Tag Archives: Inviting Authors to Speak

Building Bridges between Readers and Authors

This post is written by member Amy Estersohn.

One way to help students connect with books is to engage with the authors who write them. Here are five easy ways for the readers and writers you see every day to learn more about the names on the spines in the library.

Look up an author’s website.

This is not only good for fun facts about authors, but it’s also an opportunity to learn about an author’s past and future books, professional life, and upcoming author appearances.  If authors are active on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, their websites are a good place to start.  Did you know that teen author e. lockhart and nonfiction picture book author Emily Jenkins are the same person?

Connect with independent bookstores and libraries.

Independent bookstores and libraries are terrific resources for learning about author events.  Some bookstores and libraries may hold major author events and author panels, while others may have programs like “Comic-Con,” where comic book fans and creators congregate.

Do you want books signed by YA celebrities like John Green, Cassandra Clare, and Holly Black?  That’s easy if you know where to look.  Check out the signed book inventory from Odyssey Bookshop in western Massachusetts and Books of Wonder.  You can also call these bookstores to see if a favorite author has stopped by to sign books!

Become part of the fan community and make an online presence for your reading life.

Write fan letters, create fan art, and make fan fiction based on favorite books and series. Some fans use blog platforms like Tumblr to talk to authors (check out Maggie Stiefvater’s tumblr as an example of an author engaging with fans) and other authors will post fan art to their website, like Gina Damico.

I’ve also experienced authors reaching out to readers.  Some authors have offered via Twitter to Skype with book clubs where their book was a selection, and one award-winning author offered to Skype with our book club after she saw an announcement online that we were reading her book!

Attend festivals and conferences.

If you have ever been to a national conference like NCTE or ALAN, you already know that it’s an enormous author party, drawing authors from around the globe together for a few days. There are also smaller events, like the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival or a #nErDcamp event.  Some of my favorite author memories include attending #nErDcamp Long Island eating a turkey sandwich in a middle school cafeteria next to one of my students’ favorite authors.  A conference doesn’t have to be big or far away to be rewarding.

Use what you learn in lessons with students.

Authors can be honest about their writing process in front of a crowd, and a lot of what I learn from listening to authors becomes part of the wisdom I pass on to students.For example, Jason Reynolds watches a lot of movies when he is writing. Steve Sheinkin wrote an entire book because he saw a photograph of a filing cabinet and started asking questions. Janet Taylor Lisle writes by sound rather than image. Kelly Barnhill writes in her head as she runs and can remember up to two pages at a time. The author of a book that won two major awards mentioned how painful the writing process for the book was, that it constantly felt like the book was going to kill her before she finished a draft. These writers remind us that there is more than one way to write and no one right way to do it.

Make engagement personally meaningful to you and your students.

If I am going to an event, I look at the author list carefully, plan out the authors I know I want to see and talk to, and think about what I want to say before I get starstruck or too nervous.  I also have little games.  For example, I collect signed copies of books that I think will win a Printz or a Newbery Award.  If an autographing line is short, I will sometimes ask authors to include an encouraging note to young writers in their personalizations. I have some lovely notes from Newbery medalists that were written just to my students.

If you’re taking students to an author event, consider passing along the following bits of advice: Bring a sticky note so you can handwrite your name neatly and an author can personalize it.  Depending on the event, the line might be 100 people long or it might be zero people long.  Some authors will ask lots of questions and engage in conversation with every reader in a line, while others might be more efficient in keeping the line moving.  Asking for a selfie is okay, but don’t ask for free books or free stuff—that’s not the author’s job to give out stuff for free!

Authors are the silent partners in helping our readers grow.  By helping students know them better, we are adding to the conversations we are having with students and the conversations that students are having with the world.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York. She blogs at Teaching Transition and is on twitter @HMX_MSE.

Part 2: Extending Student Voice and the WinS Experience to a Social Experiment

This is the second of two posts written by NCTE member, Topher Kandik, the 2016 State Teacher of the Year for the District of Columbia. See Part I

Topher headshotThe idea of honoring student voice fits perfectly within the context of my AP English Language and Composition class. My students are all African American, and the AP curriculum I designed has focused on African American nonfiction narrative and essays. My students read Frederick Douglass over the summer, and we continue reading African American voices throughout the year, constructing our own alternate narrative of US history, one that challenges the dominant narrative. Through the voices of Harriet Jacobs, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Carter Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others all the way up through Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West who are adding to that narrative today, we retell the story of America. We become, as Cornel West puts it, part of the “grand tradition of struggle,” and my idea is that the students in the course will be the next voice, will write the next chapter in this American story.

