When our readers are writers

Today kicks off National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo–and provides me, at least, with the chance to think about readers and writers–consumers and producers of books and information. In my past life as a liaison librarian at research universities the cycle of information literacy felt like a complete process. I taught a lot of undergraduate classes about finding, evaluating, and citing information (just like I do with my upper school students now), but I also worked with graduate students and faculty on publishing, sharing research, and scholarly conversations. We displayed research products, had sessions on metrics and predatory journals and lots more. The students and faculty I worked with readily saw themselves as creators as well as consumers of information. And they knew that the two were not separate or transactional, but an ongoing conversational process. As I prepped the library/writing support collaboration for NaNoWriMo, I realized that the information cycle feels very incomplete and spotty most of the time, and November is a great time to start to make it complete.

Like last year, our Writing Support teacher is hosting writing time during lunch in the library each day of November. I’ve built a collaborative spreadsheet where our participating students and faculty can log their writing throughout the month by day, time, and word count, and earn badges to mark their achievements–like hitting various word counts, writing 5 days in a row, attending the lunchtime writing blocks, etc. The library also has a display for the month that features books that were drafted or begun from NaNoWriMo projects. These are all pieces to support more of the creative (and creation) process for our community. I also plan to host a session on ways to share their work as we arrive at the end of the month so students can think about how to put their work into the world, and also how to think about intellectual property and copyright from the creators’ side of the desk.

NaNoWriMo Group Page
Individual logging page

I’m excited for the opportunity to work with our students as creators, and yet, it reminds me how infrequently I do this throughout the year. Some of the limitations for completing the information cycle are structural–I only get to work with classes when faculty invite me, and only have the time they allot. I regularly remind faculty that I can work with them and students on all parts of the research process and anything involving the using or sharing of information, but I still only get class time to talk about finding sources and citing them. Another structural piece is that the artifacts of student work go directly to the teachers and there is not a tradition yet for sharing those products beyond the classroom except in the arts. That said, opportunities exist–some initial work with our visual arts department has (hopefully) opened the door to more opportunities to work with students as creators. Our student publications are yet another way to work with students where they do see themselves as creators or information. These opportunities may be just the wedge in the door to help faculty see the possibilities to collaborate and inform their students about how knowledge is produced and shared in their disciplines, and how students can contribute their voices to the conversation. 

For now, I’ll be focused on our creative writers who see that the works they read influence the stories they want to tell, and who already know their voices belong in the world.

Embracing Fanfiction

When talking books with a group of seniors before winter break, one of the girls said, “My friends don’t think that I’m a reader, but I actually read all the time! It’s Fanfiction. They don’t think that counts, but it totally does! I read hundreds of pages a week, actually.”

Apparently, I have been living under a rock.

O.k. so maybe not completely under a rock. I have heard tale of certain infamous Twilight Fanfiction that came in various shades of…poorly written mega-bestselling material. But the Fanfic this student was referring to, and that of which her group of friends began passionately extolling on, was not about that  business. It’s an entire world…a world made of fandoms. Have you seen sites like this?


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They LOVE IT. In our five minute conversation, I heard about story lines inspired by characters from books, television series, and video games. I heard that some of it is poorly written, some is gratuitous R rated material that they deem me too young and innocent to read :), but according to these girls, some of it is really, really good (and addictive). They’re reading. A lot.  And some of them are contributing their writing. I want to know more. Quite honestly, I want to know about what they’re reading, from comics to the Classics.  If I try their suggestions, I feel like they will be more open to trying mine.

So, what to do?

Acknowledge it.

Discuss it as a community. If this group of five is this into it, who else can contribute to the conversation?

Encourage them to create some of their own?

After reading this School Library Journal  Guest Post by Christopher Shamburg… When the Lit Hits the Fan in Teacher Education, I’ve decided to add a unit on Fanfiction this week in my senior English elective (I blogged about this class last year). However,  I think it’s something that we could all do as librarians. Perhaps an all school program, a collaboration with your English department, a fun activity for your book club, or an after school activity?

