Middle Schoolers Publish Suspenseful Stories, Photos

After training from a professional writer and photographer, 220 NKMS seventh graders submitted photos and “story starters” designed to inspire readers to tell their own tales.

There aren’t any rock-scaled serpents in, but that didn’t stop Matilda Workman.

While looking for inspiration for a scary, suspenseful story, Matilda, a seventh grader at , stumbled upon a rock-studded sculpture—easy to do in the 100 acre open-air museum—and snapped a photo of one small curve.

From that picture, she built a “story starter,” a two-to-five sentence paragraph that sparks a story idea in the mind of the reader, about a rock-scaled serpent.

“He lived in my creek, never bothering anyone,” Matilda wrote. “He would just lay on the bank, basking in the sun, waiting for me. Whenever I came, I brought him bread and wine, both of which he loved. And that was how our world worked. Until that one, fateful day when I decided not to come…”

The photography field trip and story starters are nothing new to North Kirkwood Middle School. For years, seventh and eighth-grade students have studied The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Christ Van Allsburg, a book of illustrations and story starters, before taking Halloween-time trips to Laumeier searching for spooky, mysterious images to inspire their own story starters and, later, full-blown stories.

But this year, the stakes are higher.

Van Allsburg and his publishers are holding a national contest, and the prize is a school visit from Van Allsburg himself.

 and North Kirkwood Middle School teamed up to win. The contest will judge three things: the contest held by the school and the bookstore, the display of student works in the bookstore and the best student story.

To prepare, students took a two-day writing workshop with Jewell Parker Rhodes, professor at Arizona State University, and a photography workshop with Randy Kriewall, a professional photographer and Kirkwood High School math teacher.

More than 200 seventh-graders submitted story starters as part of the contest, and faculty selected 20, including Matilda’s The Rock-Scaled Serpent, to be published as The Mysteries of Laumeier and displayed at Main Street Books.

At the school, students read the e-book version of The Mysteries of Laumeier on one of the school’s 25 iPads.

“It’s a whole lot better” than publishing on paper, said Barry Crook, library media specialist at the middle school and project coordinator for the Van Allsburg contest. “We would have to publish these books, print 200 pages, staple them and get them to the kids. They were hard to move around. They were expensive to store.”

And in an e-book, the school could share students’ photos in full color, rather than in black-and-white in the physical copies.

“There is a lot more internal motivation” for students, Crook said. “They know they are going to be on display and other people are going to read them.”

Students are currently finishing their three-to-four page stories inspired by story starters written by their classmates or by Van Allsburg. The 28 best stories from the seventh and eighth grades will be published as e-books and displayed at Main Street Books.

From those stories, one will be selected as the best and submitted as part of the national contest.

“It’s very motivating for the kids,” Crook said. “They’ve got lots of cool ideas. Everybody is collaborative, and the kids feed off each other’s energy.”

The Mysteries of Laumeier is on display among Van Allsburg’s books at Main Street Books through Dec. 31. The winner of the national contest will be announced in early 2012.


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