By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Van Antwerp Middle School teacher Michael Pletman’s sixth-grade students have, collectively, written 139 new books this year.
Each one has been carefully researched, illustrated and edited. The plots have been vetted by classmates and teachers, and the final product typed, pasted and bound. On March 30, each class of proud authors presented their stories in a unique way: pretending to be a gallery full of animatronic students, set to explain their original literature at the push of a button.
As part of the presentation format, dubbed a “Gallery Walk” by Pletman, each student wears a small sticker on the back of his or her hand. Parents, grandparents and other visitors filter into a silent classroom.
“Push the button, they’ll come to life, and they will tell you about their books,” Pletman told a group of about 20 visitors during one class period.
As gallery guests filed in between the desks and began to interact with the students, the volume in the room raised from chapel silence to an energetic hum.
Ethan Boehmer sat silently at his desk behind his book, titled “The Worst Years of My Life.”
A quick tap of the sticker on the back of his right hand energized him, and he quickly launched into a description of his original work of historical fiction.
“It’s a book about trying to fight slavery,” Ethan said. He was excited when he learned he would have the opportunity to write historical fiction, and decided to explore a dark historical period, viewed through the eyes of someone near his age.
The main character, a boy named Andrew, gets hit in the head with a bottle at the beginning of the book and escapes from slavery along with his father. After being recaptured and sold to someone even crueler, the two have to decide whether to risk being killed attempting another escape or stay in their terrible situation.
“I love writing,” Ethan said. He especially enjoyed researching minute, colorful details, like the weather during certain historical events and the types of rifles his characters likely would have owned.
The budding writer said the most important thing he learned was how to persevere through writer’s block.
After Ethan powered down and waited for the next gallery visitor, his classmate, Suchi Mahta, proudly showed off a book with an athlete’s silhouette on the cover. She chose to take a different approach from Ethan: she wrote a fictional story, but used details from a real time in history to make it more interesting.
“I wanted to do something about a sport, so I chose running,” said Suchi, who titled her book “Run!” and dedicated it to Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug.
Suchi learned that setting a story in a realistic historical time can have its limitations.
“I was going to make it back in the 1920s, but then I realized there were no sports for women then,” she said.
Her favorite part of writing was describing her characters to make them seem real. She likes to write fiction, but she said having some constraints and support from her friends and teacher taught her how to push through to finish a story, even when it’s difficult.
The class’s next project will be to tackle books of poetry — as soon as their teacher says they can remove their animatronic buttons and go back to being human.