By Dedra Cordle
As a school librarian, Jessica Klinker is not in the habit of hiding books from the students. Nor does she typically allow the students to empty one set of shelves, only to run across the room to do it again to another set of shelves. Some habits, however, are meant to be broken.
As a school teacher, Shelly Mann is unaccustomed to allowing her students to turn in unfinished work. Nor is she accustomed to allowing her students to finish the work of others. Some customs, however, are subject to change.
The rebellion of these Franklin Heights educators began late this summer when Mann received an email from Kevin Cordi, a friend and mentor at the Columbus Area Writing Project.
In this email, Cordi, a professor at Ohio Northern University, asked if she would be willing to get on board with a creative project of his that challenges students to build worlds based on the unfinished words of others.
Knowing of the creative chaos of this project, aptly called the Unfinished StoryBox, Mann was all for it.
“I immediately jumped at the opportunity,” said the English teacher.
As a “Story Ambassador,” Mann was tasked with creating her own project to unveil these unfinished stories – all begin with the help of published young adult authors, some of whom are New York Times bestsellers – to those in their sophomore year of Honors English.
Sadly, she said, her creative flow does not inhabit the world of physical suspense building.
“I enlisted the help of Jessica and told her to tell me what to buy,” said Mann with a laugh.
After brainstorming ways to make the StoryBox unveiling as engaging as possible, Klinker settled upon the tried and sometimes true method of an interactive scavenger hunt.
Over the course of three weeks, Klinker and her assistant began printing off copies of the biographies of the young adult authors participating in the StoryBox project, altering their posters with invisible ink for clues, and hiding passages and keys to unlock the box in books around the library.
She said she was hopeful that the students would be as interested in this project as the adults were, but was blown away by their response at the Sept. 21 unveiling.
“They were very in it,” she said. “Sometimes it is hard to get 100 percent participation in an activity but they were all for this.”
For their respective period, the sophomores tore apart the library looking for clues to unlock the StoryBox. Books were piled high on tables, sections of shelves were missing novels, papers were scattered across the floor and students were rapidly crossing the room with computers and black light pens in hand.
But for however much excitement they showed for the hunt, they showed more for the project which may allow them to be published as a part of an anthology.
“They are so excited to start this project,” said Mann.
She said some have even gone beyond the syllabus and started to work on the project before the creative writing portion officially begins.
Mann said what she loves most about the Unfinished StoryBox is that it affords them the opportunity to be “as creative as possible” while also giving them the opportunity to share their voice with the world.
“This is an authentic learning opportunity to experience writing outside of these walls,” she said. “Most of the time they are just writing for school, but now they have the chance to write for an entirely new audience.”
Upon completing their individual portion of an unfinished story – and yes, they will be graded, Mann added – the students will place their addition into the StoryBox which will then be sent to a high school in the Bronx for their students to build upon the world and words established by a published author and the budding authors at Franklin Heights.
While it may be some time before the students learn whether one of their peers will be published, Klinker said the benefits of this project extend beyond that honor.
“There is a lot of emphasis on non-fiction reading and writing in school, which is very important, but I feel what has been lost with that emphasis is the importance of creative writing,” she said. “Having the StoryBox project at our school has allowed them to write creatively and I think that is incredibly important for our students to explore that medium as well.”