Sunday, March 29, 2015

Twitter, Tumblr, and A Curious Tale of the In-Between

     A few months ago, I first saw the amazing cover art for Lauren DeStefano's upcoming novel, A Curious Tale of the In-Between.

Knowing my students would find it compelling, I laminated 25 copies and placed one on each desk with this message:  

     "The artwork for your new book jacket just came in!  Please submit your final draft so we can publish as quickly as possible."

     As expected, the resulting tales were wildly varied and vastly entertaining.  I believe that the students had as much fun with the writing as they did with the oral sharing.

     I did not expect what happened next.

     Prowling around on Twitter a few evenings later, I actually bumped into Lauren DeStefano herself, fielding compliments on A Curious Tale's fanciful artwork.  Emboldened by the success of my students' written responses, I sent her this tweet:

     As a lifelong book nerd, I have always regarded published authors with the level of reverence and awe most Americans reserve for Hollywood celebrities.  For Ms. DeStefano to respond to my tweet was exciting enough.  For her to make an such an offer was thrilling beyond belief!  

     You can imagine the hubbub in my eighth-grade class when I announced their opportunity for digital publication.  Everyone polished up his original draft that evening, and in class the next day, we had a round robin reading.  The students' desks were arranged in a circle, and papers were silently read and passed clockwise until each one made its way back to its author.  Upon my signal, students glued a foil star to their favorite story, and the six papers with the most stars awarded were sent to Ms. Stefano's Tumblr site:  "That sounded better in my head."

      True to her word, Lauren DeStefano posted their creations the next day, making six eighth-grade authors feel like the real deal.  In return, she won a whole new fanbase here in Austin, Texas, six of whom will undoubtedly buy her book!

     I've attached their work below if you would care to see the creative writing one amazing picture can inspire among your students!

Claire K
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
I don’t know my name.  I am 17.  And I am alone.
I have been alone for a long time, longer than I care to remember. When I try to bring together the pieces of memories of my past, they don’t make sense to me. They are like bent, damaged puzzle pieces; I know they are supposed to fit together, but it is impossible to make them do so.
I live in a dreamlike state. I live in a world inside my head, a world where the sky is dull and the lake is clear and flower petals float down from the single spindly tree. I live in a world where I am alone. I sit on the edge of the water, my feet tucked under me and my head tilted downward, gazing at my own reflection, and I think. Confusing memories flood my mind, thoughts and ideas that I don’t understand. I stay awake; I never sleep. I don’t eat, but I never starve. The only thing I do-the only thing I know how to do-is think.
I am sitting by the water, lost in my thoughts, when I notice a shape appear behind me. A boy. He looks at me, his stare penetrating my isolated world.
“Hey.” The word sounds strange to me.  Distant.
“You’re…in a mental hospital. Treatment. And I’m not sure if you’re even listening but you should know that I’m waiting for you to come back.”
With that sentence, my jumbled memories finally begin to mean something.
Each day, the boy continues to break his way into my world, and each day, my confusion lessens. On the ninth visit, I remember the boy’s name. On the tenth, I remember my own. And by the eleventh, I know that someday the boy will be able to pull me out of my little world and back into reality.

Ryan B
The Curious Tale of the In-Between
    Stephanie Baines has a special talent. Some girls are good at dancing. Other girls sing. Stephanie… she can see the dead. But not without a reflective surface. For instance, if Stephanie looked around, she would see nothing unordinary.  But if she looked in the reflection of the water in front of her, she could very clearly see the boy standing behind her, watching her. Of course, the dead never know she sees them. No one else can, so why would she? So when Stephanie said something to him, he was surprised. So surprised that he stopped dancing around and making faces at her!
    “Can you teach me how to dance like that?” she joked.
     His face turned bright red. “Why can you see me? How?” he asked her.
     She just smiled at him and giggled. “Next time, think again before you embarrass yourself like that. There are more of us than you think.” Stephanie was lying of course, but the boy didn’t know that.
     And so began the tale of Stephanie and the boy in the reflection. They became good friends, those two, and made many memories together. As time passed, Stephanie grew older, but John never aged.
     Over time, the unlikely friends grew further and further apart. Stephanie Baines left for college one day. She never saw the pond or the strange boy again.

Emily M
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
    Lucy Kale lives among the dead. The odd thing is, she is alive, but all of her friends are dead.   Her best friend, Tyler, drowned in a pond at the neighborhood park when they were only eight.  Most have forgotten Tyler, but Lucy hasn’t. To her, Tyler is very much alive. She sees him every time she goes to the park where he died, in the reflection of the pond. Tyler always asks her to come with him into the depths of the water. For years she has refused, but one day, Lucy finally jumped in.
    Something unexpected happened. She was surrounded by people, average people, like someone you’d see in a shop. Lucy looked around, curious of how this was possible. She was underwater, for goodness sake!
     Tyler watched her expression, then whispered into her ear, “We are the In-Between. We’re dead, but only according to the living. We feel we’re still alive, but not ready to leave just yet.”
     Lucy observed the people around her. They all appeared to be under the age of 15.
    “I don’t understand,” she said, scared.
    Tyler didn’t react with sympathy. Instead, he took her hand and led her down a dark, narrow path, saying, “You will one day.”

