… how an adventure in Madagascar is creating authors in Reno.
By Hans Hartvickson
Seeking only affection and adventure (…and perhaps bananas), a troop of cat-sized lemurs with soft hands, wet noses and insatiable curiosity followed authors Hans and Jen Hartvickson through the forests of Madagascar. During rest breaks, the lemurs climbed onto Hans and Jen’s heads and shoulders. Hans reflects, “It seemed that the lemurs wanted to see our perspective on their world. They were as interested in us as we were in them!”
These lemurs probably had no idea that their curiosity would launch a generation of authors right here in Reno.
Flash forward to the summer of 2013. The sound of happy voices singing in unison echoed off the walls of Hunsberger Elementary School. The beat of music pulsed like blood rushing through veins. Colorful campers jumped like kernels of red, orange, green and blue popcorn. The second day of Adventures in Writing Camp had begun!
Jen recalls, “When Hans and I were in Madagascar, it struck us that for the lemurs, learning about people seemed to be a fun adventure. A fun adventure is exactly how we believe learning should be, so we thought, perhaps we can create experiences that will similarly inspire others.” The idea for Mister Lemur was born.
Although Hans and Jen were not authors when they left for Madagascar in 2008, their adventure with lemurs sparked the couple’s first book, Mister Lemur’s Train of Thought. That collection of funny rhyming stories won a gold medal in a national children’s poetry contest and led Jen to leave her role as a Director for an online university and focus full-time on speaking to elementary school students about the writing and creative process. Jen has now conducted assemblies at over 200 schools and to over 150,000 students throughout Nevada and five other states.
After a successful visit to a Northern California elementary school, however, the Mister Lemur adventure took an unexpected turn.
“I received an email from the school district inviting Hans and me to create a class that would allow their Gifted and Talented students to simulate the experience of being an author. We thought to ourselves, ‘with the digital publishing tools available today, why ‘simulate’ the experience when we can actually help create their own e-books?’ So that’s exactly what we did!” said Jen.
After seeing how many students came away from the class inspired to write, Hans and Jen realized they needed to find a way to make this experience available to more families. Inspiration soon came from a friend who runs youth sports camps. Why not share the opportunity as a summer writing camp?
Excited about this idea, and with their second book, The Santa Claus Alarm, now published, Hans left his job with a San Francisco hedge fund in May of 2012 to make the idea a reality. They ran one “rehearsal” camp in the summer of 2012 in Phoenix, AZ. “We had mixed results,” Hans admits. “Parts of the camp were wonderful, but parts were not. We needed to figure out how to keep writing the focus but make the program feel more like summer camp than summer school.” That’s when they added Dr. Allison Nordyke and a rock-star-turned-teacher Jonny Williams to the team.
Dr. Nordyke has a PHD in Educational Leadership and a Masters in curriculum design. “She loved what we were doing from the very beginning.” Jen recalls. Dr. Nordyke set to work creating a Common Core-aligned curriculum that fit with the camp’s high energy, fun vibe.
“With the new curriculum in hand, we asked teacher and long-time musician Jonny Williiams to turn the curriculum into fresh songs that would both inspire and instruct campers,” said Hans. After using music in his classroom to great success, Jonny proved to be a perfect match. He wrote six original songs to correspond with the writing traits taught at camp. Songs like “Start Off with a Bang!” and “Words Paint a Picture” make concepts like onomatopoeia and descriptive writing “stick to your brain like glue.” Additionally, Jonny created a segment of camp where students wrote and performed their own lyrics to a song. Music quickly became a favorite among campers.
Together with local teachers, the team rolled out camp in five locations (Reno, Las Vegas, San Jose, Fullerton and Long Beach) in the summer of 2013. The result was nothing short of awesome! During the last week in June, nearly thirty Reno students became published authors – writing, illustrating and publishing short e-books.
Hunsberger teacher Christi Wilson said, “teaching at this camp was a very fulfilling experience. The students were so excited about creating their ebooks and sharing them with their families at the end of the week. Even the child who was hesitant about writing became completely engaged and evolved into an accomplished author.”
Parents shared Mrs. Wilson’s sentiments. “[My son] was thrilled about seeing the results of his work in the form of an iBook. He looks forward to writing instead of thinking of it as a chore!!” said Paula Burley, mother of a Hunsberger second grader. “My son loved everything about AIW camp and didn’t want it to end!” added, Debra Theile, mother of a fourth grader at Alice Smith Elementary in Reno.
“The best compliment, however, came from campers themselves,” said Jen. Second grader, Mia Wohletz attended Adventures in Writing Camp and said, “Writing camp was my favorite camp of the summer. I loved writing stories and publishing them to make an E book. The songs helped me write a better story!” Fourth grader Griffith Gotchy shares Mia’s enthusiasm saying, “I wish this camp would go on forever! I wish I could write a million, no, a trillion ebooks!”
“In everything we do, we try to delight and educate kids,” Hans explains. “With video games, TV, etc, there are so many attractive distractions that unless you delight someone, you won’t hold their attention long enough to educate and inspire them. We are absolutely thrilled to hear how many students fell in love with writing this summer.”
After camp, Hunsberger principal Jenny Ricci informed the camp staff that there would be a longer winter break this school year, and asked if they would come back over winter break. The team enthusiastically accepted.
“This is exactly the kind of programming we want to make available to our community. The camp supports our school performance goals of engaging families through an academic lense while implementing Common Core Standards.” said, Ricci. “Everyone needs some time to unwind around the Holidays. By the third week of break – with presents unwrapped and parents back to work –it seems like the perfect time for kids to create their own book in a fun, safe, camp environment.”
This winter, Adventures in Writing Camp will be held from January 6th-10th at Hunsberger Elementary in Reno. Interested families should visit www.AIWcamp.com. Register by November 22nd to receive early registration pricing. Registration closes December 13th. Additionally, AIW Camp is planning to return to Reno with a two-week camper experience in the summer of 2014.
As for Hans and Jen, they have now published their third book (It Will Take a Lot of Us to Lift a Hippopotamus) and are working on a fourth book. In October they welcomed their first child, a daughter named Annika, into their family.
Hans concludes, “This experience has brought thousands of wonderful people into our lives and created many, many thousands of hours of happiness for young writers and readers in Reno – and beyond. For that opportunity, we say THANK YOU! “
To learn more about Mister Lemur books and music, visit: www.MisterLemur.com.
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