When We Wrote a Book in 4 Days



Day Zero: The Utah Cabin Book Writing MansionIMG_0843

2:00pm I land in Salt Lake City where the snowy mountains serve as the backdrop for our upcoming adventure. Ashoka has brought together 9 educators, 4 organizers and 1 facilitator to write a book about how schools are graduating new generations of “changemakers.” After decades of supporting social entrepreneurs around the globe, Ashoka noticed a trend: for many of these changemakers a spark had been lit when they were very young. What if schools — where so many young people spend the majority of their time — could cultivate a culture of changemaking, empathy and collaboration for all students, so that not only individuals would see themselves as changemakers but all young people would have access to the skills needed to solve complex social problems? IMG_0851Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative has been fostering a network of schools that do just that. We have come from Changemaker Schools all over the country to write a book. In a cabin which is really a ginormous mansion in the snow. In 4 days.

7:00pm As people arrive at the cabin one by one, Michael, one of the Ashoka organizers, makes homemade potato leek soup with fresh bread for everyone. I meet Lauren, my new roommate for the week, a visual arts teacher in Washington, DC. She leads with “I’m not an expert but it’s nice to be here.” I like her already. I meet Subha, the principal of an elementary school in Indiana, who I instantly got to chatting with. Luis, from Changemaker High School in Tucson arrives later, who I had already met in Los Angeles when his school was featured on the Think It Up! telecast. One by one, I meet each of the participants. Others who arrived late in the night I wouldn’t meet until morning.

PC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/24445766441/in/photostream/At dinner I find out that after these 4 days we will have collaboratively written in one voice, edited, revised and had an off-site copy editor and illustrator from Book Sprints turn this into a fully publishable book. They’ve done this with groups all over the world 100 times before. I’m super nervous, and excited! Do I trust myself and everyone else to write a book? I am vacillating between excitement about the product and fear about the process.

11:00pm I can’t sleep. It’s so dry here. We get locked out of our shared bathroom with the other bedroom. Lauren jiggles the handle in the middle of the night and says out loud, “What the hell.” Right then I know it’s gonna be a good week.

PC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/24445766441/in/photostream/Day One: Spewing Post-Its

9:01am We’re seated at the kitchen table, all 14 of us. Faith is our Book Sprints facilitator. She sets forth what lies ahead for all of us. The Ashoka organizers — Romina, Michael, Valentina & Laura — explain why the Start Empathy team chose to bring us all together to write this book. We hope to communicate our shared practices for developing schools as sites of social good and innovation. We introduce ourselves, one by one around the circle. I notice my fear rising — of judging others and being judged. I’m about to write a book with these people! Who are they? Who am I?

PC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/24445766441/in/photostream/10:30am We brainstorm: Who’s our audience? Teachers, parents, students, school leaders. We break up into groups and come up with what questions each of those audiences might have. We share these on poster paper and discuss. As a group we are essentially trying to work out: What makes changemaker education? What do changemaker schools do that’s different? A lot of our ideas have focused on school culture: what does a changemaker school look and feel like the minute you step onto campus? So many of our schools share those same threads — people walk in and immediately feel “Oh, there’s something different here.” We all clearly work very hard to create that feeling in our schools, but is there really a “recipe?”

PC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/24445766441/in/photostream/On post-its we each write out what we think are key elements of a changemaker school. How do we distill all our schools’ practices and aspirations into little post-its? By covering the wall in 623,784* of them, that’s how. We find themes and organize them: classroom practices, support for teachers, elevating student voice, a school culture of empathy and changemaking as well as ideas for the book structure itself. We start to read them out loud and discuss.

Hours later: We’re still talking. Maybe we had lunch somewhere in there. What’s the point of this book? Let’s go over it again all together for a few more hours just to make sure. We discuss each post-it in detail. Faith says, “Ok guys. Just read the post-its.” Is this a foreshadowing of the epic sprint to come: a ticking clock vs. endless ideas and revisions? We’ll find out soon enough.

6:00pm We PC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/24445766441/in/photostream/break to make a community dinner. So delicious and fun to cook together and wash dishes and collaborate. Okay this is gonna be good. Back to the book outline. We end the night with an actual outline and choose which chapters we want to work on tomorrow in groups of 3.

12:00am I lie awake. There’s so much brewing in my head.

*Number not exact.

Day Two: Writing Begins

PC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/24445766441/in/photostream/8:30am Each groups splits off around the house to outline our specific chapters. We present our outlines to each other. What works? What’s missing? We’re starting to see that these chapters are not jiving. Do we restructure now or just go write them and restructure later? Vote: restructure now. New groups are made for these chapters by meshing old groups. Our facilitator is sweating even though she hides it well. We go off in our small teams to make new outlines for the chapters.

11:30am This…is…where…it…starts. Todd, a third grade teacher from DC, Lauren and I are stuck trying to find the perfect structure for a chapter about powerful teachers and powerful students. PC: https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/24445766441/in/photostream/Somehow, three perfectionist teachers have been put together on one team. We want to start with imagery of how a changemaker school feels and a story of how students took action on an issue, then delve into the behind the scenes work that helped make those things happen. Todd shares a beautiful and simple story of fifth graders at his school that inspires our chapter sections. We’re still doing this through lunch. Everyone else has started writing. The internet is confused by 14 laptops and 14 smartphones all joining the wifi at the same time and decides to take a break. Michael’s personal hotspot saves us, draining his data but the book must go on.

