Known as The 31, a group of aspiring writers from Whitney Young may be the first class of high school students in history to publish a collaboratively-written novel.
30 Days to Empathy is a 240-page work of fiction that tells the story of Jake Hollowman, an arrogant high school senior who has little empathy for his classmates, at least until he mysteriously finds himself living a day in each of their lives. Each student from Whitney Young’s interdisciplinary writing class contributed one chapter to the novel, with the first and last chapters being written by English teacher Jay Rehak, who first presented his students with the novel idea last fall.
“I started by asking them to write an essay titled ‘A Day in My Life’,” he said. “Then I asked them to fictionalize it. Then I told them we were going to sew all the chapters together into a book.”
Rehak’s students were skeptical.
“I didn’t think it would turn out very well,” said Zachary Deitz. “It seemed unorganized, and like it wouldn’t be a good book with so many people writing it.”
But Rehak, who has been an English teacher at Whitney Young for nearly 20 years, persisted.
“I’d been nurturing this idea for many years,” he said, “but I hadn’t had the combination of talent and technology support to pull it off until now.”
So, per their teacher’s instructions, Mr. Rehak’s students created characters and sketched out experiences, most of them autobiographical, though with a touch of creative license sprinkled in. The chapters cover typical areas of teenaged euphoria and angst – school, romance, peer pressure, and issues with self-esteem – as well as the ordinariness of everyday life.
“Mine is pretty standard,” said student author Patryk Lipski. “I basically just walked through a regular Saturday. A math competition, meeting up with friends, going to a concert. Stuff like that.”
By contrast, chapters like the one written by Joli Chandler are more dramatic.
“My character is gloomy,” she said. “From the outside, she looks like she’s always really happy and positive, but really that’s not the case. Writing it made me realize that no matter how people seem, you never know what’s going on inside.”
Once their chapters were written, students exchanged manuscripts to get feedback from their peers.
“The peer editing process was very valuable,” said Mr. Rehak. “It taught them to collaborate and give constructive criticism, and helped create trust among classmates.”
According to Mr. Rehak, the collaborative writing and editing process would not have been possible without recent developments in technology. To get them used to the kind of writing they would need to do for this novel, he had begun the year by having his students keep electronic journals and contribute to a class blog. Then, when it was time to meld their individual book chapters into one manuscript, he introduced them to Google Docs.
“Using a Google Doc made managing and sharing our output easy,” he said. “It was exactly what I wanted them to learn how to do – fuse creative writing with current technology.”
The class completed their book in late January, and by March, they had self-published it on Amazon.com. It is now available in both paperback and e-book form, and the class has begun a marketing campaign on Facebook and Twitter.
“They were truly amazed,” said Mr. Rehak of his students reaction to seeing the finished product. “I honestly don’t think they believed it would really happen.”
Mr. Rehak hopes to repeat the novel-writing process with other classes, as he believes it is a valuable academic and social experience.
“They learned so much about so many things,” he said. “They learned about the arc of a story and the use of language, and they saw the benefits of working with each other, as well as how technology can transform a project. And of course, they learned something about empathy.”
It’s fair to say that through the course of his experiences, the novel’s protagonist, Jake Hollowman, learns an important lesson about the value of empathy – one that was not lost on the novel’s student authors.
“It’s a good book for our age group,” said Somyiah Nance. “Kids our age don’t always have empathy for each other, and this book makes you think about that.”
Joli Chandler, who was of a similar mindset, credits the peer editing process with her renewed sense of empathy for her classmates.
“Even though they were kind of fiction, reading everyone else’s chapters made us know each other better,” she said. “It made us realize that everything isn’t always the way it seems on the surface. I think it brought us closer together as a class.”
While he knows it will be of help to them on their resumes and college applications, Mr. Rehak hopes that the significance of this book will stay with his students on a deeper, more personal level.
“This is something they’ll be able to point to for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Something they can be proud to have contributed to and to have their name on. It’s a huge accomplishment.”