Writing and publishing 100 Books in 5 weeks. How did they do that?

When students sign up for a computer class, I tell them it’s a trick — they really signed up for a communications class that happen to have computers.

Inside pages of ‘Ciphers’ published in December 2021. More here.

In the last week of Fall semester my seventh grade students wrote and produced more than a hundred eBooks. A week before finals, many of them were burning the midnight oil proofing their chapters and fixing the ‘widows’ and orphans’ rather than cramming. They uploaded their final product as a PDF to Flipsnack, hit the ‘publish’ button and saw what five weeks of their creative writing project looked like.

Let me throw in some context about this assignment. Each semester my students take on a capstone project for which they have to prove that they understand document formatting. And by that I mean layout, design, fonts, margins, line spacing and all those nitty gritty features found on the ribbon of the most common applications they use — Google docs, Microsoft Word, Google Slides and PowerPoint.

I give them a few guidelines, and a 24-page template for the eBook created in Google Slides. Yes, Google Slides! An odd choice indeed for page layout. Having experimented with Microsoft Word and Google Docs several semesters ago, I discovered that PowerPoint or Slides are more flexible when it comes to formatting. Text boxes, drop-caps and margin control for instance work well.

There is considerable writing to be done, but the goal is to combine creative skills and mechanical tasks: To let students become storytellers, while making the text appeal to the eye. All this while doing the heavy lifting of research, copy editing, and design. They are shown how to design their book’s front and back cover in Canva, and import the PNG files. As for that back cover, I get them to create their own logo, insert a real barcode, and solicit two or more book reviews from their peers — reviews they place on the back cover. They must also write a blurb for the book (something a publisher or PR firm would do) and a short bio of themselves. The back-cover itself is one week’s worth of work! Authors may only use royalty-free images from sites that are in the Creative Commons. That means no Google Images.

They came up with their own book titles. And they were free to choose any genre, any subject. Many opted for fiction, but you’ll be surprised at the variety of non-fiction this year. I’ll get to the titles in a bit.

I’m sure you’re thinking — this is asking a lot of a 7th grader! And for anyone wondering why publish an eBook in a computer class, let me put it this way. Yes, my students are required to learn touch-typing and improve their speed and accuracy. We do this each week. But toward the end of the semester I tell them (half in jest) that they were tricked into believing they signed up for a computer class — when in fact they walked into a Communications class that happened to have computers. Not the other way around. The rationale, I tell them, is that the only purpose of ‘learning’ computers is to help them communicate better. Whether it is learning to code, making stunning presentations, designing a book cover, manipulating images in Photoshop, designing a website, or writing term papers or professional reports, the goal is always communication. The only reason you produce work for an audience — your teacher, a customer, an organization — is to communicate an idea. An eBook pulls together several of these core skills.

At the outset, when I tell students the book involves five chapters I hear a few groans. But very soon, I begin to see their story growing, the sentences inch-worming across a paragraph. The question I am always asked is if it’s OK to add a chapter or an extra page or two. Funny how they want that bar raised!

Apart from the usual Zombie InvasionHorror, and a few about dragons and cute animals, I noticed an explosion in creativity this year. (Something I wrote about in an article on Medium, titled, Start a Little Library, Side Effects Will Vary.”) I put it down to COVID, unleashing a fresh batch of creative juices. Consider these, handpicked to give you a sense of the diversity.

  • One book is set in an Escape Room with some creative plot twists.
  • Another trippy alien mystery, The Last Drop is scary. (it’s not about blood)
  • Like something intriguing? There’s a book titled, Ciphers with a techy, creative bent.
  • One on Beautiful Artwork is a truly aesthetic layout.
  • Interstellar is about space, but is not about that movie. It deals with the thermosphere and Braneworld Theory. (I had to look that term up!)
  • I was surprised to see a story on the ‘Witch Trials’ — with surprise angle. The author recounts the story of one of her ancestors caught up in the trials in Salem! How often do you get historical fiction with a personal angle to it?
  • A delightful book set in London is based on the urban legend of one ‘Spring-heeled Jack.

