How I Became a Published Author in Fifth Grade

By Jolisa, Seventh Grade Student, KIPP Metro Atlanta

The first Saturday of September is an exciting time for the KIPP Scribers of KIPP STRIVE Academy. It is on this day every year that we pull out our favorite pens, not to continue writing stories, but to sign autographs! Yes, I am a published author. And yes, I am just 13 years old and a seventh grader at KIPP STRIVE Academy. How did this happen? Here is my story, and the story of the KIPP Scribers.

Before coming to KIPP STRIVE Academy, writing was foreign territory to me. Mr. Rajeski, my fifth grade writing teacher, changed all that. Before becoming a teacher, Mr. Rajeski was a writer for a popular television show called “Fraser.” So he knew how to make writing seem exciting. He taught us about sentence structure and the process for properly constructing a thrilling story. He introduced us to free-write, a period of time to just jot down any thoughts that come to mind. Stopping the flow of words during free write was against the rules! At first I laughed about this process, but it made me realize some of the quirks in my speech pattern that were also showing up in my writing. It was the first time I had actually read my own thoughts! A couple of months into the school year, I was writing long stories for homework assignments, something I had never done before.

However, sparking an interest in writing in his fifth grade class was not enough for Mr. Rajeski. Just a few blocks away from the school is the Wren’s Nest, an organization dedicated to maintaining the thousands of African folktales written by Joel Chandler Harris, creator of the Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit folktales. Mr. Rajeski and Lane Shakespeare, the grandson of Joel Chandler Harris, devised a plan to pair established Atlanta writers with KIPP STRIVE students to create and publish a book of family folklore. As the Wren’s Nest’s mission is to preserve African-American folklore through storytelling, and our school is 97% African-American, this was the perfect setup.

Mr. Rajeski selected 18 students to become the first KIPP Scribers. The Wren’s Nest found local authors to serve as our writing partners. My writing partner, Kay Powell, met with me each Wednesday for several months to coach me through the creation and revisions of my story which were tales my father told me as a child. I emailed Kay constantly for advice on how to make a flashback livelier or how to get the wording for a sentence just right. She pushed me to deliver more and work harder on my writing. At times it was a challenge, struggling through writer’s block and revisions, but it was all worth the effort when my story was completed.

Mr. Rajeski and Mr. Shakespeare compiled all our family folk stories into a book, titled “Don’t Forget That Day.” Again, publishing a student-written book was not enough for Mr. Rajeski, so he and the Wren’s Nest coordinated with the AJC-Decatur Book Festival for the opportunity for us to “release” our books to the public. All 18 KIPP Scribers felt like movie stars at the book release event! Our families, friends, and just plain old book lovers came out to hear us read and buy copies of the book. The Scribers were walking around autographing their stories in the book and answering questions like movie stars being interviewed on the red carpet. It was an experience I will never forget, and I have had the opportunity to do it twice now as one year was not enough for Mr. Rajeski. The partnership with the Wren’s Nest is now in its third year!

Being a KIPP Scriber has taught me a lot. I now know how to appeal to an audience through written words. I have learned to work with someone whom I may not really know on an important project. The second year as a Scribe, I wrote about the loss of my grandfather in the Marshall University plane crash. My father usually considered this a subject too painful to speak about, but because we had such a great time during the first book writing experience, he decided to open up to me for the second book.

Thanks to my awesome mentor, Kay Powell, this story is going into the Marshall University Archives. Additionally, we partnered with StoryCorps last year, and my father and I made a recording of our writing experience that will be housed in the Library of Congress. Recently, Gap Co-Founder and KIPP Co-Founder, Doris Fisher, visited our school and she was so impressed with our books, she ordered several copies to share with her friends and family!

Before all of this, I did not write much and had no idea what it could offer.  I cannot help but think that if it were not for Mr. Rajeski and the Wren’s Nest, I would never be on my way to reaching my full potential like I am now. I thank them dearly for this opportunity. But most importantly, I am very proud of myself and all I have learned from this process. I cannot wait to begin the writing process again this year as we will write a collection of fictional stories!

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