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February 07, 2013
English Language Arts teacher Beth Shaum wanted to change her sixth graders' perceptions about the process of writing and show them that even published authors, not much different than the students themselves, struggle putting thoughts to page.

Rather than take on the endeavor alone, Shaum enlisted the help of a couple friends: three-time Newbery Honor-winning author Jennifer L. Holm ("Penny from Heaven," "Our Only May Amelia," and "Turtle in Paradise") and young adult literature author Christopher Healy ("The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom").

St. Paul on the Lake Catholic School sixth graders Stevie Murphy, left, and Tommy Schmitz, talk to young adult literature author, Christopher Healy, via Skype Wednesday, Jan. 24, during their English Language Arts class. Their teacher, Beth Shaum, connected with Healy through Twitter and asked if he’d speak to her class. Newbery Honor winner Jennifer L. Holm also Skyped with students the previous day. Photo by Renee Landuyt
"I follow a lot of authors and teachers on Twitter," Shaum said. "So, you just start to build relationships with them, and you end up saying, 'Hey, would you like to Skype with my class?'"

Both authors obliged, and on Tuesday, Jan. 23, and Wednesday, Jan. 24, Shaum's sixth graders at St. Paul on the Lake Catholic School Skyped with Holm and Healy, respectively.

Students prepared separate questions for each session. One at a time, they approached the classroom computer to ask their question, while others in the class settled on the floor and watched and listened to the authors' responses via the SMART board.

"(The students) were really excited and it was really cool," Shaum said.

Most questions focused on the authors' process of writing, from finding sources of inspiration for story ideas and characters to choosing character names to advice and tips for future writers. They were questions that, in some way, sought to relate the similarities in the process of writing between author and student, professional and apprentice.

"It's a good lesson that things can be hard sometimes and if you really want something, you might fail at it a number of times before you finally succeed, and so just kind of hang on if you really want to do something," Healy said of his initial failures to find a job in writing.

In a later response to a question about tips for writing an introduction, Healy spoke of his struggles writing the prologue to "Hero's Guide." He mentioned the need to write and rewrite the novel's introduction "probably 15 times, if not more," showing what Shaum had hoped, that even published authors, not much different than the students themselves, struggle putting thoughts to page.

"I wanted them to see that writing takes work, that it just doesn't… I think the perception is that authors just put it on the page and it's done and it just goes off to the publisher," Shaum said. "So, I guess that's the big thing, and I want them to see that authors are people, that they don't just kind of sit in this room, sort of like up in the clouds. They are accessible and they want to talk to kids. They write for kids, they want to be around kids."

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