By: Chris Billingsley
It might seem obvious, but in the world of storytelling, elementary teachers make great middle grade authors. We have a front row seat to the comings and goings of a wide range of characters from the age of four to thirteen.
So keeping that in mind, here are my top three reasons why teachers should write more middle grade stories.
All great authors do research, whether it be for factual information or to ensure a character’s dialogue and actions are authentic to their real life counterpart.
We research clothing and costuming, and fact check historical dates and events to make sure that whatever we’ve included in the story is realistic for the period and/or person we are writing about. For example, while writing, The Raven’s Watch, I researched the legend of the Ravens that inhabit the Tower of London. I had to find out who the King was at the time and exactly how that legend came to fruition. (By the way, there are still six ravens in the Tower of London today).
Teachers who write for the kids they teach have the ‘golden research ticket’. We are constantly surrounded by our target audience. Everyday is a new day to learn about our character's personality quirks, the language they use when speaking to authority figures, and more importantly, to their peers.
Through reading conferences, book reports and independent reading selections, teachers learn what books their target audience is reading. They learn how the kids comprehend the texts they read, and what plot lines, character traits and vocabulary the students engage most with.
And here’s a nifty little caveat. If your story takes place in a school, you are an expert in how things work. For example, how do the students move in the halls? What do morning announcements sound like? How does a teacher get her classes attention? What does her teacher voice sound like? What is the routine of a fire drill?
If you are not a teacher, or haven't had the pleasure of standing in front of thirty noisy eight-year-olds, you may politely ask your class to pay attention. As a teacher, you know that never works - in fact, that approach will most certainly get you eaten alive. You may count down from 5. Maybe do a rhythmic clapping pattern, or even come up with a catchy game in which you shout something and the class responds back to you.
Point is, think about how much more authentic your story will be when you have the voice and mannerisms of the teacher at the front of the room down pat. And further, you’ll know exactly how your characters will respond to situations because you see them do it everyday.
Snedly Higgins, the main character in my new story tentatively entitled, Snedly Higgins: Sixth Grade Ninja is a story loosely based on a student in my class who was so quirky and unique, I just had to write a story centered around him.
BUILT IN CRITQUE GROUPS
The Raven’s Watch was actually born from of a class project I did with my seventh grade class. We were reading Moira Young’s, Blood Red Road as a class read aloud and the kids were eating it up. I decided to do a narrative writing unit, where we would create a plot line for a book and sum it up into a single sentence. With all due credit to the Snowflake Method, we began by looking at this example;
“An eleven-year-old wizard tries to stop an evil sorcerer from coming back to life.”
Do you recognize it?
Of course you do. And so did they.
So off we went, trying to come up with a hook for our stories. I came up with mine;
“A seventeen-year-old boy and his sister must reignite an ancient order of freedom fighters to prevent an evil emperor from taking over the world.”
A little over dramatic, I know, but you get the gist. It summed up my story. And the kids loved it. If it were not for their encouragement and excitement, The Raven’s Watch might never have been written. Not only did they encourage me, they read along with me, offered suggestions and were candid about what they liked and didn’t like.
Though they may not have had the knowledge of a professional writer’s group, they knew what they liked and what they didn’t.
You might think teachers make great authors because they teach the mechanics of writing, parts of speech and sentence fluency everyday.
And while this is somewhat true, an already overcrowded curriculum as well as the demands for higher achievement in standardized tests make focusing on the “little things” difficult. Spelling dictation and grammar workbooks have gone the way of the dodo.
Often, this is left to the end, when ideas are down, plot and structure have been finessed and the student finally has something that logically makes sense. Only then, if there is time, can we go back and edit for syntax, grammar and spelling (It’s amazing how with all the spell checkers out there, kids still hand in typed up, finished work with spelling mistakes.)
It is worth noting though, that much of what we teach our students gets tossed out the window when you work at becoming a professional author. In some cases, you get told that what you’ve been instructed to teach students about writing is not the way to do it in a novel. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn, and one I still struggle with today.
One example that comes to mind is the overuse of adverbs. We teach students to use adverbs to make the action more descriptive.
Student: “Taylor ran to the store.”
Teacher: “How did he run to the store?
Student: “Taylor quickly ran to the store.”
And we praise Johnny for using an adverb correctly. (I know it’s a bad example, but I'm just trying to make a point.)
But now If I teach more like a writer and less like a teacher, I may instead say:
Teacher: “Okay, Johnny, that’s better, but now I’d like you to not use an adverb, but still tell me he ran quickly.”
Teacher: “How else could I know he ran quickly without using the word, quickly.”
Student:(in a perfect world) “The wind whistled through Taylor’s hair as he sprinted for the store.”
I’ve learned a lot about writing that I didn’t know before. I learned about overusing adverbs, and avoiding filter phrases like “feel” , “realize” “watch”, and “see” among others.
I understand, “show versus tell” and though I taught it all the time, only now as a writer do I truly get it.
And sometimes, you just need to tell.
Teachers make great middle grade authors because they are experts in the behaviours, learning styles, and language of their target audience. We are doing research everyday, just by doing our jobs.
I’d love to see more teachers write for middle graders. So what are you waiting for?