound using a binding stapler. The result is a 5 ½ x 8 ½ inch book with black printing. For the cover we used good quality color stock with a grey tone art. If you have an excessive number of entries–more than seventy pages worth–produce two volumes. Be sure to allow plenty of time. Our first year, I had to turn my third grade class into an assembly line to collate, then stayed up nights folding and stapling by hand.
Print enough for every participant—and then print a few more. We put a $1 “suggested donation” price tag on ours. It lent an element of prestige to the book, and the twenty or thirty additional copies we sold in our office paid for some of the printing costs. The kids get excited when their moms come in to buy one for Grandma or to mail to an aunt.
Make the authors’ reception a big event. It’s the payoff for the kids: their name in print, an audience for their work, and a tangible–in our case, edible–reward. If all those sweets worry you, or if your school has a prohibition against homemade baked goods, we discovered that most kids favor watermelon over just about anything. A more formal, evening event with fruit punch or lemonade and lace is another worthy idea. Regardless, this is the time to “release” the anthology and give students a chance to be acknowledged as writers. “It felt good,” said third grader Megan S. when discussing her work in Mmm! “It was the first book I was ever in. But I was also nervous because everybody was reading my story.”
It will feel good for you as well. When the festival is all over, you’ll be as proud of your accomplishment as you are exhausted from your effort, but it’s the joy in the voices of the kids that will drive you to take on the challenges of this project year after year. One of my favorite festival memories took place as I wiped down tables after our first dessert banquet. Everyone had gone back to their classrooms except for one little primary student. It didn’t matter to her that I was the only one who’d hear her story. Perhaps she didn’t even realize it. She stepped up to the mic and belted it out as if reciting to a capacity crowd. It’s as I listened that I began making plans for the next year’s festival.
A Few More Tips:
Don’t hold your festival too early. Give teachers time to develop a writing program with their current students. Give students time to develop a portfolio from which to choose their entry. February is late enough in the year to have honed some writing skills, yet early enough to complete all the printing.
Include everyone. The purpose of your anthology should be to encourage writing and build confidence. Even the one sentence story from the first grader has value.
Establish a maximum length. We used to tell our students that their hand-written rough draft must be three pages or less. Less tends to be better, as elementary students tend to ramble.
Edit. Published writers have editors, so too should your student authors. Even your most advanced students will submit work needing further polishing, particularly because they’ll be more likely to attempt techniques beyond their developmental level. However, limit your editing to the basics.
Include an index or table of contents. Students get frustrated if they can’t quickly locate their friends’ stories, but creating this page can be a challenge. Wait until all the stories have been processed and the pages numbered, then go through and develop your contents page.
Recruit parents to help with purchasing and/or preparing the items you plan to serve at the reception. Check on your district’s food policy. Some schools prohibit homemade food from being served. Also arrange some help with clean-up.
Limit your mic time. While most of the stories your students will be reading will be short, suggest to your more advanced writers that they read only the first few paragraphs to “hook” the audience into continuing on their own.
Alert the media. Invite your local news people to attend your dessert banquet. Make sure they get copies of your anthology. Favorable publicity is always beneficial to your school and public education in general.
Allow your festival to develop its own personality. All that really matters is that your students have fun becoming “real writers.”
Finally, (here’s my sales pitch), use my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs to teach your kids foundation writing skills. It’s a complete daily and weekly writing program in a straight-forward, systematic format. Published by Scholastic, it’s available through Amazon, Scholastic, and Teacher Express. You can also pick up a free sample activity from TeachersPayTeachers.
Happy directing, er, emceeing.