Teaching to Writing by Beck McDowell

People often ask if I always wanted to be a writer. The truth is that I always wanted to be a teacher – and being a teacher made me want to be a writer. A large number of the young adult writers I’ve met while touring to promote THIS IS NOT A DRILL are former teachers. (Has anyone done a poll? I’d love to know the actual percentage.) For me, it worked like this: I felt that, after so many years of teaching, I kind of knew what types of books high schoolers liked. I wanted to translate that “insider info” into writing books kids would want to read.

My teaching informed my writing in so many ways. First, as an Advanced Placement Language teacher (11th grade) for the past 10 years, I spent my day helping students pick apart good writing. We investigated famous essays, speeches, and fiction to see what worked and what didn’t, which passages evoked a strong reaction from the reader, what the writers’ purpose seemed to be and which diction choices helped them accomplish their goals. I really didn’t realize I was preparing myself for a writing career while I was preparing them for college, but I found that I was more interested in writing than ever before. (I’d always been connected to the writing world as a journalism minor who’d written for school newspapers in middle school, high school, and college.)

I often read aloud to my students; some admitted never actually finishing a book and I wanted them to see how different current young adult offerings were from the required reading many of them disliked. Those read-alouds taught me about “voice” as I listened along with my students to the way the words on the page translated into actual speech (an exercise that taught me to ALWAYS read my books aloud before completing edits.)

In helping my students find good books, I discovered how vast the offerings were in various genres of young adult lit. And in reading the reviews my students’ wrote for the website we built at www.NotRequiredReading.com , I learned to see books as they did. I’d decided early in my teaching career that written book reports were part of kids’ negative association with books, so I conducted “book interviews” – quick individual conferences that allowed me to assess whether they’d actually read the book before assigning credit in their “Choice Reading” grade column. Those conversations with my students were priceless stepping stones in my path to becoming a writer. We’d quickly move from general comprehension questions to eager discussions of why a book’s ending didn’t work or which characters were unrealisitic or what made a book a student’s “favorite ever.” I had no idea I was internalizing the lessons THEY were teaching ME in preparation for a second career as an author!

As a teacher-turning-writer, I also learned the importance of developing a reading community. The online reviews my students wrote for our website were invaluable in sharing books with each other. Even the simple Sign-Out booklet I kept for my classroom collection was “studied” by students searching for books lots of their peers were reading. As part of our extended community, I invited Guest Readers from all walks of life. They loved it when the coaches came in to read from favorite books, dispelling stereotypes and luring reluctant readers into the fold. I also learned that connecting with authors can encourage reading, so we wrote to authors asking their favorite books, invited them to our classroom, and interviewed them online for the website. This helped me understand the importance of being available as much as possible on Twitter and Facebook (although I’m fairly social anyway so those outlets are fun for me.)

One of my favorite questions from a blog interview recently was: What are some of the lessons your students taught you? I realized, in forming my answer, that so many of these lessons became themes in my books. I saw teens in my class respond bravely to terrible crises in their own lives, step up and fight for kids who were bullied, reach out to classmates who were hurting with kindness and empathy, and work hard to achieve goals they’d set for themselves. I learned so much from them about generosity of spirit, faith in humanity’s basic goodness, and triumph over great pain and sadness. The characters in my books will always be fashioned after them – not in any specific one-on-one way, but in a general sense of what teens are like. Their impact on my writing is immeasurable, and I don’t think I’d have written a single word without the years I spent learning from them in the classroom. My former students are my role models, writing mentors, character inspirations and best critics – always. Even though I’ve listed 9 Tips for Writers on my blog at www.BeckMcDowell.com, I’d have to say that THEY were my best writing teachers, and the students I meet in school visits while touring continue to inspire me. Getting to talk with middle and high school students is truly one of the best parts of being an author.

Beck McDowell is a YA author with emphasis on the Adult in Young Adult. She loves intelligent books with strong plots and quirky characters written in simple, creative language. Her young adult thriller THIS IS NOT A DRILL (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Group) launches Oct. 25, 2012. It’s the story of two teens who must protect the first graders they tutor when a soldier, returned from Iraq and suffering from PTSD, opens fire in the classroom when not allowed to check out his son.
Her non-fiction work, LAST BUS OUT, is the story of Courtney Miles, who stole a bus after Hurricane Katrina, and drove over 300 people to safety.
She’s a former middle and high school AP English teacher who’s sponsored newspapers, literary magazines, Shakespeare festivals, medieval banquets, book fairs, art exhibits, and trips to museums, operas and plays. Together, she and her students built the website www.notrequiredreading.com to share their reviews and book trailers.