Per Shamburg’s recommendation, I’ve done a bit of research into the history of Fanfiction. I can’t wait to talk to my students about Shakespeare in particular. And then there’s Fanfiction of biblical proportions. “Paradise Lost” anyone? This could (and is) an entire course at universities. Lacking a degree in literature, I know that will touch on the proverbial tip of the iceberg, but I think that it will be a fun way to engage with texts in a new way.

I’m looking forward to hearing what influences my students have noticed in works that they have read. I read March by Geraldine Brooks years ago and liked it, yet I didn’t know the word “Fanfiction” then. I just thought, “Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Little Women style”.


Think about these Fanfic writing prompts (offered again by Shamburg):

·      Alternate Perspective—the story is told from the point of view of another character. For example, what would the Cinderella story be like if the stepmother told it? (Or maybe the father from Little Women?)

·      Missing Scenes—scenes that are not in the original story, but would make sense in it.

·      Alternate Universe—a major character or event in a story is changed, and a “What If…” scenario ensues.

·      Alternate Realities—characters from one story enter the world of another story.

·      Sequels—the story that happens after the original story.

·      Prequels—the story before the original story.

·      Self Insert—the story is rewritten with an avatar (representation of the author). For example, what would a Harry Potter adventure be like if you were in the story?

(Shamburg, 2008, 2009)

I’m going to ask them to choose one of the above scenarios, to adopt their author’s tone and writing style as much as possible, and to add a Fanfic chapter to their story. I might even ask them to weave together all four books that they read throughout the semester for a final creative writing exercise. How fun would that be ?!

Are any of you members of a Fandom that you’d care to share?

Is anyone doing anything with Fanfiction at school? If so, I would love to hear about it. Please use the comment section to share your ideas with us all!

Calling All Writers! Writers Cafe Success Stories

by Joan Lange, Librarian, Pope John Paul II High School

How does the library mission to prepare 21st century learners relate to creative writing?  Should librarians expand their role of guiding students in information and research skills to a more active role in encouraging creative writing?  In an online Global Education Conference , Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, stressed the following as “survival skills” in today’s world:

Oral and Written Communication
Creativity and Imagination

In fact, the senior executives that Wagner polled listed the inability to write convincingly “with voice”–finding an authentic voice in writing–as the number one deficit in their employees.

Six years ago, our library Teen Read Advisory pondered a similar concern about creative writing. One teen pointed out that creative writers were “invisible” at our high school (creative writing seemed underappreciated or writing kept “secret” by fledgling writers). From that meeting, an idea for a Writers Café began to form. Six years later, our annual Writers Café continues to be a much-loved event that celebrates creativity and imagination in an open-mike, café setting.  This article will describe some ways our school reaches out to encourage creative writers and will offer some practical tips for a library-sponsored Writers Café.

Create a Display on Writers about Writing

Feature the words of writers and books on the art of writing in a library book display. Quotes, such as the following from Anne Lamott, stress the importance of students finding their own passionate voice:

All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way.
What you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or
insider pathos or meaning…everything we need in order to tell our stories…exists in each of us.
Anne Lamott,  Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 “Be a voracious reader”

Bret Anthony Johnston, editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, offered the following advice to writers during Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books:

  • Be a voracious reader. Apprentice yourself to literature that you love.
  • Enjoy it as a reader first, paying attention to where you connect with the story.
  • On the third and fourth reading, begin to examine the structure; how do you explain it on a craft level.
  • As Saul Bellows observed, “Every writer is a reader moved to emulation.”

Johnston’s book offers a wide range of creative writing activities from noted contemporary authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates, in order to “provide tools in a toolbox for a student to ‘take a risk.’”

