By Mack Lewis

A student writing festival yields rich rewards for all. Here's how to start one at your school.

When seven-year-old Kelsey Drake stepped up to the microphone, she hesitated. Perhaps she felt nervous about presenting her writing before such a large audience. Then again, maybe it was just the mouthful of devil's food cake she was chewing. After a hard swallow, without regard for the icing on her face or the chocolate fingerprints smeared across her otherwise fresh copy of our student anthology, Yeah Huh!, Kelsey calmly clutched the mike. In a singsongy voice, she proceeded to read her masterpiece:

One day I went hunting with my dad and my big brother and their friends in the woods. I got the biggest deer and it had very big antlers. The big boys cried. We took the deer home and Mom said, "The boys are big babies." I said, "Maybe next time, babies."

Though clearly a beginner, in that moment Kelsey experienced what authors seek universally. True, her byline came in a book unavailable through Amazon.com. Her audience was a gym full of kids. And it's unlikely that Roald Dahl ever accepted payment in the form of a pecan kiss, a slice of watermelon, and a piece of cake shaped like a big yellow school bus. But the exultation born of recognition was the same. At that moment, Kelsey was a real writer.

We know that professionals write to express themselves to a wide audience, for that often hard-won byline, and for remuneration. Children, however, rarely receive any more motivation to write than the grade they know they'll get for an assignment. But by organizing a schoolwide writers'festival and publishing an anthology of children's work, you and your students alike can reap some delicious benefits. Youngsters at Sams Valley Elementary, in Oregon, annually participate in just such an event.

Everyone who submits material - generally about 70 percent of out K-5 population of our 325 students — becomes a published author. They also attend a dessert banquet, where they scarf down a smorgasbord of sweets concocted by staff members and parents. At the banquet, they receive their contributors' copies of the anthology, gather the autographs of their fellow authors, and have the chance to read their work at an open mike. "It's a good feeling," says former student Casey Clark. "It's kind of cool to see your writing in a book." Now in middle school, Casey attributes her enthusiasm for writing to the event. "Before the festival, I didn't think I was much of a writer. Now I feel like I'm pretty good, so I really enjoy it." Grace Hoke, a Sams Valley parent, says the same is true for her daughter. "Amber loves to write," says Hoke. "She didn't used to. That's happened because of the festival." "The anthology validates kids'work," explains fourth-grade teacher Matt Deschamps. "It makes it more meaningful, so they put more effort into it." Second-grade teacher Toni Bowers adds that the festival motivates teachers as well: "The finished product is of a better quality because the teachers put more emphasis on it." As her students prepare their entries, Bowers has them go through a lengthy but rewarding process of editing and revision — something she doesn't have time to do with every project. If all that's not enough to persuade you to start your own festival, have a chat with third grader Doug Van Rooyen. "When you're focused on being graded," says Doug, "you get all worried. But when you're writing for fun, you do better. The writers'festival makes it fun."

START A WRITERS'FESTIVAL PROMOTION

  • Begin by visiting classrooms to stir up interest. Be sure to send an informational flyer home with every child, as parents can offer strong encouragement to participation.
  • Generate excitement by holding a schoolwide contest to name the anthology. We look for quirky, easy-to-remember titles that capture the personality and youthfulness of our students. Our first collection got its name from a roadside sign near our school: Fresh Corn. We've since used Yeah Huh! — a bit of kid-friendly vocabulary; Mmm! — evoking the dessert banquet; and this year's Pinky Toe. We subtitle each edition An Anthology of Public School Writing.
  • After all the written submissions are in, hold a cover art contest. Our winner receives a $5-$10 cash prize. Many of the remaining submissions dress up the inside of the book.
  • Encourage teachers to devote class time to generating entries. The writing students do for the festival can double as an in-class assignment, or youngsters can select their entries from writing portfolios they've developed during the school year — an approach that promotes self-evaluation.

Publishing

  • With modern technology, publishing a professional-looking anthology is relatively simple. Still, if you have to type a hundred-plus manuscripts yourself, the book may never make it into print. Assuming kids have access to computers at school, accept entries only on disk. Teachers can help by collecting all entries from one class on a single floppy. This frees energy and time for formatting and editing rather than typing.
  • To make our work look as much like a "real" book as possible, we chose a half-sheet format rather than spiral binding. Standard 8 1/2 x 11-inch pages are turned horizontally and folded, then bound using a binding stapler. For the cover, we use a high quality color stock with gray-tone art.
  • Allow plenty of time. Find out how much time your printer will need, then add an extra three weeks. If you don't have a district-operated print shop (as we do), you'll need to contract the job out to a local company. Two hundred fifty copies of a 72-page book, including the cover, should cost about four hundred dollars. You can save about 10 percent by doing the folding and binding yourself.
  • Print enough for every contributor, plus a few more. We put a one-dollar "suggested donation" price on our cover. The 20 or 30 additional copies sold in our school office paid for the heavier cover stock.

The Reception

The authors'reception needs to be a big event. It's the payoff for the kids: their name in print, an audience for their work, and a tangible — in our case, edible — reward. Set it for the last month of the school year. If all those sweets worry you, a pizza party would be a suitable alternative. Whatever the particulars, this is a time to "release" the anthology and to acknowledge students as authors. "It felt good," said third grader Megan Swinger. "It was the first book I was ever in."

It will feel good for you as well. When the festival is all over, you'll be as proud of your accomplishment as you are exhausted from your effort, but it's the joy in the voices of the kids that will drive you to take on the challenges of this project year after year. One of my favorite festival memories took place as I wiped down tables after our first dessert banquet. All the literati had returned to their classrooms except for one little primary student. It didn't matter to her that I was the only one who would hear her story. Perhaps she didn't even realize it. She approached the mike and belted it out as if reciting to a capacity crowd. As I listened, I began to make plans for the next year's festival.

Dos and Don't

  • Do edit. Just as published adults have editors, so too should children. But limit editing to the basics.
  • Do establish a maximum length of about 400 words for entries. (Shorter pieces tend to be better!)
  • Do include an index or table of contents so students can quickly locate their friends'stories.
  • Do recruit parent volunteers to help with the preparing for the banquet, serving, and cleanup.
  • Do alert the media. Invite local news people to the banquet and give them copies of your anthology.
  • Do request release time from class. Producing the anthology and planning the banquet takes time.
  • Don't exclude anyone. Even the first grader's one sentence story has value.
  • Don't hold your festival too early in the school year. A February submission deadline works well.