6:00pm We’re still on the first half of the chapter. We actually have no idea what anyone else is writing at this point anymore, we are just getting a sense from Faith’s regular check-ins that maybe we are a little behind. We acknowledge this and nonetheless refuse to stop being obsessed with each word in the now 15,000 word book. Personally, I’m loving this high-intensity collaboration — our group is jiving.

IMG_087011:30pm Most everyone else has gone to bed after writing nonstop all day. Yet, here we are in the living room, still on our laptops. We were supposed to be done with the chapter by tonight. Delirium has set in and the fits of laughter in our group have become too numerous to count. Clearly we are still going to be writing this chapter in the morning.

1:00am It’s so dry here we can barely breathe. Lauren and I toss and turn in our twin bunk beds in the dark. Why am I still awake?

IMG_0864Day Three: Editing is Hard Work

8:30am Back to work. We’re going to finish our chapter this morning. We huddle on the smallest couch in the vast living room and go through every…single…word together. Other people are almost done. We refuse to leave the small world we have created. We manage to work well together through laughter and delirium. We make a good team.

12:00pm We’re supposed to have passed our chapter on to another group for editing and be editing another group’s chapter by now, but we still aren’t done writing. IMG_0876Until we give it up, no one else can start editing what we’ve written. It’s in need of new eyes. We work through lunch and finally, with trepidation, hand it off to another group. It’s out of our hands from now on.

1:30pm We open our computers again to edit another group’s chapter and face that work is not going to happen. Lauren requests a play break. We play ping pong and fooseball downstairs in the basement. We get back to our computers with new laughter and energy. Of course — isn’t “play” something we value in all our schools?

2:00pm We start instead on the opening chapter. Oh my god. It’s so different from what we wrote! Is our chapter random and completely out of place? What if we didn’t do what we were supposed to do? Uh oh…we have been so isolated in our little group that it’s dawning on us that we have a lot of work to do to make sure the book isn’t disjointed. We have a day and a half left. At first we aren’t sure how much we are supposed to be changing of our colleagues’ work. We end up just hunkering down on the landing upstairs and going at it. I guess this editing thing is part of the process!

IMG_088410:30pm All-group meeting in the kitchen to check in on our progress and brainstorm titles and book cover designs. Big decisions about the opening chapter need to be made. Oh, that’s the one we’re working on. Fun…

12:45am We’ve gone back to the chapter to incorporate new decisions from the group. We’ve literally been working on it for 10 hours straight. We’re done! Just kidding. Not even close.

2:00am I can’t sleep. I keep thinking about the title and the chapter and…you know what, I’m just going to get out of bed and write in the hallway since I’m awake anyway.

IMG_0853Day Four: Putting Together the Pieces

8:30am Three of our team members — Lauren, Luis and Romina — go downstairs into the basement to read through the whole book with fresh eyes. They have been nominated to be the “target” readers: after their edits, no more edits can be made. The rest of us keep revising chapters in our various corners of the house — Heather and Amy are working on the empathy chapter, Todd and I on the opening, Renee and Michael on the students and teachers chapter, and Peter and Subha are going through the entire book inserting graphic icons wherever we share a story from one of our schools. Valentina is working on the “About the Book” and bios sections and Laura is fixing and compiling all the citations throughout the book. It’s today y’all. Tonight, it will be done.

IMG_09085:30pm Luis has to catch his flight home.Whoa, the ending is getting real. We aren’t really done. The target readers are still downstairs, Heather goes to replace Luis. I take a look at the chapter we wrote two days ago and see a lot of changes. I have a moment… “We worked so hard on that! It was a perfect untouchable masterpiece!” Oh right, remember when we restructured the other group’s chapter? The collaborative process is working its magic, breaking down ownership. Just cause it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.

9:00pm Book Sprints’ off-site team is literally just waiting for us to finish: Raewyn is copyediting our work, Henrik is designing the book cover and Julien is assembling the book into a PDF. We haven’t met them but it has gotten tangible that they’re a huge part of our team! We should probably finish so they can go to bed…they’re several hours ahead of us in different time zones. How’s that for 21st century.

12:00am We’ve all migrated to the basement with the target readers. We’re obsessing over commas and section titles. We’re being super annoying and constantly re-opening finished chapters to edit them. Somehow Faith is still tolerating our inability to let go. What do you expect? We’re a room full of educators who push ourselves and our students to do better every day. But accepting our imperfections and loving ourselves for what we have contributed is part of the process too. Finally, it’s done. We let go.

IMG_0873Day Five: Good-Byes

7:30am Luis, Subha and Heather have already flown home. Todd and Lauren are stranded until Tuesday because of the DC snow storm. Michael loses the rental car keys in a snow drift. Amy gets to the airport and realizes her cell phone is still at the house. Renee forgets her bag at security. And yet, we are all alive, healthy and have had probably the most unique, transformative collaboration experience we will ever have. Every single person in that house was a brilliant, passionate changemaker committed to creating community, sharing ideas and working hard. Not one person gave up in this seemingly impossible challenge we undertook together — perfect strangers writing, eating, sleeping, having breakdowns and breakthroughs together to write a book. I actually get teary writing this, and feel so lucky to have created something with this team of educators. I’m grateful for each of them, as well as all our mentors and colleagues and supporters and students who were not there with us in person. The book is beautiful and incomplete — a snapshot in time. But it’s something we offered to our community, each other and ourselves on this ongoing journey of changemaking.

Next time we see each other we’ll get to say, “Remember that time we wrote a book together in 4 days?”

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