Elena A
Joe’s Pond
    As soon as the school bell rang, Margaret slammed her books shut and ran outside to her bicycle. She straddled it and rode away, just as her friends were discussing a game of cricket.
    Riding through the small Yorkshire town of Wetherby, Margaret passed St. John’s Church, the bakery, and Mrs. Meade’s flower shop. Every person that saw her clatter by on the red bike seemed to cluck their tongue sorrowfully as if to say, “Poor girl.”
    She rode until she reached Dolly’s Corner, an old, undeveloped field on the Morton farm. Margaret skittered to a stop, a mix of anxiety and anticipation overtaking her. She looked left and right, for this was her secret, and no one could know.
    Certain that no one was watching her, Margaret began to step carefully toward the pond, curling her fists nervously. A cool breeze rustled the cattails as Margaret looked down at her reflection, mesmerized. Sure enough, there he was. Her brother Joe. Killed in action at the Battle of the Somme.
    “Hello, Joe,” she breathed.
    “Hi, sis.” His voice seemed to come to her on the wind. She whirled around, hoping against hope that he would really be standing behind her. He wasn’t.
    Looking back into the pond, Joe was gone.

Amanda T
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
    Lucy is different. Of course she doesn’t think she is, but everyone else does. Countless therapist appointments and trips to the doctor didn’t really do anything for her. She never told anyone about the boy.
     The boy is everywhere she goes, the boy who never ages, the boy who has watched her grow up. She never told the countless therapists, doctors, or even her parents. She was too smart for that. He never really talked or did anything to conceal himself in reflections;  he just stared. Lucy just stared back.
     She came up with theories of what he could be, maybe a ghost, or one of those people from Tuck Everlasting who never aged. She always saw him as a comfort, but of course, no one else could see him.  
     Finally, Lucy couldn’t take it anymore and asked him the question she’d been wanting to ask for a very long time. “Who are you?”
Just as she expected, he only stared, but she could’ve sworn she saw something in his eyes. Amusement? Anger?
     She brushed him off and just sat at the edge of the pond staring. Just as she had done for ten years. She stuck in her toes, but was pulled under by none other than mysterious boy. He hugged her, and when she came back up, she was shocked. Never in her life had someone actually showed he cared. She never saw the boy after that day. She was happy and reached out to her parents.
     All grown up, the girl returned and just as she had done for many years she looked in the pond. The boy was there. She smiled, he winked, and she left without a word.

Samantha K
A Curious Tale of the In-Between
    “Get away!” she screamed. The girl was running towards the pond. She had mud all over her clothes. Her arms and legs were caked with blood. She had to get out of this awful place, this nightmare. The girl tripped, but continued to drag herself closer to the pond, digging her nails into the moist dirt.
    Something pierced her skin. “Please, let me go,” she whimpered. She was only a couple of feet away from the pond. Something kept scratching her leg, tearing her flesh. The girl didn’t dare look behind her. She was focusing on the pond. Rolling with the last of her strength, she splashed into the shallow water.
    The girl pushed her head under water then came back up to the surface. She was home. A small cottage was right in front of her, and her friend that only she could see stood right next to the pond.
    “I can’t believe you used to live there,” said the girl.
    The boy smiled, “Now I live here, but you know the plan. I’ll be gone soon.”
    “Jane! Come inside for dinner!”
    “Mom is calling me. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She raced out of the pond. Her clothes were ruined, but there was no sign of blood, and the pain had left her.
     The next day, Jane put her plan into action. “Hey, Thomas. Ready?” With a nod of his head, her friend had disappeared. The pond started shining. There was a flash. Jane jumped in the water and lifted her head. Her little cottage was there, and her friend was there, too. They were both in the pond now, stuck there forever.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

An LA Teacher's Dream Come True

     Yesterday was the day students were assigned to enter the room with rough drafts in hand, ready to begin the peer-editing process.  Class started with the usual bustling around, exchanging papers, and procuring the all-important color pens required for the task.  Eventually, everyone settled in to reading each other's text . . . and something wonderful happened.

     Utter silence fell over the room as the students became absorbed by their work.  After a while, conversations flared up:  Partners began asking questions, offering suggestions, collaborating toward the goal of refining each other's work.  Students asked me questions, too -- good ones.  Questions that went waaaay past mechanics and into the realm of style and tone.

     A lot of the students weren't satisfied with just one editor.  Of their own accord, many sought out what I call "another set of eyeballs to roll across the page."

     Did I mention that yesterday was a Friday?  Yet such was the atmosphere of every class in Room 213E, straight through to the final bell of the day.  I didn't feel like a middle school Language Arts teacher:  I felt like a paid professional consultant at a writers' workshop.  (If only I'd had a video camera.)  I can't wait to read what they've written!

    Wonderful though yesterday was, I knew that it would come.  It happens every year -- eventually.   Each year, one of the hardest things for students (and their parents) to accept is that learning to write well is a long and difficult process.  It's probably even more difficult for Americans, given our "quick fix" mindset.  Lots of kids want to give up along the way, particularly if everything else in life comes easily to them.  All a teacher can do is plug away at allaying their fears, offering advice and encouragement, and promising them that, eventually, the pieces will fall into place.

     Yesterday just may have been that day.