What we learned about writing from an author visit

The first thing I did when I learned that we had  access to Google hangout in our classroom, was to schedule an author visit.  We had just begun reading Susan Ross’s Kiki & Jacques , and the author graciously agreed to “hangout” with us when we had completed our readaloud.  My kids were, in sixth grade speak, “pumped”, and the very idea of being able to talk to the author seemed to deepen our reading enthusiasm and lend our classroom discussions intensity.

My students prepared questions to ask about such Reading Workshop ideas such as character development and theme.  And, because the book centers around fact based issues of immigration and integration in the town of Lewiston, Maine, my kids had questions about research and personal experience, as well.  The author visit went off without a hitch; it was just the sort of rich learning experience we had hoped it would be.  My sixth graders learned a lot about character motivation, plot structure, and embedding thematic ideas – we were in our Reading Workshop zone…and then we strayed into Writing Workshop territory.  All year, I’ve been laboring to show my kids the interconnections between reading and writing, and then, they “saw” it!  Here are some lessons we took away from talking books with an author:

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Revision allows our writing to be what we envision and dearly hope for it to be:  

Susan spoke about how her story began as a seed idea, and gradually blossomed into something more as she wrote and researched and gained a deeper understanding of where she wanted to take that idea. She talked about editing and copyediting, and how each revision allowed the story to shine.  Many of my kids were taken aback that a professional writer would actually need (or even want!) revision, but they were able to see the purpose behind revision with greater clarity because of what this author had shared with them.  

Susan shared a bit of how her editor had helped to shape the original manuscript, and how each time she thought she was done, there were more revisions to consider.  This gave my students a lot to talk about later in relation to their own writing, and how the dreaded word “revision” could be seen in a more positive light: revision allows our writing to be what we envision and dearly hope for it to be.

You build a character, layer by layer, and think about what to include and why:

We haven’t reached our fiction unit in writing workshop yet, but Susan gave my students much to think about as far as how an author goes about crafting a character.  She shared the type of questions she asks herself as she crafts action, thoughts, and behavior, as well as how to consider what was realistic and believable to the reader.  

My kids were full of questions about whether the characters were based on people she had known or entirely made up, and they were intrigued to learn that characters (just like stories) often started with a seed – someone you’d grown up with, a trait you’d admired in a relative, a character flaw you noticed in a classmate – and then were built to fit with the intent of the story.  They were absolutely fascinated by how well Susan knew each character, and the vivid way in which she was able to talk about each of them.  “It’s like they’re real people to her!” one student noted, “that takes really careful planning, like she has to know them first before she can write the story.”  Yes!  And I know that this idea will stay with us when we begin our unit on writing fiction: you build a character, layer by layer, and think about what to include and why.

Research, research, research!

Although Kiki and Jacques is set in modern day Maine, in  a town deeply familiar to the author, there was still a need to research particulars, and to interview the recent Somali immigrants as well as those who had been born and raised in Lewiston.  Susan shared some of the conversations she’d had with young people who had suffered greatly in war torn Somalia, and who were determined to make a better life in America.  Those interviews helped shape the characters in the book, and the conflicts they faced; research led to realism and believability when it came time to write.  My kids were especially fascinated by the way Susan researched soccer, which figures prominently in the story.  Not being a soccer enthusiast herself, she watched televised games, played video games, and interviewed her soccer player son in order to get the details right. In other words, to write with confidence and accuracy: research, research, research!
Our first author visit left my sixth graders jazzed up about their reading lives, for sure.  But, I think that meeting Susan Ross and talking to her also did the same for their writing lives.  Our conversation left them more knowledgeable about some of the intricacies of writing a work of fiction: it takes imagination (which they have in spades!), careful planning (which they only sometimes like to do), the hard work of in-the-chair-at-the-desk writing (which they are learning to do), and revision (which they are loathe to do, but are beginning to change their minds).  Author visits nourish young writers, too!

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