How does one tell the story of a week where our students got to meet and learn from an award-winning author?
You share some quotes. Of course!
I love how you made Reina a brave, strong girl. ~Jalen, 6th Grader
To prepare for the lucky reality that was G. Neri serving as a Writer-in-Residence at our school for a week, we underwent extensive prep. Every student in the school read G. Neri’s short story in verse Under Berlin—part of the Open Mic collection, edited by Mitali Perkins (2013) and then created digital book covers. Students connected to this story of turning prejudice on its head and when they signed a welcome poster, they included thoughts on the story and main character, Reina.
Yummy was the best book I have ever read. ~Multiple. Various.
I have never seen students as interested in a book as they were in G. Neri’s graphic novel Yummy (2010). All 7th and 8th grade students read the book and participated in a creative, critical thinking activity as a culminating project in the weeks and months leading up to our author visit. On the welcome poster, many students expressed this sentiment. How amazing is it that students then got to MEET the author of their new favorite book?
My books are the ammunition and I’m shooting them out with the hope that they hit you. ~G. Neri
The week started with two large group sessions where G. Neri gave presentations on his books, his unique entry into a writing career, and the writing process. In thinking of books as Weapons of Mass Information, G. Neri carried this analogy to his own many books and his hope that they would hit students with information. Knowledge. Make them think.
Everyone is a natural storyteller. ~G. Neri
This was touched on in his school-wide presentations, but when G. Neri starting working with his three writing groups for the week, he expanded on this idea, reminding students that they tell stories every day. Their verbal experiences with friends, family, classmates, and teachers have already taught them the rhythms and the hooks of story. Writing is just putting that to paper.
Give yourself permission to suck. Just try it. Get it down. ~G. Neri
As the writing groups—20 students in all—began working, G. Neri stressed the importance of not over-thinking that first effort. Powerful words for writing, but also life. Our work doesn’t have to be perfect immediately—we just need to start. Try it. Get it down.
A good stopping point comes at a dramatic beat. ~G. Neri
As G. Neri worked with those 20 students over the course of five days—in three separate groups—he framed their writing activities around technical advice on the mechanics of creative writing from character to setting to pace.
You can use your voice to help people understand how you feel and change perceptions. ~G. Neri
In one activity, students were tasked with thinking of a situation where they or someone they knew was discriminated against. In addition to being a springboard for reflection and powerful writing, it served as inspiration for our students to use their bold and unique voices to…well…change the world.
Why would I pick another book? Yummy is so amazing. ~Shania, 8th grader
Each of our students chose which of G. Neri’s books they would like to keep and then had him sign either the book or a book plate while he was here. Yummy was the most popular choice, but many students chose Chess Rumble (2007), Ghetto Cowboy (2011), or Tru and Nelle (2016).
Characters who struggle are more interesting. ~G. Neri
Neri meant this as writing advice, but it felt like a life affirmation for our students. At our alternative school, all of our students have some sort of struggle in their pasts, at the very least, academic difficulties at their base schools. Many, though, have faced other challenges in terms of family, behavior, or peer groups. People who struggle ARE more interesting. Yes, of course, in the pages of books, but also simply as our teens navigate their life stories.
When I was reading the book, that is just what I imagined! ~William, 7th Grader
The students who belonged to the 7th and 8th grade writing groups read Ghetto Cowboy in advance of the visit. While he was here, G. Neri showed the students some exclusive footage of real-life urban Philadelphia cowboys shot by the filmmakers who are turning Ghetto Cowboy into a movie. Exciting news! And, exciting for students to see what they had seen in their own heads turned into footage on a screen.
He had a mushroom haircut. ~Amin, 8th Grade Booster
Hearing the students share their own writing is what our Writer-in-Residence weeks are all about. Their voices are funny, brave, insightful. Magical. Often, too personal to include here. With this five-word on-target description of a character, Amin demonstrated how to visually depict someone and was rewarded with laughter from all of his fellow writers.
Yummy had me about to shed a tear. ~Kiyah, 7th Grader
On the morning of G. Neri’s last day, a group of students that were not part of the writing groups were invited to the library to have breakfast with the author for an informal session. The students asked questions and shared their sentiments about the book. Whenever the conversation moved away from Yummy, Kiyah would bring it back, finally exclaiming just how wrapped up she was in Yummy’s story.
We got G. Neri. ~Christopher and DJ, 8th Graders
During a break on that last day, G. Neri played kickball with a class of 8th grade PE students. How meaningful for our students to be able to adamantly claim a favorite author as a member of their kickball team!
I am in the writing group. ~Jerry, 8th Grader
The welcome sign the students created is filled with quotable phrases about specific books and characters. This, though, from Jerry is my favorite quote. When, I first saw it, I chuckled. Then, I almost cried. With this bold statement, Jerry is cloaking himself in the identity of writer. A powerful gesture for him to make and an empowering identity to wear.
I’m Julie Stivers at @BespokeLib ~ thank you to both G. Neri for working with our students and to our school administration for supporting our Mount Vernon writers!