Friday, April 20, 2012

Lessons from Middle School

I’ve talked to authors who won’t set foot in a middle school. The too-cool-to-show-interest audiences, the stony faced silence—I get it. Still, there’s something fun about the challenge. I’m writing from Williamsburg, VA, in the midst of six middle school events, for about 200 kids each! Some ups and downs for sure. So what have I learned? On this trip, four things.

1. Helps to start with embarrassing personal stories
Yesterday I told kids about the time I was volunteering at a tutoring center in New York City, and I was working with a fifth-grader named Louis in a room crowded with kids and tutors, and our table was really dark so I stood on a chair to adjust the bare bulb overhead, and I burned my hand and let loose a high-pitched cry as I leapt through the air. The kids seemed to enjoy my humiliation.

Once I had their attention, I asked students to think about why Louis always remembered the light bulb incident in great detail, but couldn’t remember a thing from his history textbook. “Cause it was funny,” someone said. Yes, I agreed, it’s easy to remember funny stories, or sad ones, or gross, or shocking. And that’s what history is, when done right—not names and dates, but memorable stories. So don’t be scared of history!

2. Work in gross details
A recreation of one of Arnold's boats
Describing Benedict Arnold’s epic march to Quebec, I asked kids to touch the tops of their shoulders and notice how thin the skin feels over the bone. Then I showed an image of the boats Arnold’s men paddled through Maine, explaining that when they came to rocky rapids, they had to turn the 400-pound boats upside-down, rest them on their shoulders, and carry them to the next patch of deep water. Pretty soon, the skin on the men’s shoulders wore off and the white tips of bones stuck out. It’s a small and unimportant part of the Arnold story, but it made kids wince and squirm, and won me another five minutes of attention.

They also seemed to enjoy ghoulish details from the Abe Lincoln-body snatching book I’m working on. Like the part where, after grave robbers tried to steal Lincoln’s body in 1876, the tomb caretakers decided they’d better open the coffin just to make sure the right corpse was still in there. The body was there, and thanks to a fantastic embalming job eleven years before, still looking great. Only the mold on the clothes emitted what one witness described as an insupportable odor.

3. Include young characters
Hall's Los Alamos I.D.
When telling students about my Manhattan Project book, I started with my youngest character, a teenage physics prodigy-turned spy named Ted Hall. This seemed to work well, because they were fascinated that a guy could graduate from Harvard at 18, and then go right to Los Alamos, and learn how to make the bomb, and then decide to give the secrets to the Soviets. I know many fellow I.N.K. writers have featured young characters in their books, but I feel like this is something I need to do more of.

4. I look like Will Farrell
I’ve been getting this one a lot lately. During the questions and answers, someone asks, “Are you Will Farrell’s brother?” It’s the hair, I guess. Anyway, kids seem disappointed when I say we’re not related, and that I can’t bring him with me next time.

This is not helpful to my fellow writers, I realize. But the resemblance seems to amuse middle-schoolers, and I’ll take any edge I can get.


Peni R. Griffin said...

Personally, I love middle schoolers. If they're distracted by the floor, it's not your fault; and if you get responses, you know you're rocking hard.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

LOL about your new best friend, Will Farrell. I met an author who said the thing that got some middle-schoolers most excited was that her daughter once worked as an extra on Buffy.

Lorraine said...

Nice post! I sent this to my sister, who teaches sixth grade (by choice—it really is her favorite grade level) and invites me to speak from time to time. (Her blog:

She preps her kids really well. They've all read at least one of my books and have thought about genuine questions to ask. But, for classes where that's not the case, I've had to pull some rabbits to stay alive up there.