Publishing student work is an excellent way to promote literacy and writing skills in any kind of project. A magical moment often occurs when a child holds a physical copy of a book they contributed to as they frantically search for their section within the pages. They see that their work matters. Publication also naturally embeds key components to project-based learning: there seems to exist an inherent audience, critique is absolutely essential and the structure allows for student choice in a variety of ways.
Here is a quick list of things to consider when planning and executing a publishing project.
1. Do a page (or two!) yourself.
If you’re asking kids to do it, you should do it, too! By doing a section of the project before you hand it to students, you will likely come across many of the same pitfalls that kids will face. Having a hard time putting pages of research into one paragraph? You aren’t the only one. Experiencing these issues will give you a better idea about how to structure your support for students and what to include and perhaps leave out. If you’re bored doing your own project, stop. Re-design. Re-think. Projects that can’t hold the attention of adults will not hold the attention of a kid. Add a personal angle to the content of the page. Use more art. If you find a way to have fun with the project yourself, you’ll thank yourself in the long run. You will also be able to show your students that you went through the same process they did. This is what builds a community of learners. Be transparent with your students. When they stumble, show them yours. Tell them you stumbled, too. And tell them they will end up doing a much better job than you did…
2. Look at models together and brainstorm what makes a good page.
To create a book that looks professional, look at professional books. Together. Start by gathering a bunch of books in the same genre. Writing a A-Z book? Get 10 of them from the library or the bookstore or off the shelf in your sons’ room when he’s sleeping. Lay them in front of students and give them 20 minutes to explore. After 20 minutes, ask students to look at the books again, but this time with the intent to answer the question, What makes a good ______? [Insert with A-Z book, research paper, short story, poem, etc.] Collect their responses and use these to structure the requirements of what you’re asking students to produce. Their ideas might include colorful pictures or interesting facts or details about each character. This set of standards can also be used as focus points in your critique sessions. Because students have generated this list, they will more likely want to fulfil each of the requirements. They thought it was important.
3. Decide your publisher.
If you are self-publishing online, there are many sites that will produce excellent books. It’s important to decide early what type of budget you have and what is important to you in the end.
For books where the quality of photos are essential, Blurb (http://www.blurb.co.uk/) is great. Blurb has a free downloadable program for formatting your book or you can upload using a PDF. There is also an option to convert to an E-Book which is great for showing student work without having to purchase multiple copies. The books cost between £13 and £40 depending on the number of pages and copies ordered. Blurb also links to Amazon.com where additional copies can be purchased.
Text-heavy books with few photos can be published easily with Lulu (http://www.lulu.com/gb/). Lulu has all the features of Blurb (E-Book, PDF formatting, link to Amazon.com) but is much cheaper. Paperback books start at £3. Lulu also does expedited shipping which can be clutch in preparation for an Exhibition!
4. Allow the process to be real-world.
Publish a book like adults do. A company that produces books has teams of people who make the process happen. They have publishers, editors (structural, proofreaders), financial operations, design/typography, marketers, sales, artists, etc. Have your students apply for each team with an application listing their strengths and why they would be a perfect candidate for their department of choice. Use these departments as an opportunity for students to showcase their talents and contribute to the team. I once had a student with Autism who struggled to write an original paragraph, but was quick to point out any spelling or grammar error on a project-handout. He became the perfect proofreader of a book we produced. Students even came to him after the project for help in this area! Take a trip to a local publishing company. See how books are made. Invite publishers to critique pages, graphic designers to help with lay-out. Get kids out, get adults in.
5. Don’t forget the basics of books.
The first book I published with students didn’t have a title page. On my deathbed, I’m hopeful that I won’t be thinking of this incident but it is something I’ll always remember. The front office secretary phoned my classroom announcing that the package with our books had arrived. A group of my students ran to the front of the school and began ripping open the box with an excitement I had rarely seen before. I grabbed a book and started looking through it. Overall, it was great. But there were little things missing, things that prevented the book from actually feeling like a book. For example, a title page. Through the years, I’ve made a special check-list of “book things” so I can free up my final minutes to think about my family and the good times in life.
Don’t forget these:
Table of contents
Author(s) biography (Each student can even write their own short paragraph about who they are)
New chapters start on the right page vs. back to back on the left
6. Publishing takes time.
For most self-publishing websites, it will take at least one week from submission for the books to arrive at your school. This is an important fact when determining final deadlines for project planning. The solution? Work backwards. Set the exhibition date first. Take 10 days from that date and mark a big star on the calendar to note that is the absolute last day to submit for publication. Make the final due date for students two days before and plan critique, draft deadlines accordingly. After your book has been sent off, take the additional time to plan for Exhibition. This might include the students rehearsing parts of their book if they will read aloud. It might include printing and mounting book pages for display. The entire class might divide into ‘Action Groups’ and each take on a part of planning (i.e. decorations, lighting, ushers, publicity, food, scheduling, etc.)
7. To Print or Not to Print?
The decision to have copies of the publication at Exhibition is always tricky. The cost of printing can be high and there’s always a fear of buying too many. If your budget allows, buy one book for each student to take home. On a recent school visit, David Jackson made the comment, “It’s a small price to pay for a student to be proud of their project.” And really, it is. The opportunity for kids to take home their published work is priceless and is an investment for student and family buy-in for future projects. Another option is to order a select number of books to sell at Exhibition (this to be determined by your budget) and hand out cards with the link to purchase the book on Amazon for guests. You could also display the E-Book on computers or I-Pads during Exhibition for students to show their individual pages.
8. Think beyond parents.
While parents and families are the ‘go to’ audience for things like an A-Z book, ask yourself who else would be interested in this book? If the book is on local history, find a museum. If it’s a children’s book, find children. Design your exhibition around these real audiences instead of just parents. Parents will (almost) always come. The trick is finding a reason for how student-work can contribute to the world in a real way. If you’re struggling to determine an audience beyond a parent exhibition night, don’t do the project. Change it. To make it project-based learning, requires a connection to something authentic. If it’s a book about parenting, keep the parent exhibition. If not, push yourself to find another way or to include another audience.