Last week, I went back to high school.

When I visit schools these days, more often than not, I’m visiting elementary and middle schools. But every once in awhile, I’ll get the opportunity to visit a high school, and my October visit to Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas was one of those special ones.


Stellar librarians Angela Hall and Ami Uselman coordinated the visit. Both are former Round Rock ISD elementary school librarians, which is how I came to know them. I met Angela during an author visit to Callison Elementary, and I met Ami during a visit to Teravista Elementary. In fact, over the years, I’ve visited Teravista a number of times, and Ami and I are now good friends.

It was Ami’s idea to have me conduct writing workshops with first year high schoolers, upper class students, and writing club kids at Cedar Ridge. To be honest, a part of me was a bit hesitant. I didn’t really know what to expect. Would they be interested in what I had to say? Would they be engaged? Some of the exercises I wanted to try were similar to ones I did with younger students — would they go for it?

Well, there was no need for any hesitation.


First, we talked about world building. I used my middle grade novel A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME as the example. It’s the first book in a four-book series so creating the world is critical. What you establish in book one in terms of character, setting, and plot sets the foundation for all the books. I didn’t expect the kids to be interested in my book or series,  but I was hoping they would make connections to other books and their own writings.

They did. More than I envisioned. Far more than I envisioned.

Ami was kind enough to share some student feedback. What I didn’t know was that a number of the kids were planning on participating in the upcoming NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month), and the discussion we had fit right into this. The following day. one student shared her journal with Ami and showed her the detailed map she had drawn of the city and characters she was writing about.

“I know my writing notebook is messy,” she said, “but look at this…this is what Phil was talking about!”

Next, we wrote “thought bubbles.” In my writing workshops this fall, I’ve started to incorporate thought bubbles. For instance, I’ll share an image like this…

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 8.50.57 AM

… and then have the students come up with the thoughts.

At every grade level, this activity has been incredibly successful — measuring success by the creativity of the responses, how engaged everyone is, and how much fun everyone is having.

I did one more activity with the high schoolers, one that I can’t do with younger students. Back in the day, I would have in a heartbeat, and they would have loved it and learned so much. However, this is 2015, and sadly, all it takes is one misguided parent to weaponize their laptop, press send, and… well, you know how that goes.

But I digress.

The activity I did with the high school students is a variation of the one the teacher does in A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME. It’s also the prompt I used a couple years ago on Kate Messner’s Teachers Write summer online learning program (you should definitely consider participating next year, it’s amazing).

I had the kids stand on the tables and observe the room. Often, fascinating things are right in front of us, but we don’t notice them. But when we change our vantage point or perspective — even just a little — we do. I had the kids write down their observations. What appeared? What looked different?


The responses were so varied — ranging from we were able to see one another’s footwear to the amount of dust everywhere. Many of the shared comments were about one another. Some felt comfortable standing on the tables, some felt uneasy.

For me, there were many takeaways, but three in particular stand out. First was the number of kids who chose to participate. In the first session, every student got on the tables, and in the second, only a handful chose to sit out. Second, after we finished the exercise, one student asked if he could stay up there for the rest of the session. I said it was fine by me. So he did. So did many students.


They stood up there like that for over twenty-five minutes!

The third takeaway was a gift from a student. During the workshop, one kid drew the main character from my book and gave me his drawing. We all listen in our own ways.


But without a doubt, my biggest takeaway from these writing workshops was the one Ami shared. She observed the smiles. Everyone was smiling. The whole time. Everyone was having fun.

Yeah, it really is that simple. We learn best when we’re having fun.


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