The Experience

Author Meg Medina met with groups of 8 and 10 fourth-grade students in Carrboro Elementary’s dual language program from Monday, April 9 to Friday, April 13 in the Carrboro Elementary library to create zines filled with the students’ writing. Meg described zines to them as “the tiniest magazine in the world.” Throughout the week, they filled their zines with poems with a focus on imagery, memory, family, and dual language and they used stamps, stickers, markers, and printed pictures to decorate them with their unique styles. Librarian Liz Porter and graduate assistant Melissa Ferens served as assistant instructors. On Friday, both groups were combined and guests were invited for a presentation and celebration of their work.

Monday: Imagery and Zine Folding

Meg’s first priority when she began working with the fourth-grade students was to learn their names. After introductions, Meg asked them to cover their nametags so that she could test her memory of who was who. Then she asked them to mix themselves up so she could test her memory again. Smiling and laughing, the students got up and changed their seats. Not only did it help Meg learn their names and help the kids feel important, but it was also a fun icebreaker.

Every student received a personal notebook that they could use to take notes in and test art supplies throughout the week. As she passed them out, Meg assured the students that their writing didn’t have to be neat, didn’t have to be spelled correctly, could be in English or Spanish, and could have drawings. They were their notebooks that the students were encouraged to keep and make their own–and they did!

Meg asked the students to take a few minutes to write in their notebooks: “When I’m writing, I…” This warmup was to get them thinking about their identities as writers, which would help them write an artist’s statement at the end of the week to put in their zines. Among student responses: “When I’m writing I feel peaceful, like I’m on my way somewhere.” “I feel calm because I’m alone and writing my own story.” “I feel like bees are singing.” “I get lost in a story and can never stop.” Meg wrote parts of the students’ responses on the board to capture the beauty of everyone’s ideas.

Meg shared that the first secret to writing is to use the senses to help people make pictures in their mind. Together they practiced imagery with colors. Each group brainstormed everything they could think of that was a certain color—the first group did blue/azul, and the second chose red/rojo. Meg challenged them to come up with the most unusual examples they could think of.

Meg explained that “the job of the writer is to make ordinary things unusual.” To practice this, each group used their lists to compose a poem by taking the most unusual words and crashing them together to create vivid images.

Red                                                                Blue

Blood roses                                                   An azul dress

Balloon shoes                                                A water sky

Cherry fires                                                    The dress is in a mood of blue

Hot pepper pants                                           Tropical fish jeans

Fall leaf feathers                                             Berry shoes

Mango mole

After that, they took a well-earned brain break to fold their zines. Students followed along carefully and helped one another, so no one ended up with “confetti” as Meg warned! Before dismissing, Meg and the students put their hands together for a group cheer. They were excited and ready to make some zines!


Grade K-2 Assembly

In the afternoon, Meg gave a presentation called “How We Write a Book” to Kindergarten, first, and second grade in the auditorium. With her expressive and humorous storytelling style, supported by pictures and video, she related the family events in her life that inspired Mango, Abuela, and Me. She spoke about how she had to do research to make sure she included true information in the book, about how she found her illustrator, and about how the work of the author and illustrator are put together to make the book.

Tuesday: Comparisons and Memory Poem

On Tuesday, the fourth graders practiced making more unusual comparisons. They completed similes such as “black as…” “sharp as..” and “sweet like…”. They learned firsthand that the first comparison they think of is often the same one that others are likely to think of, and Meg stretched them as writers by imploring them to not choose what first came to mind. Black as night, sharp as a knife, and sweet like sugar were off limits. Instead, they came up with comparisons like “black as licorice swirls,” “sharp as ice crystals,” “sweet like Skittles,” “sweet as a bright smile,” and “sweet as cajeta.” A student thought outside the box and gave the example “sweet as lemons,” which Meg turned into a teaching moment about how writers can use comparisons and imagery to twist the reader’s expectations. With each example the students gave, Meg came up with a context to use it in and used her voice to dramatically illustrate the comparison to help the students feel the power of sensory language. She encouraged them to use interesting comparisons like these whenever they felt the impulse to use “evaporating words” like nice, good, or fun.

