“I want to give students an opportunity to share their voices with a much larger audience. I love seeing them shine in a new light.” — Tonya McQuade, Los Gatos-Saratoga JUHSD Teachers Association
Tonya McQuade’s students at Los Gatos High School are just freshmen, but they are published authors who can express their thoughts and feelings in deeply moving ways.
Her English 9 honors classes recently released their fifth annual poetry e-book, Voices from the Poet-Sea, with nearly 200 poems from eight classes, embellished with student artwork. Classes taught by Kathleen Wehr and Zachary Davison-Wilson also contributed poems for the project.
“I want to give students an opportunity to share their voices with a much larger audience,” says McQuade, a member of the Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District Teachers Association. “Poetry is a powerful way for students to express themselves emotionally and show their parents and the community how thoughtful they can be. I love seeing them shine in a new light.
In this year’s e-book, students pour their thoughts, emotions and humor into poems on a variety of topics including love, family and friendship. In a reflection of the times, many poems focus on the political climate, social justice issues, and the need to prevent gun violence in schools. Published through Smashwords, a Los Gatos-based company that is the world’s largest distributor of independent e-books, the publication is available for purchase through Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Amazon, and Kobo.
“The best thing is that Smashwords is free for any teacher,” says McQuade. “All you have to do is go to their website and find guide words to get you started. Within a week you can have your book available for the public.”
The students are more than just poets and artists. They spend several weeks editing, designing, creating and marketing their own product to gain inside knowledge about book publishing, under the guidance of their teacher. The students work together in five teams — editing, layout and design, art and photography, marketing and publicity, and event planning — to learn real-life skills.
“I love seeing it all come together,” says McQuade. “And they gain a strong sense of accomplishment in the process.”
The students held a book launch party in May and reached out to local television and radio stations and the community via social media to promote the event, which featured emcees, poetry readings, “Student Choice Awards” and accolades from faculty. Approximately 200 students, parents and community members attended, with food and drinks donated by parents and decorations and programs created by students.
“Being part of the event planning group made me feel like I was really in a team setting,” says student Donya Behroozi. “Being able to present in a crowd was a good skill for me to practice. Our poetry writing got much better, and we learned real-life skills to use later on in our adult years.”
Joelle Elliott, a member of the layout and design team, also enjoyed the project. “Everyone gets to participate and publish their own poem. At the end of the day, it’s great to see how the classes came together to create a book of all different voices and ideas. Also, I enjoyed getting a chance to read everyone’s poems.”
A teacher for nearly three decades, McQuade has always loved poetry. But she is aware many students dread the unit, until they realize poetry offers them a unique opportunity for self-expression and a means to work through emotions including anxiety, depression and grief. Many students who initially said they were incapable of writing poems have come to love it, and have turned in amazing work, she says.
“It’s a way to express your emotions without needing to make sense,” says student Lilly Schirmer. “It takes over your whole body and transforms your way of thinking.”
For student Sophie Adams, “Poetry allows me to express what I cannot bring myself to say.”
McQuade shares with students that some famous bestsellers — including The Martian by Andy Weir, which became a hit movie — began as online books. “E-books give you the freedom to be in control of what you publish — and to get it done quickly,” she explains.
Some students, including Koosha Azim, were so energized by the experience they want to continue publishing e-books. “These skills have inspired me to create e-books about entrepreneurship,” he says.
Publishing an e-book is a lot of work — especially with multiple classes — but it’s worth it for McQuade, because the project motivates students and energizes her teaching, she says. “I encourage any teacher with a passion for writing to take it on.”
How Educators Can Help Students Publish
Since 2014, Tonya McQuade has helped over 600 students become published authors — at no cost to the school or the students. She and her students use Smashwords, an e-book publishing and distribution platform for self-published authors and independent presses.
Smashwords offers an informative podcast series, and in a recent episode, founder Mark Coker celebrates Los Gatos High School and McQuade. He describes how educators and their students, no matter where they are located, can professionally produce, publish, distribute and promote an e-book. He says that when educators collaborate with their local libraries, the impact and results are even better. To hear the episode, click here.
The podcast page includes links to related documents and articles, including Tonya McQuade’s project assignment to her class and list of team responsibilities. There is also a link to Windows to the Teenage Soul, the first poetry anthology published by Los Gatos High students. The e-book’s appendix describes how other schools can take on their own publishing projects.