Tag Archives: classroom visit

Reading Isn’t Dead — And Middle Schoolers are AWESOME!

I did my first classroom visit this week. It was a seventh grade English Literature class that my daughter attends. And if I had one word to describe it, I’d say “Surprising!” Those kids just blew me away with their enthusiasm and creativity.

shutterstock_142487863I started out by asking the kids what their favorite video games were. I had a smattering of hands go up and kids throwing out names of games I’d never heard of (I thought I was somewhat up on such things, but apparently not.) Then I asked what their favorite movies were. A few more hands went up. Hunger Games, Iron Man, Beautiful Creatures and more. At least I’d heard of these. Finally, I asked about favorite books.

I went into this exercise thinking I’d do some kind of “Books can be every bit as exciting as the video games and movies you threw out.” You know, some kind of argument for why the kids should consider reading as something worthwhile. Boy was I in for a surprise. When I asked for their favorite books, the hands just flew up, and the room erupted in a chorus of noise. Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Divergent… I had a hard time picking out the names because they were coming at me so fast.

After a minute or so, the teacher finally quieted the students down and I told them I was shocked at how enthusiastic they were about reading. One boy raised his hand (it took me a while to get used to the idea of kids asking permission to speak,) and he said “It’s because we’re all nerds.” It was true that this was an advanced English class, so I guess I can’t extrapolate what I learned here across all middle-school students, but I loved, I mean LOVED to see these twenty to thirty kids so excited about books.

I then talked about how I write. Starting with how I get ideas, how I outline (or don’t outline,) the actual writing, editing, and publishing. The most fun, I had was when we talked about coming up with ideas for stories. I started out by saying that there really is nothing new under the sun. So if they start a new story thinking they will write something that has never been written before, then they will only end up frustrated. I talked about how most of my ideas are basically twists on other stories. Noah Zarc is a future, time-travel twist on the story of Noah’s Ark. A new book I’m writing is a twist on the story of Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors. So I asked them to think of various old stories that maybe we could put a new spin on.

Again, ideas started flying left and right. Some were way out there, but all of them were awesome. It shouldn’t be surprising, after my two examples, that we settled on creating a story based on David and Goliath. Then we talked about how to make that story our own. How could we make the characters different? Some suggestions included lasers coming out of Goliath’s eyes. There were ideas about Goliath being a bully in school. On and on they went. At last we settled on Goliath being a small kid, and David being a giant (I had said how it can be fun to reverse roles.) And the setting was a school in space.

So for a while (not too long, I was running out of time) I asked them to think about what kind of story could happen with just these basic elements. The kids said it’d still be cool to have the small Goliath be the bully, and the giant be afraid of him (again lasers from the eyes was a good way to make that happen.) There wasn’t a kid in the room who didn’t throw out some kind of idea to flesh out the story.

I just stood there grinning, watching these kids debate and flesh out the story. I think the teacher felt like maybe they were getting out of hand, but I absolutely loved it. It gave me a renewed sense of why I write for kids. They are so free and willing to explore fantastical characters and worlds. But I also loved seeing their hearts, especially when they talked about making Goliath a bully. I could totally see a story like this being a whole lot of fun, but also able to address important topics.

If you’re an author who hasn’t had the privilege of doing a classroom visit, I totally recommend it. If you’re a kid who loves reading, THANK YOU! And, if you’re a kid who loves writing, keep at it! I’d love to hear what kind of crazy, funny, meaningful things you have to say.

DRobertPease500x500D. Robert Pease has been interested in creating worlds since childhood. From building in the sandbox behind his house, to drawing fantastical worlds with paper and pencil, there has hardly been a time he hasn’t been off on some adventure in his mind, to the dismay of parents and teachers alike. Also, since the moment he could read, books have consumed vast swaths of his life. From The Mouse and the Motorcycle, to The Lord of the Rings, worlds just beyond reality have called to him like Homer’s Sirens. It’s not surprising then he chose to write stories of his own. Each filled with worlds just beyond reach, but close enough we can all catch a glimpse of ourselves in the characters.

D. Robert has published three books in the Noah Zarc Trilogy: Noah Zarc: Mammoth Trouble, Noah Zarc: Cataclysm, and Noah Zarc: Declaration, as well as the complete Omnibus Edition of Noah Zarc with all three books in one volume along with twenty-two pencil illustrations from the author.

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Brainstorming With Fifth Graders

By BBH McChiller (Lynn Kelley and Kathryn Sant)

Visiting a class of fifth-graders and brainstorming with them is awe-inspiring and gives writers for tweens cool insight into the kids’ world, how they think, and what they like. We discovered a wonderful way to engage them during an author visit, so maybe this will give you some ideas, too.

For several years now, Bob Schumacher and Jeff Lindeman, fifth-grade teachers at Cooley Ranch Elementary School in Colton, California, have invited us to visit their classes on Dr. Seuss Day. Mr. Schumacher would usually have us read the final chapters of Curse at Zala Manor, Book 1 in the Monster Moon Mystery series. From there, we’d talk about writing, the importance of revising, and field questions, but this year we tried something quite different.

