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West Valley Central School’s first-ever student literary magazine wins national ranking

The cover of "Thunderous Whispers."

WEST VALLEY — Nicole Falkner’s creative writing students weren’t finished writing, when the semester ended last year and Falkner wasn’t ready to let those student voices be put to rest. As a student at Mount Mercy Academy in South Buffalo, the West Valley Central School English teacher had submitted poems and drawings to her school’s literary magazine and remembered the feeling of accomplishment she got from participating.

“Teachers and students alike would applaud the authors and artists and for those authors and artists, we felt validated – our voices mattered. I still have those magazines today,” she said. From a desire to bring that validation to West Valley, the “Thunderous Whispers” literary magazine was born.

The magazine was created by the Creative Writing 2 class, born out of Creative Writing students’ desire to continue in the field.

“Now that this small group had been exposed to various genres of writing and built a basic toolbox of skills, I had found the perfect set of students to head up West Valley’s first literary and art magazine,” the teacher said. “I wanted them to feel the validation of publication and the pressure of turning out a substantial product that would be made available to the entire school community.”

The class held a naming contest, to generate interest in the magazine, advertised for submissions on school bulletin boards, in the school newsletter and on morning announcements. Most pieces came via email, with the students’ tracking them through a shared inbox.

“About once a week, I print all the submissions out, just as they are submitted by the student and pass the packet out to the students,” Falkner said, of the editorial process. “Students would read the pieces individually and then address issues in the writing, such as grammar and clarity, as a whole group. Then, they used a class-designed rubric for both art and writing to start the discussion as to whether they would be inclined to accept, reject or wait for author revisions – we never make major changes without first consulting the author.”

The process was “trial and error,” including Falkner modeling constructive feedback and starting the conversation. They discussed whether each piece expressed a complete idea, used sophisticated language, was strong in conventions, appropriate for the entire school community and would represent the quality of work the students hoped to exhibit.

“As far as design, the class looked at a number of hard copy and online examples of high school and college literary and art collections. They narrowed down aspects they would like to include in our design; such as a basic table of contents, an author/artist index, an opening quote,” Falkner explained. “Students reorganized the contents and matched art to various pieces, as the project came closer to fruition. They wanted to mix long and short pieces, dramatic and light-hearted, in an effort to maintain reader interest.”

The class learned as they went, working without a plan or precedent.

But once the magazine was published, Falkner said that all of their work paid off.

“When the first round of magazines was distributed, I walked out into the hall to see students reading while walking between classes,” the teacher said. “I had to remind a few to be careful and watch where they were walking. A teacher informed me that a seventh-grader remarked how an essay about growing up too quickly – authored by an 11th-grade student – related to his life.”

As they read each other’s work, the students realized that there were writers and artists within the student body that had not previously been recognized. And that made the students relate to one another, in new and different ways.

“Something else that students shared with me was how good it felt to see others struggling with the same issues that they too were dealing with,” she said. “They thought it was brave of the authors to share their difficult and triumphant stories, alike.”

‘Thunderous Whispers” was also intended to increase readership, within the school community. The first printing, created in-house with the help of secretary Deb Brown and compiled, bound and distributed by the students, was 25 copies. By the time all requests had been fulfilled, the book had reached 90 copies.

“For a first attempt at a magazine, we were blown away by the success and amazing feedback,” she said.

But “Thunderous Whispers’” success did not end there. Falkner entered the magazine into the National Council of Teachers of English Program to Recognize Excellence in Student Literary Magazines.

“We used the rubric provided by the contest to guide our literary magazine’s overall creation and I sent three copies to the judges in June of 2013,” Falkner said. “Winners for the 2013 year were announced in January of 2014, so we had a long wait, to see if we ranked.”

The magazine received a ranking of “Excellent,” the second-highest designation.

“I am ecstatic!” Falkner said, of the results. “Our amazing classroom teachers at WVCS donated cardstock supplies for printing, administration green-lighted our large-scale printing effort, we tapped the creative efforts of our students, right down to binding every issue by hand. The students were overjoyed that we were recognized at all.”

Now, expectations are high for the WVCS student editors to turn out a quality second issue and Falkner said she thinks her students, and the student body, are up for the challenge. Mostly though, the teacher is glad to have gotten the project off the ground at all.

“This is our first literary magazine – as far back as anyone can remember. It has been an honor to help bring it to life.”


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