Paige Conn and Mary Maddox, TC Alumnae and Dimon Fellows, Present “DIY SPI” ☆

On July 11-14, TC hosted the Student Press Initiative (SPI) Summer Institute, where 75+ educators of all disciplines gathered to learn about teaching writing, project-based curriculum, and the process of publishing student work.

The event program included a selection of presentations by in-service teachers who shared their own SPI experience, including clear direction and anecdotes on the process, plus inspirational tips on how to get your own classroom project off the ground.

A stand-out session, “DIY SPI:  How To Start a Publishing House at Your School Without Going Insane” was hosted by Paige Conn and Mary Maddox, TC Alumnae (M.A., English and Education) and seventh and ninth grade teachers at The Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem.  Conn and Maddox are two of of six James and Judith K. Dimon Fellows, and used the Dimon’s support to create four published student works during the 2010-2011 school year.

Conn and Maddox’s presentation was clear and energetic:  Their passion for SPI was palpable, and their desire to empower other teachers to employ the program was their aim.  They began their talk by sharing the fact just a year ago, the tables were turned–they were sitting in the SPI Summer Institute audience, wondering just how they could pull off SPI with their own students.  “We are doing this today to show how you can do it at your school…It is very possible to do it, and it is possible to do it on a budget,” they affirmed.

Conn and Maddox outlined some golden rules for undertaking SPI.  First, pick a project that suits your student’s needs.  Second, learn the ropes of publication (such as layout, design and proofing).  Finally, remember that a smaller scale means smaller stakes, so work out the kinks of your own process with just a few students on a small publication.

They shared the story of a particular ninth grade class they both taught:  it had the rep of being the “bad” class, where the students just didn’t care.  Conn and Maddox decided to start the year off on the right track with this class, and issued a list of project goals immediately.  The book they would write would be called “Listen Up Teachers!  A Guide to Better Teaching by 9th Graders,” and the girls would be empowered to give their opinions of what teachers could be doing better.  The project struck a chord and the students were hooked.

Conn and Maddox shared two cases of how they tailored their existing curriculum and test prep to feed into their publishing projects.  In the first case, they took studying for the ELA Regents exam, which demands much reading of excerpted fiction, and turned that prep work into a ninth grade student anthology, “Completely Incomplete”.  In another case, this time with seventh graders, the ELA test was heavy on non-fiction.  In lieu of explicit test prep, Conn and Maddox’s students wrote “Fighting Fire,” a collection of historical fiction vignettes, which gave them training for the test.  “Student publishing can be very practical,” Conn and Maddox explained.

The balance of Conn and Maddox’s presentation was spent on exactly what its title promised:  do-it-yourself steps to run an SPI program in your classroom.  Those steps are outlined here.

Create a realistic calendar.  Conn and Maddox recommend an eight week, 40 day calendar, which they shared with attendees.  They insist that a public reading be included in the timeline, as “it feels very glamorous to the kids and keeps them motivated and focused on revisions,” they explained.

Get kids interested in revision. Keep students invested in revision and invested in their own writing:  “They will do this if their work is in a ‘legit’ book, rather than if it was just for an assignment,” Conn and Maddox figured out.  To help teachers with a heavy paper load, they recommend peer editing, powered by Google Docs, with a “hot” and “cold” system (meaning students can provide each other with two total comments; one positive, the other negative).  Peer review allows students to share work, and Conn and Maddox shared stories of “dead quiet” classrooms when kids were revising and commenting on each other’s work.  A “peer panel” is another way to get encourage students to revise their work.  With this method, kids swap hard copies of each others work and read them aloud.  “This is like academic writing and how real writers work,” Conn pointed out.

Teachers: you are the editor-in-chief, and don’t forget you can get involved in the process. Conn and Maddox explain that publishing is “high stakes for the teachers and kids” and that there will be some hard moments.  To combat this, Maddox recommended, “Get your hands in batter early on.  The more kids revise a piece, the more they get invested in it.  They won’t want to chuck any of it.”  They shared the story of a student who wanted to publish something that was hurtful and slanderous.  She became brokenhearted when she was told (late in the project) that she had to change her work.  Conn and Maddox recognized that they had become “obsessed with the process and lost sight of the writing.”

Final edits are about protecting the kids in many ways. Regarding content and conventions, it is okay for a teacher to go in and fix some things.  Conn and Maddox suggested printing out a “before” and “after” version of a piece, and having the student circle the differences. “Do not publish with mistakes.  It is your show,” they insisted.  How much should you fix and how far should you go?  It depends on the age group, according to Conn and Maddox. In the case of a particularly racy story, they quickly developed a rule:  “If you can read it aloud to the Assistant Principal (a man), and if he doesn’t turn red, then it is okay to publish.”  These are good conversations to have, Maddox insisted, and far from a waste of time.

SPI consent form:  do not forget about legality. Conn and Maddox shared their consent form with the audience.

Plan the reading like a wedding (and photograph it like one too). A public reading is a key part of the publishing process.  “Take it seriously,” Conn and Maddox warn.  They did their first reading as afterthought, and then had 80 students with their families arrive.   Wiser, they scheduled a (free) reading at Barnes and Noble for their next book.  It was exciting for the kids and a great success.

Conn and Maddox suggested promoting any public reading, as “it makes kids feel like it is special”. Put posters up around the school about the reading.  Produce postcard invites students can give to their families.  Then constantly remind students of the reading date, and it will fuel them to keep revising because they know their family will be there.

Conn and Maddox caution against “winging it” on the day of the reading, and instead carefully script every moment.  Their last script was six pages long, and included a way for every student to be celebrated, even if that meant reading one line.  They also recommend creating a slide show, which can be debuted at the reading.  Teachers may go to Animoto.com, get a free educator account, and create a slide show in about ten minutes time.  Conn and Maddox shared their slide show during their presentation, and explained their feelings for it:  “We published this book, and let’s celebrate it!”

Fund your projects. “Good news!”  Conn declared, “It is not the most difficult part of the project.”  An average run of books for a class of 75 students costs $1,000 to $1,500 (that’s for about 160 copies).  That gives each child a free copy (which is important), plus copies to sell.  How to secure start-up money?  Conn and Maddox shared resources:  DonorsChoose.org; curriculum grants; Teacher’s Choice, and finally, “beg your Principal”.  They put their school’s logo on the book, and suggest doing the same.  It is good PR for the school, and the Principal will look at the project differently.

Conn and Maddox also suggested selling books as a way to raise money.  They recommend selling to administrators and to school visitors, and shared the idea of selling via Barnes and Noble Bookfairs, which has netted TYWLS about $1,200.  The Bookfair program works both in-store and online, and on the day of your student reading, sales that are entered under your school’s code count towards a percentage back.  “Look into it!” Conn urged.

As a final fundraising idea, Conn and Maddox offered, “Rinse and repeat:  use the proceeds from one project to fund the next one.”

How to deal with stress:  Do not underestimate the scope and emotional investment of the project. Conn and Maddox reminded the audience that SPI “takes a village,” and is a project that is best undertaken with help in the form of a partner, helper, or student teacher.

Remember that it is worth it! “Your classroom becomes a community of writers,” Conn and Maddox reflected.  They shared excerpts from student reflections on the project, including, “To be a published author means that I am accomplished,” and “I feel proud of myself and I know my family is proud of me.”