These are strange days for the Chicago Public Schools, but on the Tuesday morning before winter break, the fifth-graders in Mr. Harlan’s class at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square are less concerned with the prospect of a teachers’ strike than with coming up with satisfying endings for the monster stories they’ve been writing all semester with help from volunteers at 826CHI, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in Wicker Park. 826 has partnered with CPS to produce an anthology of the stories that will be published in the spring.
First, though, the students have to finish writing. They’ve pushed their desks into clusters and sit expectantly in front of their school-issued laptops.
“What are some common endings for stories?” asks Amanda Lichtenstein, 826’s director of education.
“The end!” suggests one boy sitting in the front row.
“Yes, that’s one,” Lichtenstein agrees in the hesitant voice of a teacher who hasn’t gotten quite the response she was looking for. “What else?”
“And they all lived happily ever after!” shouts a girl near the back.
“And does that tell you anything?”
“Yes! Endings should be surprising. What else?”
Another student volunteers: “And that was the story of blank and blank.”
“I hadn’t thought of that one,” says Lichtenstein. “What else? What do you see a lot at the end of a long story that makes you really unhappy?”
“To be continued!” suggests a boy sitting to Lichtenstein’s right.
“Very good!” says Lichtenstein. “Remember, we want an ending. This is a short story about a monster who has a problem and then resolves it, not a novel that goes on and on and on.”
And how do they create a definite, surprising, and unique ending? Why, with the triple Ds of course. (“I always feel so silly saying that,” volunteer Willie Filkowski confesses later.) Those are, another student cheerfully recites, “dialogue, description, and detail.”
And then the students flip open their laptops and, with help from Mr. Harlan and the 826 volunteers, get to work.
Lilliana Harris, who has chosen the Rowlingesque pen name L.M. Harris, has written a story about a lonely ghost named Abigail who kidnaps children and forces them to be her friends. But when Abigail steals a girl named Kiana, who also has no friends because people think she’s weird for reading Captain Underpants books, the two discover they have lots in common and form a true friendship. Lilliana’s story concludes with Abigail getting her fellow ghosts to celebrate all the holidays, except for Valentine’s Day, which they only accept after she changes it to Friendship Day.
Inspired by Lichtenstein’s lecture, Lilliana types, “The end, it’s the end nothing else no sequel Stop reading it’s the end.” Then she pulls out the books she bought at the school book fair earlier that morning and strokes the soft covers lovingly.
Other students are having more trouble.
“I like that Cara’s parents get a new favorite TV show,” volunteer Alex Borkowski tells one of the students in his group. “I’m not trying to write the story for you, but maybe you could describe it?”
So far, the students have invested about 20 hours in their stories. Lichtenstein says they focused more on the writing process than the basics of grammar and punctuation—that all would come later. “We looked at Basquiat paintings,” she says. “We looked at the Maya Angelou poem ‘Life Doesn’t Scare Me.’ We talked about abstract monsters and about fear. And we talked about character, setting, and plot—the complex, potent mixture that makes for a good story. They wrote for the month of November. We talked about word choices, similes, metaphors, figurative language, the triple Ds.”
As the stories progressed, the lead volunteer on the project, Bryce Parsons-Twesten, read the drafts in Google docs and made comments and suggestions that the students could respond to, or not. Even when you’re in fifth grade, the editing process is a fraught one. The volunteers make a visible effort to respect the students as writers while encouraging them—gently!—to make their stories better. (“Don’t let me write your story, man,” Borkowski tells one student. “Then I’ll want residuals.” “I’ll give you a dollar,” another girl at the table replies.)
At first Mr. Harlan, the students’ regular classroom teacher, was dubious about the 826 teaching strategy. But Brentano’s principal, Seth Lavin, reports that it’s now changed the way Harlan teaches writing.
“I hope it’s for the better,” says Lichtenstein. “Teachers have anxieties about teaching writing, so they teach mostly rules. We teach the writing process and end with grammar and punctuation. They learn the rules, the basic expectations of the fifth-grade curriculum, along the way.”
About halfway through the hour Lichtenstein stops the group work for a quick discussion of punctuation. She challenges the students to find and correct three mistakes in their own stories.
“There’s a core of students who intrinsically get the editing process and the idea of separate paragraphs,” Borkowski says later. “They probably learned that skill from reading.”
One student, Beyrali Santiago, has written a complicated time-travel story set in four separate time periods. “There are a lot of changing tenses,” Willie Filkowski explains, “and it doesn’t sound right to me, and she’s like, ‘What’s up with that?'”
Instead, he decides to look at the story logically. “This sentence ‘Then he starts to talk to me for a little while, then he sees me.’ How does that work? Can you act it out?”
Beyrali explains that the other character was sad and had his head in his hands. As she and Filkowski talk out the scenario some more, she decides that the character was sitting on a curb with his head down.
The final drafts of the stories are due at the end of the week. In January, the volunteers will review edits with the students, who will take printed copies home to be OK’d by their parents. A photographer will come in to shoot author photos, and the class will vote on a title for the anthology. In the meantime, Parsons-Twesten will scan the stories for evocative sentences that can be passed on to an illustrator. Later on in the winter, the stories will be subjected to a rigorous copy edit, and the anthology will go into production for a June release. Each student will get a copy of the finished book; copies will also go to the Brentano school library, various branches of the Chicago Public Library, and will be available for sale at the 826 store on Milwaukee Avenue.
“This is something the kids will remember all their lives,” predicts Lavin.
Meanwhile, as Lichtenstein brings the session to a close with a few inspirational words—”We love you, we believe in you, we love these stories, and we want them published!”—Filkowski and Beyrali have a quick final story conference.
“You need to make sure the reader always knows exactly where you are,” Filkowski says.
“I can’t do this,” Beyrali sighs.
“You can,” Filkowski tells her. “We made this so much better!”
The end, it’s the end nothing else no sequel Stop reading it’s the end.