Mr. Schumacher reading final chapters of Curse at Zala Manor to his 5th grade class.
Mr. Schumacher reading final chapters of Curse at Zala Manor to his 5th grade class.

We asked Mr. Schumacher to read the final chapters. The students were familiar with our ongoing characters, so we decided to try brainstorming with them for our next Monster Moon book.

BBH McChiller, Monster Moon Mystery series

First, we drew a simple graph of rising squiggly lines on the board and explained, “Here’s the beginning of a story. All of these hills represent an obstacle the main character has to deal with in order to reach his/her goal. The rising action becomes more and more intense with each obstacle, until finally you reach the end of the story, the climax, the battle.”

Next, we explained that we were going to read the beginning chapters of our work-in-progress, Legend of Monster Island, Book 3 in the series, and we wanted the kids to brainstorm and tell us what obstacles they’d like to see the main characters face.

We read the first couple chapters, which begin with 12-year-old AJ Zantony brushing his teeth in the guest bathroom at his Aunt Zsofia’s creepy mansion, Zala Manor. A strange octopus-like tentacle slithered out of the toilet and wrapped around his leg. He managed to escape its grip and watched it slip back down into the commode.

Soon after, his 11-year-old cousin Jaz screamed from the other bathroom. AJ found her in a puddle next to the toilet with a tentacle attacking her, too. After fighting it off, they tried to get some sleep, since Jaz had a big swim meet to compete in the next day.

The class seemed to listen closely, knowing we wanted to hear their input and might possibly write some of their ideas into the novel. When we finished reading the chapters, we asked the students to share some of their ideas. “What would you like to see happen in the story?”

More than a dozen hands shot up, and we were taken aback by the kids’ eager responses. Some of them were so enthusiastic, they could barely stay seated, waving their hands to be called on next.

BBH McChiller, Legend of Monster Island
Screen shot from videoclip of 5th graders sharing their brainstorming ideas.

As students shared their thoughts, sometimes they’d spark an idea in some of the other kids. Their eyes lit up as they let out an, “Oh-oh” and raised their hands.

Here are some of the comments:

  • Boy:  “At the swim meet, the kraken comes back to take Jaz away.”
  • Another student: “Dang!” (Mad because the other boy thought of his idea.)
  • Girl:  “When the kraken comes through the pipes in the swimming pool at the swim meet and gets Jaz, AJ and Emily have to get a boat and go to the island to look for her.”
  • Boy:  “They find the dead body of Vlad. The kraken got him.”

Kids exploded with protests, shouting at the boy. Whoa! He slunk down in his seat and covered his face, clearly sorry he had shared that idea.

The class was in such an uproar at the suggestion of killing off Vlad, the 300-year-old pirate rat (a favorite in the series), that Mr. Schumacher had to stop their protests.

“Great idea,” we told the class. “It’s good to make the reader think something bad happened to a character the reader cares about. They think Vlad’s been killed, but he really hasn’t.” A few minutes later the same boy raised his hand again with another idea.

It was a good way for the kids to learn that when brainstorming, we should be free to come up with anything and everything. Nothing is off limits. Even if one idea doesn’t fly, it can lead to more ideas, some that turn out to be a brilliant twist to our stories. So it was important for that boy and the class to know that his idea was just as good as anyone’s.

We found it interesting the way the students would springboard ideas off of each other’s comments, just like we do when we’re brainstorming Monster Moon plot lines.

Some of the ideas were wild and crazy, and we loved hearing them:

  • Boy: “Jaz gets taken in the toilet, but she lets out a scream, so AJ comes in and then he gets sucked in, too.
  • Kathy: “Oh, no! How will they get out of the toilet?”
  • Boy: “There’s another set of mazes because they’re in the sewer.”

Some of the kids wanted the villains from Curse at Zala Manor to come back in the new book. Many students wanted more scenes in the underground tunnels and secret passages from Curse at Zala Manor. The students’ suggestions confirmed that elements like catacombs and hidden passages appeal to many of us, playing upon our universal curiosity to find out what’s behind the closed door.

Here’s one of my favorite ideas shared by one of the boys:

  • Boy: “While Aunt Z is driving AJ and Jaz to the swim meet, all the krakens circle around them and take the pink hearse.”

By the end of the session, every single kid in the class had raised their hand and participated. We had so much fun brainstorming with Mr. Schumacher’s class that we could have spent hours with them, but we had to hurry to Mr. Lindeman’s class, which was right next door.

We repeated the brainstorming exercise, and the same energy ignited throughout that classroom, too. We left Cooley Ranch Elementary School feeling as pumped up as the kids. They’ll be mentioned in the acknowledgements of Legend of Monster Island because some of their ideas made it into the book!

Legend of Monster Island, Monster Moon Mystery series, Book 3, BBH McChiller
Book 3 of the Monster Moon Mystery series will be published soon.
Cover illustration and design by Mikey Brooks.

Vlad Back Cover Eye Patch

BBH McChiller is the pseudonym for two Southern California writers, Lynn Kelley and Kathryn Sant. The Monster Moon series began one Halloween as a discussion about their greatest fears and ended up being one of their most rewarding experiences.

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