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Why I adopted a fourth-grade class
Jason Wright workshops his new manuscript wth his adopted class of fourth-graders. - photo by Jason Wright

On Tuesdays at noon, I park in a visitors spot at Orchard View Elementary School in Winchester, Virginia. After being buzzed in the front door, I stop at the office, sign in and get my sticky, oversized nametag.

Then I practically jog to the opposite end of the school for my favorite hour of the week. (Yes, among other things, Ive been asked to not run in the halls.)

Inside Jennifer Wolfe and Jess Hoyts shared tidy classroom, I find 27 children buzzing in, around and over their tiny desks like giddy bees at the end of the honey shift.

You might call them fourth-graders, but I call them my pint-sized focus group.

The journey began six months ago when I sat at my desk struggling with The Lost Carnival, my new childrens manuscript. Its a bit of fantasy, a dose of 2016, some magic and a plump portion of your classic traveling carnival.

Why am I struggling? I didnt just think the words, I said them to my laptop.

Other than Pennys Christmas Jar Miracle, a picture book created with the talented artist Ben Sowards, Id never written anything specifically for kids. Having no idea whether it was working, I read the opening chapters so many times I could have recited them from memory at a storytelling festival wearing a tweed sport coat and a beret.

Sure, I shared the first few chapters with my own kids. But kids of writers are hard to impress. If I wrote the next Harry Potter and Disney wanted to rush the film into production tomorrow, my children would ask how many more pages they have to sit through in order to get my bag of Haribo gummy bear bait.

One morning it hit me: I needed help.

If I want real feedback from real readers, I needed to put my pride in the shredder and go find them. After all, shouldnt I be accountable to the people who read my books or columns? I owe my career to them. The moment a writer thinks his or her opinion is more important or valuable than the reader, theyre in trouble.

Using contacts from my visits to elementary school assemblies, I began searching for a class to adopt. I wanted to find the perfect teacher with the right kids at the right age.

After a few false starts with other schools, I reached out on a whim to Angie Buhl, a good friend at Orchard View, and within a few hours I had administration approval, a class identified and co-teachers ready and willing to hand over one hour a week for my visits.

Just 24 hours after that first phone call, I had officially adopted Wolfe and Hoyts class and I was standing before them reading chapter one. The rest is history.

Or, in this case, fantasy. And the experience has been one of the most fulfilling of my entire career.

Each Tuesday, with a red pencil in hand, I read a chapter or two and the students provide rich, honest and unfiltered feedback. Have you recently asked for a childs detailed opinion on a book? Its fascinating.

Every few paragraphs we pause to discuss challenging words to ensure Im writing at the right grade level. We chat about themes and I push them to identify character arcs and motivation. They tell me what works and what doesnt.

When we read about a new character, animal or restaurant that needs to be named, I stop and take suggestions. Then together we select one and that student becomes a part of the story forever.

By the time were done, all 27 students will have made a unique imprint on The Lost Carnival. Every single young man and woman will know that word, that moment and that bit of this fictional universe is theirs.

Through my visits, Im learning that children are much more intelligent than perhaps we give them credit. They are wildly creative. They are visionary. They have imaginations capable of creating worlds totally unimaginable by old guys like me.

While my material is certainly age appropriate, Im also learning that elementary school children are ready to discuss at a high-level serious things like divorce, separation, job loss, friendship dynamics and so much more. Dont worry, its still a magical and happy novel, but even in the best of times, people of all ages deal with uncertainty.

When friends hear about my weekly visits, they often tell me how fortunate the kids are. But if only they knew. Im the one tremendously blessed by their willingness to listen and engage.

Why did I adopt a fourth-grade class? Because I finally realized that I dont have all the answers all the time. And guess what? Sometimes its all right to ask for help.

Plus, sometimes, the best solutions come from people in tiny desks.
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