School & District Management

English Class Publishes E-Book (and It’s Already More Popular Than ‘The Odyssey’)

By Marlena Chertock — May 13, 2014 3 min read
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Freshmen honors English students at Los Gatos High School in California published a poetry anthology last week, becoming what might be the first ever class-produced self-published e-book ever.

More than 120 students from two English classes contributed poems to the anthology, called Windows to the Teenage Soul, now available for purchase online.

Los Gatos English teacher Tonya McQuade led the project, with help from Kathleen Wehr, another 9th grade English teacher. Their students each chose one original poem to include, and students in McQuade’s class took over production of the book. The poems in the aptly titled anthology cover familiar topics for teenagers, like identity, emotion, technology, sports, school, and inspirational messages.

The anthology became the bestselling poetry book on iBooks on May 6, ranking above The Odyssey, which pleased the students, McQuade said. McQuade wanted to use self-publishing to offer her students the chance to share their poetry with a wider audience than the high school.

“Through poetry, people can express their deepest emotions, longings, questions, desires, frustrations, secrets, and so much more,” McQuade said in an email. “It is my goal every year to help my students discover the joy, beauty, self-expression, and catharsis of poetry--both in reading and writing it. I thought it would be wonderful if the students could share their poems with a larger audience--that way, the teens get an opportunity to have their voices heard, and the adult readers get the chance to see teens in a positive light and see just how thoughtful, creative, and articulate many of them are.”

But the book-publishing project was about more than just poetry. McQuade’s students split into teams for editing, layout and design, art and photography, marketing and publicity, and event planning to produce the book.

“The five teams ... gave the students the chance to learn and develop some real-life skills they may use in the future,” McQuade said. “How often as a student do you get to write press releases, call news stations, create artwork for publication, design media campaigns, set up Evite accounts, plan and orchestrate an event for 150 people, then finally, see your book for sale online?”

The class got some help from the town’s Los Gatos Public Library. Librarian Henry Bankhead wrote a grant to fund the project, which helped to purchase iPads and Macbook Pros for the work. He also helped organize the book launch at the library on May 6.

The class also partnered with Smashwords, a distributor of self-published books whose founder and CEO, Mark Coker, graduated from Los Gatos High. Coker had previously worked in a partnership with Bankhead to promote authorship in the community and was looking to create an e-book publishing program in local schools. Smashwords allows users to publish e-books for free.

Coker presented best business practices and benefits of self-publishing to McQuade’s class, which he offers for educators to download and use in their classrooms. He also worked on the final formatting of the book.

In the anthology, McQuade includes a timeline of the project and a teacher’s guide on how to produce similar class e-books. Coker also provides marketing and publishing tips. And the students provide an overview of the work each team produced.

The students will use the money they raise from the sales to fund their 2017 senior prom.

“It’s exciting to be an author,” McQuade said. “In the past, to self-publish a book would be an impossible task for a class or an individual unless someone put up a lot of money upfront. With Smashwords, we can publish our book for free, and the students can even make money off of the sales. This is certainly a project that is available to all and it’s certainly one I plan to repeat in the future. And some of those students may even decide they want to try publishing some of their other literary work.”

Image: Windows to the Teenage Soul cover, drawn by freshman Ali Del Vecchio--English teacher Tonya McQuade.

Correction: This post originally misspelled Smashwords CEO Mark Coker’s last name.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.