How to Inspire Students (with a little help from my friends…) by Cindy Minnich & Gae Polisner

Once upon a time, I read the tweets and Facebook statuses posted by Paul W. Hankins about his students being able to interact with authors online as well as in person and I kept thinking, “Wow. I wish I could do that.”

All I could think was that this must be such an incredible experience for students – one that is both memorable and inspiring. A chance to connect reading and writing and all of the things that readers and writers wonder about in one glorious 42 minute period that would surely leave an impression on them.

Paul is truly a God of connecting authors with teachers and vice versa. Through him, I have met some of the most inspiring, creative, motivated teachers (and youth librarians) in the country, including Cindy. It has spoiled me a little for what I want (and see) for my own kids. Each time I meet one of their English teachers who doesn’t know a thing about contemporary YA fiction, or seem to make any real effort to truly encourage reading with their students, I’m like, “whaaaaaa? ”

I had the opportunity to see this kind of interaction firsthand this week with my students when Gae Polisner came to visit with us in my small rural high school. Let me tell you: it was exactly what I had hoped it would be.

Funny, it was exactly what I hoped it would be too – and more. And, it was amazing to see first-hand how “Mrs. Minnich” truly inspires her students to read… they literally walked into the room asking for titles, dishing on titles, racing to the back of the class to see what was new for them on the shelves. These kids have caught their teacher’s bug for reading. It’s something wonderful to witness.

My honors ninth graders read both The Pull of Gravity (Gae’s book) and Of Mice and Men over the summer. We had spent time talking about them, making connections, and puzzling over the choices Gae made when she wrote the book. We had quite a collection by the time Gae arrived on Tuesday: Why don’t Nick and Jaycee start dating sooner? What was the point of the bus crash? Did you intend for the Scoot to be like Yoda? Should we see Jaycee as a Mary Sue character?

I answered their questions as best I could, but first I had to be told what a Mary Sue is. And the answer is NO. Jaycee’s the opposite of a Mary Sue, if you ask me. 
The other ninth grade sections were only up to chapter 7 by Tuesday though we’d hoped we’d be done before. Ah…the best laid plans of mice and men! But this didn’t slow us down. We talked about how long it took to write, where her inspiration came from, whether she had known anyone with progeria before.

We also did some fun five-minute writing exercises and, as always, I was amazed at how enthusiastic and participatory the students were, and how amazing their pieces were. I was also amazed at how many were brave enough to read their rough work (or any work) aloud. I was one of those kids that was way too nervous and prayed I wouldn’t get called on.

And one student from those sections proudly read the very last page of The Pull of Gravity  in her presence and proclaimed to her that it was the best book he’d ever read – and the only book he’d yet read cover to cover.

He didn’t have his own copy, so, needless to say, as soon as I got home, I signed one up and sent it to him. Trust me, I’ll remember that kid more than he’ll ever remember me. 

Have you ever seen an author cry? That’s one sure way to make it happen.

Indeed it is. Surreal, happy tears, to move a kid in that way. . .

Books were signed, mini-trolls were passed out, and black cherry cola and wax lips were enjoyed.

As fast as it began, the bells rang one period after another, and before we knew it the day was done.

Gae headed home and I waited to see what the next day would bring.

What it brought were thank yous. Lots and lots of thank yous. The most overwhelming comment was that they wished that we could’ve had more time with her. (Indeed, fifth period was over before all of the questions were answered.)

I know. I felt bad because the hands were up – like a sea of hands – and I promised we’d get to them all. I’m not a fan of breaking promises, so I told them I’d happily Skype in again, or that any of them could email me and I’d happily answer their questions.

Even the substitute teacher’s aide told me that she was grateful she could be there to enjoy the visit. “It made me want to start reading more than I have been.”

The students echoed this sentiment. There’s a new level of thinking now with their books – the thinking of what inspired this writing or what ideas connect to it. I can teach this strategy, but hearing an author speak on the subject is ten thousand times more effective.

More than that, huge numbers of students wrote that they felt motivated to write more. “You really let me understand that I have better potential than what I thought I had,” wrote Aaron. “I judged myself on my first drafts. Now I know not to do that and I can be a better writer now because of you.”

If Aaron wrote that, my work there is done.

This has us working in the right direction to continue reading as writers and writing as readers. And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my friend Gae.

Thanks, Cindy, it was an honor to be there. I hope to be back next year! 😉

Cindy Minnich lives with her husband and six-year-old son in Millersburg, PA. She teaches 9th and 12th grade English and advises yearbook at Upper Dauphin Area High School. The best part about her job is seeing her students discover books again. The best part about motherhood is seeing that her son loves books as much as she does. She can be found on Twitter at @cbethm.

Gae Polisner is the author of the Nerdy-Award-winning The Pull of Gravity (also named to the PSLA & Bankstreet College’s lists of Best YA Fiction for 2011). Her next YA is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. When she’s not writing, she can be found swimming in the open waters off of Long Island. Follow Gae on Twitter @gaepol, join her on her facebook author page, or find out more about her at her website, The Pull of Gravity will be out in paperback soon!