The growth of email and the Internet has spawned remarkable opportunities in education, literature, and the interface between the two. As a children’s author, I had dreamed for years of sending my unfinished stories online to garner comments that would help in revision. In 1995, the technology for such a project was at hand.
In early January, I composed an invitation entitled “Works in Progress: An Online Experiment.” This invitation was sent via Internet email to various electronic mailing lists, including LM_NET, PUBYAC, KIDLIT, and CHILD_LIT. I also posted it to various Internet newsgroups such as k12.chat.teacher. And I sent it by email to teachers on America Online, identified through AOL’s member directory. [Note: I later learned that these uses of LM_NET and the America Online mailing directory are prohibited, and I do not recommend them.—Aaron]
Here in part is what it said:
If you are working with young people in grades 3–6 in the first quarter of 1995, I invite you to take part in a collaborative online experiment in literature and education.
Works in Progress is a program in which educators and librarians will receive stories as email from an established children’s author. These “works in progress” have not yet reached final form. Participants will be asked to share the stories with young people and to relay comments back to the author, as well as to comment themselves.
While the author gains valuable feedback, kids will gain interest in and appreciation of the creative process—and both kids and adults will enjoy the opportunity to influence stories headed for publication.
The stories selected are “The Man Who Knew Everything: A Tale of Iran,” and “Nonviolence: A Buddhist Fable.” Participants may respond to one or both of the stories. Supplementary materials include a letter to the kids, suggested questions for discussion, and an author profile.
There is no charge for the program. To receive the materials, just send me an email request at one of the addresses below. Stories will be sent to the return address at the head of your email message.
My own postings brought this invitation directly to the attention of literally thousands of people. From there, it was passed on—electronically or by hand—to other interested individuals and groups.
The response was overwhelming. Within a few weeks, I had received requests from 500 email addresses around the world. Many of these addresses represented multiple classrooms, or even multiple schools. As it turned out, most of the signups failed to return comments—primarily due to time constraints, judging from explanations I received. Still, by around the deadline of March 1, comments had been emailed from about 200 addresses. By my best estimate, about 5,000 students took part!
Luckily, I had the foresight to request that the responses be collective, rather than from individual students. Even so, the comments amassed into a two-inch pile of printouts. My job then was to sift through the pile, determine the predominant reactions, and use them to guide my revision of both stories.
This job was complete by mid-April. At that time, I sent my revisions to all participants. With the revisions went reports on the most important comments I had received, what I had used, what I had decided against using, and my reasons. And I cautioned everyone that the stories were still not in final form—because I keep revising and improving my stories right up to publication, and sometimes after!
I also described my plans for getting each story published, and promised to send major news of my progress. (The following November, I was able to report the sale of the first story as a picture book text, and the sale of the second as a magazine story.)
This was all that I had planned myself, but one of the project participants organized an additional activity that turned into one of the project’s high points. Thanks to Jim Monti and his wife Maria’s sixth graders at John F. Deering Middle School in West Warwick, Rhode Island, I was able to chat for an hour with nearly thirty classes from across the continent in the Electronic Schoolhouse of America Online.
Was the project successful? Wildly so. For my own part, I gained valuable insights into how kids were able to deal with these two stories in particular and multicultural literature in general. Both stories became stronger, and I gained a better idea of each one’s potential. The project also introduced me as an author to thousands of enthusiastic teachers, librarians, and students I might otherwise never have reached. Numerous schools inquired about visits, and one school flew me to Indiana.
As for the participants, here are some of the teachers’ own words:
“I can’t tell you how inspired my students have found your efforts to make your stories better and better by rewriting and revising. They are so much more enthusiastic about revising their own stories.”
“It has been one of the best things we have been able to do with them this year. One of the most telling things was when they realized you actually had a reason for changes you made and didn’t make.”
“The whole idea was wonderful. It lets them see the purpose to the writing process when they can see it put to use in the ‘real world’ of literature!”
“This was a terrific experience for them. Not only did it help them develop critical thinking, it made them feel VERY important helping a real author.”
“For many of the students, this was among the first activities which excited them about literature. They could make a difference; language was real and with a purpose.”
Will I repeat the project? At this point, I can’t say. As valuable as it was, it required more time than I may be able to devote to it in the future. But if I don’t do it myself, perhaps other authors will fill the gap, or devise other programs equally valuable. As email and the Internet become available to more and more schools, the potential for interaction between authors and students is vast.
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“Nonviolence” was first printed in Parabola, Spring 1996, as “A Father’s Words.” It was reprinted by Cricket and Australia’s School Magazine as “How Violence is Ended.”
“The Man Who Knew Everything” was first printed in Parabola, Spring 1997, with reprint rights bought by Australia’s School Magazine. A picture book version, illustrated by Alisher Dianov, was published by Clarion in 1999 as Forty Fortunes: A Tale of Iran.