As I have found out with each class, a writing project like this has surprise endings. Many students who never considered writing tell me they have become passionate about it.

Check out the podcast about this story, below.

Storytellers with face coverings

Tony Arkani, a sprightly junior has the gift of biting repartee that cuts through a slab of high school cynicism. Tony, by the way, isn’t his real name. (I mistakenly called him that on the first day of class; he didn’t mind.) His other essential ingredient is a self-deprecating humor which comes handy when he weighs in on issues where he expects push-back: racism, face masks, privacy. Each morning Tony sits propped up against my classroom wall waiting for me to open the door. It’s barely 6:30 am. He’s on a roll. His gangly feet protrude into the hallway, but its his acerbic comments lobbed at barely woken-up teenagers that stop them in their tracks. A few set down their overstuffed backpacks to join the conversation.

Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

This linguistic flamethrower is just one of the students who signed up for my elective class on Writing and Publishing this year. Other high schools have classes in Tech Writing, or Fiction. The broad scope of W&P resonated with students like Tony, and his classmate in whose veins run bits of Chaucer and Comedy Central, and even New Girl. The work of Atul Gawande, an endocrine surgeon-writer, and Kacey Musgraves, songwriter, resonate with them.

I once told this class I wish I had had such imaginative minds to work with back in the day when I worked in advertising, hunting for creativity. Fast forward thirty years, these are born story-tellers who take to plot and story arcs as effortlessly as they deconstruct memes and imbibe TikToks. It gives me a reason to wake up each morning, knowing there’ll be a fresh batch of creativity to be put in the blender.

To put a time stamp on this, it was a class that began in the middle of COVID when school superintendents were trying to balance students’ well being and academic achievement. Would a return to in-person school trigger a longer shut down? No one has the perfect recipe. But one thing I do know is that these storytellers with face coverings soon proved to us that our kids, despite six feet of separation and rigorous sanitization, were bursting with energy — something I wrote about earlier.

Given this kind of raw material we just might we see a new batch of thought leaders, creative policymakers, poets, screenwriters, scientists, and entrepreneurs. From my perspective at least, they have already shown their hand. One student has a podcast and a YouTube channel. Another, who works part-time at Taco Bell, is working on a George Lucas-ish manuscript — a series of 15 books, with prequels. Seriously! Tony also has a one in the works, too, involving ‘islands’ populated by ‘Orixens,’ ‘Fades,’ and creatures called ‘Voidwalkers.’ They remind me of characters in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. A year ago during the height of school lockdowns he pitched the idea of starting a mythical country he calls New Arkansas. He’s now recruiting ‘citizens’, has written up an elaborate constitution, designed a court of arms, and for an assignment in this class, created a podcast about it. Here, take a listen:

As they wrapped up their final assignment, I heard Tony mumble, “I wish I could retake this elective next year!” To which I responded, “You’d be bored.” I lied. These students who spar with him in the hallways seem to have exorcized the boredom gene that drops in on teenagers.

We shouldn’t let these storytellers out without tapping into these inner dynamos. If we fail them, we risk sacrificing them as underpaid drones in some Amazon-like warehouse. We desperately need the next C.S. Lewis, Erik Larson, and George Orwell.

This story appeared on Medium.com

There’s been massive outbreak of writing.

Will someone please inform the authorities?

There’s been an outbreak of writing in school. I suspect it’s contagious. Even those language deniers are catching it. They’re huddled in the student union during lunch break breathing in the same particles of plot and narrative. The writers’ disease, also known as storytelling, is spreading.

I’m talking about student writing that I alluded to a few week back. Fiction. Non-fiction. How-To books. The titles blow my mind. From the typical teen horror, to some on technology. There’s one on Dissociative Identity Disorder (If you hadn’t heard of it, it’s mind opening!), one about Photoshop, many on romance, a few on travel and family, and one written entirely in French!