After that exercise, the students composed poems about their favorite toy or game when they were younger. Meg shared with them that one technique she uses as a writer is to pick an age and go back in her memory to that age, thinking about who she was, what she liked, and what experiences she had. She asked the students to think about themselves in Kindergarten or first grade. Did they remember their favorite things, their friends, their teacher? The students had been asked to bring in a favorite toy they used to play with, so they were able to use those as inspiration for writing their poems. She helped them reach back into their memory by asking them questions such as what the toy looked like, how they played with it, with whom they played with it, and why they remember it. She shared examples from her own childhood and emphasized that these memories stay for a reason, often because of whom they were created with. In the moment one may not realize how important the memory will become, but writing is an opportunity to explore those feelings.

At the end of the workshop lesson, Liz invited the students to come back to the library during their lunch. All the students were excited about continuing work on their zines and enthusiastically accepted the invitation. These lunchtime workshops continued Wednesday and Thursday.

Wednesday: Self Description Poem and Family Poem

The Meg Medina Writers had been writing and sharing their ideas with three instructors around, so to help them feel more comfortable and less observed, on Wednesday Liz and Melissa wrote alongside them and began work on their own zines.

Wednesday began with more practice with interesting comparisons, but this time the students got to write about themselves. Meg provided the skeleton of the poem: “I am strong as… / but gentle like… / I can be loud as… / or I can be quiet as… / I can be brave like… / or I can be scared as…” After a few minutes of independent writing, the students read their poems to the group. Some were reluctant to share, but Meg kindly and patiently pushed them to so that no one would be left out or left behind.  If they were unsure of what to say, she helped them complete the lines they were missing and the other students helped with suggestions.

Next, Meg taught about editing. She explained that writing is re-writing—first ideas are never final ideas because there is always something to improve as one thinks more deeply about their writing. She illustrated the editing process with a diagram she drew on the SMART Board.

The Meg Medina Writers transitioned to the main task for the day, composing poems about family. This topic was chosen because the heart of a story is about people, and the students would be able to practice writing about people whom they have strong feelings for, making the poems personal and meaningful. Students had been asked to bring or email a photograph of a family member they especially enjoy to inspire their writing and include as a picture in their zine if they would like. Just like with the memory poem, Meg asked the students questions to help them with structuring their poem and getting ideas of what characteristics of their family member they could write about. Meg, Liz, and Melissa talked with students about their poems while they were writing, helping them through the process. Students wrote about their moms, dads, siblings, cousins, aunts, and godfathers.

Thursday: Editorial Meetings and Final Production

Thursday was the last day to finish the zines, and the pressure was on. Meg, Liz, and Melissa were faced with a dilemma: would they implement Operation Code Switch as originally planned, so that the students could explore language and invent their own expressions? If so, they would introduce the zines on Friday as collections of first drafts. Or would they dedicate the day to editing so that the students could have the chance to move forward with their ideas, but have fewer writing pieces to share?

The team dedicated Thursday to editing because they wanted the students to create something they would truly be proud of, and putting more energy into fewer compositions would help this better than rushing a larger number of compositions. They also wanted the students to gain experience with editing because of its great significance to the writing process—editing is a skill in and of itself that involves metacognition and complex understanding of communicative practices, and most professional writers spend more time editing and revising than writing their initial draft.

The team also found themselves lacking time for the students to write individual artist statements, so as a compromise each group wrote one artist statement together. Liz asked the students to verbally complete the sentence, “When I am writing, I…” and she generated word clouds using each group’s responses. When the students saw the printed word clouds, many of them were amazed and commented about how cool they were, proud of how they turned out. Best of all, everyone’s contributions and voices mattered equally.

