A 5th Grade class at PS 165 on the Upper West Side began the year with a unit on mysteries. Class teacher Ms. Morales invited Behind the Book into the room to help create a mystery writing program for which we brought in prolific children’s writer Liz Levy and her book Danger and Diamonds: Mystery at Sea. Over the course of three visits with Ms. Levy, the class learned first-hand the process of conceiving, planning, and writing a mystery. They even had the opportunity to meet Ms. Levy’s editor, Nancy Mercado of Roaring Brook Press, and to talk to her about various other facets of the writing process, such as collaboration, rewriting, and editing.
During the first visit, Ms. Levy introduced students to the basic elements of a mystery, including the presence of a problem, a detective, suspects, clues, etcetera. Students particularly took to the concept of the ‘red herring’–a classic misdirection tactic which students discussed with great animation. Students then came up with a basic premise for the story, using concrete details from their surroundings.
This part of the process was really fascinating. The entire story to follow was built on the single humorous question of what might happen if all the snow accumulated over break were suddenly to melt and the school were to float away. Following that, the school building transformed into a ship, Ms. Morales became a captain, and the class floated down Broadway, into the west river until they passed the Statue of Liberty who appeared to be missing her stone tablet! The rest of the story developed in a similarly seamless fashion, with students calling out suggestions and Ms. Levy typing them into her laptop, whose contents were being projected onto the class whiteboard.
In between sessions, students researched questions and discrepancies, and were able to incorporate fact into their fantasy. Ms. Levy helped students smooth narrative wrinkles, fill loopholes, and make all the connections one finds in a really good mystery. At the end of three visits, the class had collaboratively written a fantastic adventure that journeyed all the way from New York to Brazil, and combined historic, cultural, and economic concerns generated, in part, by a recent unit on the Western Hemisphere. What a voyage!
The program was capped by an illustration workshop with Behind the Book’s resident artist Barbara Korein, who helped students illustrate the story and come up with a cover, so it can printed and turned into a book, which the class will keep as a record of their excellent work.
At JHS 13, we find ourselves in the middle of a Comic Book program with Archie Comics writer Alex Simmons. 7th grade students in East Harlem are beginning the process of giving graphic form to individual stories they have written with class teacher Ms. Willis as part of a unit on fantasy fiction. Thus far, they have learned about the basics of comic strip creation, and have each begun to develop a physical form for a character from their story.
Last Friday, Mr. Simmons led the class on an excursion to the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, where students had the opportunity to view and discuss work by notable contemporary comic artists such as Denis Kitchen and Liza Donnelly. Students could be seen sketching while at the museum, which, we hope, means they’re finding joy in multiple forms of self-expression.