I expanded on this in my Medium post, here.

When a green screen pops up in class

Sometimes a lesson plan needs to be revised on the fly. This happened today when one of my students brought in a green screen, so they could do trial runs of their TV news scripts in a Writing & Publishing class. I had planned to use a camera on a tripod and have them simulate a studio setting. I happen to have a 60-inch screen on the opposite wall, so with a bit of tweaking, it could be made to look like a backdrop of a scene for a ‘reporter’ to deliver his/her lines.

And then this happened.

Computer lab at Benjamin Franklin High School

As quickly as it was set up, we dismantled it. But I think it gave students a real world context of what they are actually working on – a story, that is not just an academic exercise but with an audience in mind.

I have to say this is a learning experience for me. [What’s that saying, “He who teaches, learns twice?”] I grew up using what we called a ‘blue screen’ as a chroma-key technique. I practiced this during a training stint in Coventry. My fellow student and I sent up this huge camera that weighed about as much as a microwave, at Coventry cathedral – the bombed out remains from the 1940 German air raids. We then took the ‘film’ to the studio and produced a news show. Now, some 33 years later all it takes is a pop-up screen, and a $300 camera slightly larger than a computer mouse.

This week I’m teaching myself to edit the footage on DaVinci Resolve. It’s not part of the lesson plan, for sure! But who knows. These things are not writ in stone. My elective class that I teach at 6:30 am each week day could evolve. I tell my students this is what a computer and tech lab should be – a place to experiment, to take things apart, and be ready for new ideas that pop-up. It’s one year since COVID made us discover new ways of teaching. It’s a lot of work, but it’s invigorating! Notice how everyone’s wearing a mask. No one’s complaining.

A flurry of writing in schools?

Is the pandemic a catalyst for creativity?

I’ve been teaching writing for the past three years as one component in my Computer class. I teach technical skills –formatting documents, and creating presentations — while always introducing current, big-picture issues in information and communication technologies, or ICT, and social media. You know, privacy, trolls, AI, disinformation…

BUT 202O DELIVERED A SURPRISE PACKAGE, besides a micro-organism that derailed us: An explosion of student writing. Fiction, mainly. The capstone project for the past three years has been an eBook my 7th graders research, write and produce. I noticed a sudden interest in fiction writing by last December, so I invited this semester’s students to consider a Writer’s Club. This week, the club is beginning to take shape. It’s fitting: Benjamin Franklin was a prolific writer, after all!

In parallel with this, in my other class on Writing and Publishing class for high school students, writing seems to come naturally. Which is why they take this elective, after all. But what surprises me is how much of writing they have already begun. Two students are already working on a book. Reading their assignments makes me wonder where these young authors have been hiding all these years. Has COVID been a catalyst for creativity? Somewhere, in some research department, there’s probably a study going on about how lock-downs and screen-time have driven young people to books again; how young adults are discussing issues not covered by memes and Tik-Tok.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, I INVITED JESSICA MCCANN, a Phoenix based author and freelance writer to talk to my class on Monday. Jessica writes historical fiction, and her story of how she researches her character, and crafts her story is inspiring. Her examples are what we writers could identify with such as taking on the mundane work (writing about topics such as ‘garbage’), editing work for a different kind of ‘reader’ (corporate documents), and a brush with law literature. The latter is what serendipitously led to her digging into a court case involving slavery in the late nineteenth century, which led her to a character who figures in one of her books.

Speaking of craft, Jessica talked about the need for a writer to capture and convey the sensory experiences of a scene or a character, whether it is interviewing a celebrity or an anonymous figure in history. [Her books areA Peculiar Savage Beauty” set in the 1030s Dust Bowl, and “A different Kind of Free” set in the pre-Civil War era. Having always leaned toward Sci-Fi, I’ve never read much in the historical fiction genre. I’m sold now!

My students this week are working on a blog post. In a few weeks they will create and produce a podcast, and then a newspaper. Elsewhere, and anecdotally I hear that interest in journalism is on the rise. Does that mean a return to long-form journalism, and greater value placed on writers across all genres? I hope so.