Incorporate Visual and Performing Arts

Educator and author Barry Gilmore’s book Drawing the Line suggests using famous artwork or photos as poetry prompts.  Students write through the eyes of a character in the artwork, using sensory words to describe the mood/conflict/setting of the scene. This activity was used with interesting results in our Public Speaking class.  One student used a photo of children in a Holocaust camp to write her poem. An excerpt below shows how concrete details depict inner emotions:

A few strands of barbed wire are all that separates
these twelve children from freedom…
Still, hope lingers through the air like a butterfly fluttering
searching for a spot to rest its tired wings
One girl stares past the prison where she had thought
she would breathe her last breath
And wonders about what’s left for her now,
waiting on the other side,
Morgan Roth, “Hope”

Field trips can be opportunities for writing as well.  While at a Thespian conference, two theater students did a fast-write exercise and created dynamic, short monologues that were later performed at the Writers Café.

Writing is a Cross-Curricular Activity

Foreign Language teachers have encouraged students to write poems. Latin students used a Latin motto such as “Carpe Diem” or “Mormento Mori” for poetic reveries.  They have also retold Greek myths.   AP Spanish students dramatized pressures of teen life in poems after studying the works of Latin American poets.

In Morality class, a student researched the sex slave trade and was inspired to write a poem from the perspective of a teen mother who promises to save her child from the fate she suffered.

Don’t Forget the Newspaper Staff!

Humorous editorials, satiric book reviews, and poignant opinion pieces came from the online school newspaper.  Give these journalists even greater readership through a featured spot at the Writers Café.

Special Guest Authors

Teachers, local authors, and musicians have showcased their creativity at the café.  On two occasions, country music artists have worked with our Hand-in-Hand students, those students with learning disabilities, to create heartwarming songs.  One teen boy’s experience as the assistant manager of the basketball team was told in a song, “My Season with the Team.”  In a joyous moment of the song, this teen called a play that led to a winning basket for the team.

Promoting the Writers Café

Use contests to involve faculty and students and help promote the Writers Café.  In a Fairy
Tale contest, teachers creatively explored their inner psyches and wrote why they connected to
a particular character.  Students were challenged to correctly match the teacher to the chosen character.  For instance, the school nurse wrote the following clue:

            Favorite character: Gretel from the story Hansel and Gretel.
Instead of panic, she used her intellect in a stressful situation, saving the day.

Teachers also dressed as their favorite book character or author, and students were asked to predict which teachers would be characters such as Tinker Bell or Nancy Drew , or authors such as Agatha Christie or Ernest Hemingway. Dress Down Day video and photos of costumed teachers helped build anticipation of the Writers Café.

Create an album of memories with photos posted online (and linked to your LibGuides).  Writers Café 2014 and a photo slideshow of Writers Café 2013.

Organizing the Event

Backdrop. Theater Dept. sets up brick wall backdrop, add a pole lamp, a few stools and a microphone and the stage is set for a poetry reading.

Decorations. Art students and student volunteers created a variety of table decorations.  Ceramic votives; abstract plaster sculptures; book sculpture; bird houses and origami birds; and “messages in a bottle”—lines from poetry and stories cut apart and curled inside clear, corked bottles–are just some of the decorations they have created.

Program.  Use art images/photos from art students to set off themes of writing performances.

Bookmarks.  A nice take-away from the event, create bookmarks to feature excerpts from the writing performances.

Free Refreshments.  Offering refreshments prior to the event makes an enjoyable gathering at the Writers Café.

Teen Seating.  Families and friends are invited to the Writers Café, but creating comfortable seating close to the performance stage is a must so that teens have their own space to support their peers.

Literary Magazine. Our English Department publishes a literary magazine that has been distributed the evening of the Writers Café.

Student Emcees.  Librarians helped with the planning and organized student volunteers–now it is time to sit back and enjoy the Writers Café as selected student(s) emcees the event.

Learn from Success Stories of Other Schools

In sharing our school’s experience with writing events, I hope other librarians will write in and share their success stories.  How do you encourage writers and showcase this creativity to the school community?