Friday, August 28, 2009

Sunset Middle School: Finding a voice

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I once gave a talk to a class of first-graders about how books are written. When I was asked to do it, my first thought was: Really? First-graders? Because, do they even understand the concept that books have to be written?

But with the children gathered around me, as I began to explain the procedure in elementary terms, a hand shot up, and a boy of six, who was about three-and-a-half feet tall, asked what GENRE I wrote in. I was stunned that he even knew that word, and I must have looked baffled, because he added, helpfully, “Do you write fiction or nonfiction?”

I learned then to never underestimate inquisitive minds, regardless of their age.

On the flip side, I once spoke to a group of 10th grade honor students who stared blankly at me throughout my talk, indicating obvious boredom with yet another old person droning on about whatever; they did not ask a single question.

So it can go either way. You never know how a given group of students will respond.

Hearing of my book tour through this page, and noting that it included a stop in Nashville, a classmate of mine from Murrah High School, in Jackson, Miss., Jennifer Schuil (known back then as J.J. Gilbert), asked if I could talk to an 8th grade class in a suburb outside the city. I said sure, though, to be honest, my gut instinct was that 8th-graders would probably not be interested in anything I had to say.

On Thursday morning I headed out from the Hampton Inn through Brentwood, passing mile after mile of ridiculously overbuilt McMansions interspersed with scenic horse farms, to the Sunset Middle School, where J.J. teaches. Not surprisingly, considering the demographic, it was a very nice school. In fact, as the teacher of the class, Clay Mayes, told me, “This is education heaven.” Money is not a limiting factor, the parents are typically very interested in their children’s education, and as a result, the quality of that education is exceptional.

Still: Eighth graders. I remember being 14. While I enjoyed reading, I was more interested in less cerebral aspects of life. Hormones were flowing.

Mr. Mayes started the class off with a spirited discussion of the day’s vocabulary words, the only one of which I remember is “venturesome.” The students responded well. Mr. Mayes had warned me beforehand that some of the boys were more interested in hunting and fishing or athletics, and might tune me out, but everyone seemed engaged.

The students of the class, which focuses on language skills, had been doing exercises the day before whereby groups collaborated to write a short story. The diagram was on the board: Set the scene; devise your characters; outline the plot. I pointed out that these were the same fundamentals of writing or telling any story, and explained how I had used them in writing Sultana.

The questions started almost right away. They mostly came from girls, but the boys were attentive to both the questions and my answers. Most of all they wanted to know where I get my ideas for stories, and then, how I begin the process of writing them down in story form. Do I start with the prologue or a specific scene? Their questions concerned both the mechanics and the sources of inspiration of writing, so it was clear that they were thinking in terms of how to go about writing their own stories. What really struck me was that they were not at all self-conscious about wanting to write. That, and that they clearly loved books.

After I had fielded their questions for a while, I said I had a question for them: Did it matter whether they were reading an actual book, or one in electronic form, on an e-reader? They responded that they were happy to read books electronically, and to listen to them on their ipods, but that, as a general thing, they really liked holding a book and turning the pages. One student – born in 1995, mind you – expressed a feeling of “nostalgia” for printed books. This was something of a revelation.

A class of 7th graders also sat in on the discussion, but being interlopers, they remained mum. Another, older student manned a video camera to record the discussion for showings to other classes, and after it was over, J.J. said her own class, in something called life studies, had heard about my visit and also had questions. So I stayed over for part of the next period (or block, in the nomenclature of the school), and gave a compressed version of my previous talk. Again, there were several girls who were quite serious about writing books, and they asked good questions.

It was evident that hormones weren’t the only thing flowing at Sunset Middle School. Creativity was surging, too. One girl, who said she keeps a very detailed daily journal both to reflect and to record writing material, professed to have a penchant for poetry, but said that what she really wants is to write a novel. “I want to be the famous 16-year-old novelist,” she said, unabashedly. J.J. had asked the girl to escort me to the school's front door after my talk, and along the way she told me that she communicates with certain writers she has found online about writing, and asked for my email address for the same purpose.

As we walked the halls I returned to my earlier question about e-books versus hard copies, and she said, “Readers are fine, but I like books. I trust books more than I trust the internet.”

The message was clear: A book is more than a long data file; each one represents a self-contained treasure, and she wanted to create one of her own.

Hearing that, and seeing the young students of Sunset Middle School embarking upon a focused, well-guided search for their own voice, turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of the Sultana tour.

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