Evidence that student writing (about chapatis and chickens) isn’t going obsolete

One of my passions is to help students become better writers. Many teachers will tell you that students are not writing enough. Anecdotally we know that information consumption (coupled with information overload) compounds the problem. Research supports this. Forty percent of college students who took the ACT writing test, lacked college ready skills.

As a computer and tech teacher, I am pleasantly surprised when students ask for scratch paper before they login. It’s not ‘old school’ to jot down ideas; to organize information before it gets into a brochure or PowerPoint. One of my lessons for 5th grade at the end of the school year involves teaching them how to write a radio script, and record it! A script, of course, isn’t like an essay. It gives a student an opportunity to adopt tone of voice that comes naturally. To speak from the heart. To talk about odd, personal, funny things that connect with the listener. Like a letter, I suppose. “Who writes those?” You ask! You’d be surprised how many Thank You letters are queued up to print next week. That’s my evidence, and I’m sticking to it! 

On that note, here’s some inspiring  student writing. One of the college application essays featured in the New York Times last week. Eric Muthondu, who’s entering Harvard, talks about his Kenyan grandmother.

“When I return, the chapatis are neatly stacked on one another, golden-brown disks of sweet bread that are the completion of every Kenyan meal.”

Or this piece of writing by Jeffrey C. Yu, a second generation Chinese American.

“Not all sons of doctors raise baby ducks and chickens in their kitchen. But I do. My dad taught me.”

These essays are worth a read, if only to recognize that good student writing exists –in certain places one has to dig to find. Here’s another place: Write The World. A global community for student writers I have been in touch with, and have covered in a previous post. By some coincidence, this month, Write The World has a Food Writing contest for students. First prize for a 6,000-10,000-word essay is $100.

More chapatis and chicken, please!

 

Summer boot camp: SLRs, Robots, and a Solar Oven

Last week, students at the summer boot camp I conducted here at Li’l Sprouts Montessori got to work with different technologies. From building robots and circuits, to using cameras and a solar oven. They also used one of the oldest ‘technologies’ that tend to be overlooked – pencil and paper.

But besides motors, and learning the software (to program the robot below) students also learned about engineering design, using toothpicks to build a bridge and a tower.

They did a fair amount of writing, maintaining their journals each day. They worked on essay writing, a news story, and poetry.

On the final day I introduced them to the solar oven, and Tanu helped them bake cookies. One batch got done in just over 30 minutes!

Summer camp with Photography, Writing and Robotics

So next week I teach a summer camp for students involving three ‘ingredients’ – photography, creative writing and robotics.

The goal is to get students to connect visual and language arts, with technology. They will also tinker with robots, and understand how to design and program them.

This is one of the simplest bots (the NXT model) we use for the FIRST Lego League competitions. It has four different sensors, and can be modified with several wheel sizes. Students will learn to program them using Mindstorms software.

Robots don’t always have to look like this, They could be made from everyday objects found around the house. For instance, students will also experiment with ‘brush bots’ – tiny devices made from the heads of toothbrushes, of all things!

 

As for photography, there’s plenty of material to photograph right here in our back yard!

 

Why good writing matters. Even in the PowerPoint obsessed business world

The reason we teach writing is to get students to illuminate their ideas. The craft of writing is indeed on the decline, a topic I have dealt with in many posts before.

So I was heartened when I came across how Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon insists that his staff write memos with a ‘narrative structure.’ (See Fortune magazine article on this.) The reason? He requires someone to communicate clear thinking. Unfortunately, we let bullet points take the place of rationales, criticism, and memos. Or even advertisements.

I see an ad for a charter school that’s the biggest mish-mash of bullet points and headlines I’ve ever seen. It comes up as a slide in a cinema I visit. Every ‘important’ point has been thrown in for the audience to consume in about 4 seconds.

I do hope they teach writing, though. The Elements of (Jeff Bezos) style, at least.