Talking to 500 6th graders about writing

I was terrified.

I was the featured Author at the “Inspired Writers” project in Lincoln County Oregon. Over the next four days, I would talk about “The Writer’s Life” and offer writing tips and exercises to 6th grade students: 490 students in 15 classes in five schools in sizes ranging from 16 to 45 and class periods from 40 minutes to 1:30!

At the end of each session, I would give each student an autographed copy of my youth novel, Return to the Wilds.

My last formal presentation was many years ago when working for the Forest Service. I probably hadn’t stepped inside a classroom since my daughter (now 32) was in grade school. I feared betrayal by technology—my lifelong nemesis. Would I have the right speaker setting? Would my PowerPoint run on different laptops/ projectors? Further, I was the new author. A long-time colleague had gone to bat for me and for my book. I did not want to let her down!

But mostly I feared to meet my target audience en masse. Return to the Wilds emerged as a youth book. How well would I connect with youth?

Jury is still out on how the book is doing with my 500 new fans in western Oregon. My two last English teachers in Lincoln City said Return to the Wilds is next on the class reading schedule.

But I’m 100% sold on working with 6th graders. I was in a variety of situations, some chaotic, some quiet, some impacted by an absent teacher or too many kids in one room or impending Spring Break (who knew?) Sometimes technology DID NOT WORK and I had to ad-lib with handouts and stories.

But most kids in most classes genuinely engaged. They liked books. Most had read the series I quoted: Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Hunger Games. They knew the authors. Some knew biographies better than I did. Some girls wanted me to read their favorite series!

In every class there were a few budding writers—boys or girls—who wanted to interact about their own books or writing projects. I got hugs from young girls in my first class—apparently delighted to have a female author role model. The rowdiest class still lined up quietly to receive books; almost every student seemed delighted to receive a signed book from an author. One boy clutched Return to the Wilds to his chest and said, “I am going to read this again and again.” Several came back and requested another copy for a sibling or a parent. (I had to refuse only because my sponsor had bought just enough books for all 6th graders in Lincoln County!)

I also have to credit language arts teachers for instilling a love of reading and respect for writing in their students. Most were quick to pick up writing tips like “show don’t tell” and loved creating characters. I would ask students if they ever had to write something and couldn’t come up with ideas. What is that? “Writer’s block,” a few students always got it.

The event is run by the literacy committee of Altrusa International of Yaquina Bay, which funds books and author visit with the help of a grant from the Siletz Tribal Charitable Contribution Fund. A previous committee chair initiated this project a few years ago as a tangible investment in youth literacy. Research showed that 6th graders are ideal because they are interested in learning and starting to make life choices, but not as distracted by peer pressure and hormones as older students.

Did I get any feedback? Yes. My sponsor commended me for thinking on my feet in many chaotic situations. I learned again that I am best “in the moment” and more self-conscious in formal settings.

My very first experience with 15 exuberant 6th graders at Siletz Valley Schools was the most positive. Teacher Jules Malango kept a positive respectful atmosphere with his low-key presence. Apparently, the feeling was mutual. Jules later wrote me the nicest email.

He gave me permission to quote some excerpts:

“…As we speak, the 6th graders are reading Return to the Wilds in their math class. They were so enthusiastic and excited that Mrs. McGraw decided to give them some reading time.”

“…I think the slide show was a really good length and was a great balance of your story, the guidelines for good writing, and other authors’ ideas. …I think the inclusion of the 3 excerpts from well-known young adult authors helped drive home the idea that there are very different styles that can be equally engaging.”

“…I really appreciated the writing exercises you had them try. A lot of my students are very allergic to the idea of work, but I felt that most of them participated without complaint because of the fun way you framed the assignment. I think it is very cool to have adolescents discussing the ideas of motivations and flaws. Middle school is very much a time where young people become more conscious of their differing motivations, character flaws, and contradictions.”

For more on the event see Altrusa Yaquin Bay Facebook site.