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Authors, book discussions encouraging Eastmont students to read

Dec 10, 2019 02:10PM ● By Julie Slama

In October, author Josh Allen told Eastmont students, “One of the best gifts we can give ourselves is permission to fail” to ensure people work hard toward their passion. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Author Josh Allen secretly loves the question, “what do you write?”

His answer — “horror stories for children” — invokes responses and looks he appreciates.

“I love the feeling, that prick on the back of your neck or when the hairs on your arms stand up from being spooked,” he shared with Eastmont Middle School students shortly before Halloween, understandably one of his favorite holidays.

Allen told students he wrote “Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe,” which was released for a target audience of fourth through eighth graders in September of this year, so the collection of short stories on the lighter side of scary would be shared. 

“If I want these stories to exist in the world, I had to write them and not wait for someone else,” he said.

Bringing Allen to speak is just one of the ways Eastmont Middle School staff and faculty are encouraging student literacy. Eastmont English teacher Corey Jensen, a former student of Allen’s, hoped his former professor inspired students.

“It’s a cool opportunity to meet an author and understand the importance of writing and creativity from someone who has done it and is passionate about it,” Jensen said. 

While visiting, Allen shared messages with students, whether they choose to write or follow another career path.

“I admire Stephen King; he’s a fantastic writer. But don’t try to be someone else. If I did, I’d be a second-rate Stephen King, not a first-rate me,” he said. “If you want to be a creator, you have to be yourself and don’t apologize for that. Make what you’re made to make, whatever that is.”

He also told students to allow themselves to miss the mark. 

When Allen gives writing assignments to his BYU-Idaho students, he watches them write sentences, then delete them over and over so during an hour, the students end up with little to nothing on the page.

“One of the best gifts we can give ourselves is permission to fail,” he said. “You’re allowed to do things poorly, then put in the work, the practice, the effort, to see yourself improve and feel that joy. If it’s something you’re really passionate about, then put yourself out there.”

Allen also told students to “read your guts out” and pay attention. 

“My book wouldn’t exist without paying attention; everything I need is around me,” he said.

Allen has found his inspiration from a couch on the side of a street to staring at his ceiling fan to looking at his shadow as he crossed campus. He also has reached into his days as a student at Oquirrh Hills Middle School in Riverton, where he turned a stain on the cafeteria floor and a paper towel dispenser in the boys’ restroom into stories in the book. 

Allen said he hopes sharing his path with students will “connect them with writers. When kids feel that they are connected, they tend to become more passionate readers.”

Earlier this year, Eastmont students also had a chance to learn from Phil Rink, the author of the Jimi & Isaac book series, in September. Rink, who is a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur, said his books can read like an instruction manual since the kids in the story read them and are fascinated with tearing something apart to see how they work.

The boys in the books fail constantly, struggle to recover and learn to work together to solve the problems, said teacher librarian Sonja Miles.

“He told students if anyone criticized your work, then take it as a compliment they read it and provided feedback on ways to improve,” she said. “He talked about the writing and editing process and said that the books go through a lot of edits. We learned he limits his characters so it’s easier to follow, with only the main characters and a couple side characters.”

Miles said each year, she reaches out to a variety of local authors to speak with Eastmont students, some whom have included Lance Conrad, who writes “The Price of” books, C.W. Trisef of the “Oracle” series and teenager McKenzie Wagner, who first penned “The Magic Meadow and the Golden Locket” as an elementary student.

“Reading is important in all aspects of life. We try to get kids interested in reading books and reading for pleasure,” she said, adding that this is the seventh year they have brought in authors.

In addition to author talks, Miles holds a monthly brown bag book club that discusses books of different genres. 

“Students don’t have to read that particular book. They can share what book they are reading,” she said. “I try to make it not daunting. And every time we have authors come, we talk about their books.”

Miles said this month’s book club selection, “The Crossover,” a 2015 children's book by American author Kwame Alexander and the winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award Honor, is a popular read with Eastmont students. She barely checked in one copy before it is checked out to another student.

“We try to offer a wide variety, take students’ suggestions and have the students share what sparks their interest in them,” she said.

In October, with the support of teachers, Miles was in the midst of organizing 59 teams, each with four or five students who eagerly await to compete in Battle of the Books. 

Battle of the Books is a reading incentive program for students who have created teams to read books and come together to demonstrate their abilities and to test their knowledge of the books they have read. 

Eastmont offered a school-wide Battle of the Books competition for three years, before Canyons School District hosted its first battle between all of Canyons School District’s middle schools in April 2018. The questions, posed to the students in a Family Feud style game, asked students to answer questions with the title of the book before receiving additional points with the author’s name. 

“I really believe this helps students read more books, and the exposure to more books improves their reading strategies and their education. We have digital notebooks for students to take notes, videos for them to watch and quizlets after the read the books,” Miles said. “One of my favorite things is to see the students check out books that they never would normally read and to see them really enjoy them.”

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