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Princeton middle school teacher motivates students to enjoy reading

A selection of cookbooks the author has recently been drawing inspiration from.

Lisa McGhee is helping her students find the value in reading, when her Book Club returns for its second year at the Princeton Unified Middle School.

Students participating in McGhee’s project at the middle school will not only discuss books and build on reading strategies. The students, for a portion of the school year, are to create their own creative writing work that is to be published into a class book.

“This was a huge success with my seventh graders. I had students really shine and produce excellent work. I want all of my students to experience this in all three grades,” McGhee said.

The Book Club, which is scheduled to start the first week of October and conclude the last week of April, will begin remotely for two mornings a week due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, students met in person before school for 45 minutes the two mornings each week.

“Remotely I am going to do the book club. I will read the book or we will read it together and we can have an online discussion that way. We then kind of go from there depending on what happens with the school year,” McGhee said.

Thirty students from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades are set to participate out of the 110 who qualify.

“My students are basic skills Title I students who have been identified as needing extra support in reading and writing. I did this last year, but I extended it to all three grades in the middle school instead of one for the 2020-21 school year, because it was a huge success,” McGhee said. “It is really just to motivate them and help them realize that writing and reading can be fun and purposeful and worthwhile.”

McGhee, who is a reading teacher at the middle school, teamed up with Princeton author Claire Legrand to conduct three mini workshops during the club and project program.

“She comes in and talks to the students about the struggles she has experienced as a writer. She shows them her rejection letters, then she gives them a workshop for half a day on how they can write creatively and where they can get ideas from, other than what they would have learned in school,” McGhee added.

Legrand will help students find inspiration with music.

“She plays music for them and says, ‘Close your eyes and what does this make you think of?’ She comes back several times after that and works with students individually on their creative writing projects and then I work with them in class to build further,” McGhee said. “The end goal is to publish a book for them through Studentreasures Publishing and each student receives a copy of their published work.”

The project in 2020-21 is aided by a $6,000 grant from the NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation. The funds allow for McGhee to pay for the author’s fee, books for every student participating, and covers the publishing of their class book of creative writing at the end of their project.

During the course of the book club and project, students will read four novels. They are to learn how to build characters, learn revision, editing and rewriting skills. When students finish their own creative writing pieces they will experience constructive criticism and receive feedback.

“I want the students to come into this without any preconceived notions about reading or writing. I would love for them to end with the joy of reading and that it can be a lifelong activity, that not only helps them in their career or lives, but is a lifelong activity,” McGhee said. “Writing does not necessarily have be writing an essay or paragraph, it can be something creative.”

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