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Middle schoolers learn art of storytelling

Two local authors want students to have fun, keep writing
by: ellen Spitaleri, Rae Richen, lower left, and Bill Cameron, upper right, encourage the young writers in the group to read their work aloud.

When Rae Richen and Bill Cameron came up with the idea of an after-school writing club for students at Happy Valley Middle School, they were a little apprehensive as to whether or not they would get any takers. But on the first day of class, 14 students showed up, and 13 have stayed on as the group nears the end of its eight-week session.

Richen and Cameron are volunteering their time to work with the Happy Valley Middle School Writing Club. They are both published authors and members of the Oregon Writers Colony, a group based in Rockaway that offers support to writers in all stages of their writing careers, from novices to published authors.

OWC has been offering writing club activities for years, Richen said, adding that she and Cameron wanted to form a writing club at Happy Valley Middle School, because her daughter, Margaret Price, is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school next door.

'We created our own model; besides teaching them the essence of writing short stories, we wanted to help them give and take suggestions and learn about editing,' Richen said.

When the pair began the class, they had a rigid, structured outline, which they soon learned needed to be adapted.

The middle schoolers were 'anxious to tell stories, so we modified our outline to focus on the writing, and they could use us as a sounding board,' Cameron added.

It helped that the students had already learned the basics of story writing in school, Richen said, noting that the class understood the concepts of protagonist, antagonist and conflict, which drives the story forward.

Richen and Cameron help the class members with grammar, but really their goal is to encourage the students to write and enjoy writing.

Two weeks ago, a 'wonderful thing happened,' Richen said, when two of the quieter girls asked if they could go for an inspirational walk.

'I let then do it and three or four minutes later they came in all excited, because they had some good ideas after looking at murals around the school,' she added.

Advantages

When the class comes to an end, the Oregon Writers Colony will put up the money to publish the short stories, and each student, their parents and the Happy Valley Middle School library will get a copy.

'We are trying to infuse in them the idea that you can write something, and writing can be a part of your entire life. With us, the students see two people who write and really love it. We're real; you can pick up a book, but you get no sense of the person who wrote it,' Cameron said.

Richen and Cameron also demonstrated for the students the give and take of listening to the suggestions of others.

'You can listen to other people's ideas, and you can go with them or not,' Richen said.

'They will accomplish what they accomplish. It doesn't matter if they finish their story or not; wherever they end up that is OK. At least they will get a sense of how a story goes, and the writing will continue after class,' Cameron added.

Supportive group

On Tuesday, May 15, all the sixth-grade members of the Happy Valley Middle School Writing Club were at Outdoor School, so the seven remaining seventh graders were able to get even more one-on-one time with the instructors than usual.

'The best thing about the class is learning from two published writers; getting tips from them about writing and finding out what they think is good,' said Kaitlyn Wells, 12.

She also appreciates the opportunity to read her writing out loud, she said, adding, that after she read her story aloud, members of the class asked her questions that she had not thought about before.

'I like having an excuse for creativity that doesn't have a prompt or a time limit,' said Maddie Fitzpatrick, 13.

She noted that she would recommend the class to her friends, because it has been helpful to get tips and information from actual writers.

Alisen Vrabel, 13, also appreciates a place she can go, with time set aside to write.

Her story is about a 16-year-old girl who has made some bad decisions, and now has a baby and needs to overcome obstacles.

For her, the hardest part about the class has been 'trying to find the right words. I set such a high standard for myself that it is hard to live up to it.'

Adam Louie, 12, signed up for the writing club, because he did not feel his creative writing skills were strong enough.

'I thought this class was the perfect way to help me improve, and it did,' he said.

His short story is a fantasy, about a dragon and his dragon rider companion.

'They encounter an opponent and the dragon loses his friend after battle. I chose to write about dragons, because I have always liked them; they are brave and add something special to a story,' he said.

Noah Yu, 13, is part of the group, because he wants to improve comprehension and grammar, and he said the class has already helped him understand those skills.

His story is entitled 'The Fly and His Lunch,' and is told from the first-person perspective of a very, very hungry fly that only cares about getting food.

Learning all the steps in the process of short-story writing has been most helpful to 12-year-old Jesse Zak, she said, adding she has also learned to think through the story line and decide where scenes belong.

Her short story is called 'Silent Friendship,' and is about a young girl named Annie who cannot speak. Because Annie does not talk, Jesse has found it a challenge to get that character's thoughts in the story.

Emily Chan, 12, said she appreciates having the guidance from Richen and Cameron, and the support of the group.

Her story is entitled 'Raine's Rain,' and is the second one in a series.

'The first story is called 'Three Shots,' and in that one Raine sees her parents die. The next story is about what happens next,' she said.

Richen and Cameron plan to keep the writing club going next year, and are hoping to get some grants to continue the model in other schools as well.

Fast facts

Contact Rae Richen, author of 'Uncharted Territory' and 'To Serve Those Most in Need: A History of the Albertina Kerr Centers,' at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Bill Cameron is the author of 'County Line' and three other mysteries featuring Portland homicide detective Skin Kadash;

contact him at bc@billcameron mysteries.com.