With the word clouds created, the students met with Meg in pairs for editorial meetings to revise their family poems.  The poems were stored in Google Docs, and the night before, Meg read through them and left comments, so the editorial meetings were efficient despite the time constraints. These small groups were powerful for the students because they gave them the opportunity to discuss their writing privately with a talented professional who took them seriously as writers, got excited about their ideas, and held high expectations for them.

Meanwhile, the students who weren’t editing were bursting with creativity and hard at work finishing the production of their zines. Liz and Melissa printed finished poems, provided encouragement, and kept everything running smoothly. After a final lunchtime workshop, everyone was ready for Friday’s celebration!

Friday: Presentation and Celebration

The Meg Medina Writers invited guests to the library on Friday for a presentation of their zines and a celebration of their work. Liz offered to arrange rides for families that needed help with transportation. If family wasn’t available, students invited a guest from Carrboro Elementary. Meg had assured the students that if they didn’t have anyone else who could come, she would be their special guest. All students but one had guests other than Meg, so it was a full house!

Guests arrived to a delicious spread of muffins, juice, and other breakfast and snack foods that Meg provided for everyone to enjoy. The berry juice was especially a hit with the Meg Medina Writers, who kept marveling at how delicious it was. The zines were displayed across a row of tables, and across from them were the students’ notebooks, group photos that had been taken and printed the previous day, and signed copies of Flying Lessons & Other Stories for them to take home. Everyone excitedly chatted, ate, and admired the contents of the tables. When the students heard that the books were signed, they excitedly rushed to look at them. Students took care of the music selection.

After a while, the attendees packed themselves into the story well for the reading of the zines. Meg began her introduction with praise for her writers. She gushed emphatically, “Son luces. Tienen ideas.” ‘They are lights. They have ideas.’ Since most of the guests were Spanish-dominant, Meg spoke in Spanish and English. She explained what the Steinfirst program is about and what the students worked on and learned about throughout the week. She presented a video she made with the pictures she, Liz, and Melissa took, which enraptured the writers and their guests. Go here to view the video and the zines.

The Meg Medina Writers then proudly read selections from their zines, many of which were written in honor of guests in the audience. Meg encouraged and complimented all the students who read. There was a student who wanted Meg to read her poem for her and felt too shy to stand beside her in the spotlight, but Meg convinced her to do so by asking if the student could stand beside Meg so Meg wouldn’t feel so scared. Meg drew attention to how the students composed single poems in both languages they knew. While switching between Spanish and English, Meg explained that there will be people who say not to do that, but like the fourth graders she also uses Spanish and English in all her books because that’s how bilinguals think—it’s normal and nothing to shy away from.

At the end of the celebration, Meg surprised her writers with two beautiful poems she penned as a gift for them. The first was a haiku about the students’ growth and potential, and the second was a poem encouraging them to listen to their voices.

It was then time to travel to the assembly, to which the guests were also invited to attend. The students made sure they had their priorities straight, stuffing their mouths with the remaining food on their way out. No sense letting it go to waste!

Grade 3-5 Assembly

After an introduction from Liz, Meg gave a presentation called “My Ridiculous Life in Fiction” to the third, fourth, and fifth graders in the school’s auditorium. She shared memories about her family and friends and spoke about how she fictionalized those memories in her books. She spoke about how and why she chose the books’ themes and the deeper questions she had to ask herself when writing, about her characters and the issues they face. She included examples from Tía Isa Wants a Car, Flying Lessons & Other Stories, and Merci Suarez Changes Gears (the latter of which she donated five advance reader copies to the school, which Liz gave to the fourth and fifth dual language classrooms). She ended with plenty of time for questions, and the Carrboro Cubs excitedly formed a long line at the foot of the stage. Their curiosities included topics such as her favorite books, how she chose her editor, and her inspirations.

It was a spectacular week, and everyone left it with more than they started: deeper appreciation for writing and family, confidence in their voices, and new and strengthened friendships.