Inevitably the idea of education and literacy arises early in the year. We read about the struggle for freedom and education by African Americans, and we see the power that literacy gives to an oppressed people (and the fear it causes to the dominant group). This naturally leads to a year-long discussion of segregation and its effects on African Americans. Even though Brown v. Board of Education is over 50 years old, we still see the evils of segregation today. Students ponder why charter schools (schools of choice, like ours!) are even more segregated than traditional public schools. They wonder why, as District of Columbia Councilmember LaRuby May told us at George Washington University’s 2016 Commencement for the Graduate School for Education and Human Development, our city’s Ward 8 has 2 public schools (which are overwhelmingly African American): one of them has a 2% literacy rate and the other has a 0% literacy rate for 10th graders as measured by last year’s PARCC testing. They wonder why they have never been in a classroom with a white student before, a point that civil rights educator and 2016 National Teacher of the Year Finalist Nate Gibbs-Bowling blogs about in his post “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having.” We struggle for answers to all of these questions. We struggle authentically. And we struggle together with trust and openness.

So it is within this context that I listened to my students when they told me they have never been in a class with white students. They proposed that I put together a partnership (it sounds so simple!) so that they can participate in a class with white students before they go on to college. After all, many of these students will matriculate to predominantly white institutions of higher learning, and they want to be prepared for what they encounter there. What better way to get these students ready than to use literature as a means to bring students from different schools together?

I endeavored to do just this with the help of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program (which I wrote about in part 1 of this blog post). This school year, my students read three of the same texts as a World Literature elective class for juniors and seniors from the Maret School, a private school in DC located on the other side of our city. With literature as our unifying factor, we set about on a social experiment in integration on a small scale. The results were powerful to witness.

Maret instructor Claire Petengill and I met over the summer to flesh out some ideas about the meetings. We decided three meetings throughout the year would be manageable enough to fit into our current curriculum. We wanted to plan the timing and basics for our first meeting, but ultimately decided on a less-is-more approach. If we put our students together, it might be awkward at first, but they would find common ground on their own.

Our first meeting was in a neutral location. We kept the text relatively simple since we were at the beginning of the year. Our primary motivation for the first meeting was to get students talking, so we read a couple of short stories by Tope Folarin, an immensely talented writer who lives and writes in Washington, DC. The stories we read had to do with the immigrant experience in America, but they also touched on themes of family, love, loss, and change. These are themes that all students—no matter their race or background—have experience feeling for themselves. We created a couple icebreakers, but the texts themselves did the heavy lifting.

Once Tope arrived, his charisma carried the day. Students got to ask him questions, but they also learned to listen to each other and interact together in a meaningful way. By the time the pizza arrived (food, of course, was an intentional and integral part of each of our meet-ups), students from both classes had settled into a slightly awkward, but trending-toward-natural, rapport. It was great to see. After the pizza was consumed and the students from Maret left, my own students showed their joy by cleaning up the room without prompting. As they did this (I tried not to betray my own shock and sense of elation), they articulated what the visit meant to them. The experience confirmed their notion that they could hold their own in an academic conversation. Society regularly sends messages of inferiority, so it is a relief for them to know, really know, that they are equals in and out of the classroom. These lines are difficult to write, but they are true.

This is what literature can do, and this is how we can use it to explore our similarities and create bonds where previously they have been absent.

Our second meet-up was on our campus. Although it did not fit perfectly into my curriculum for the year, we agreed to read Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You, using the method I described in yesterday’s post. Ms. Ng was available at the time we agreed to meet, so we went with it. This novel explores a family’s feelings as they respond to the disappearance and suicide of a family member. As the date approached, we received some sad news. A student in the class at Maret had tragically ended his own life. Suddenly, the literature we were reading didn’t seem so important. My students—many of whom have experienced loss in their lives—empathized with the class at Maret. I was going to suggest—but didn’t have to—that we read something else by Celeste Ng. My students suggested this for me. They automatically felt that it wouldn’t be right to discuss the topic with students whose feelings would still be so raw

We found a couple other short texts to read and discuss when Ms. Ng visited. The visit was a little subdued because of the loss, but our students took another step toward being comfortable with each other. After the Maret students left to go back to their school, we had a little extra time to talk to Ms. Ng about her novel that we read.

When we were confident that our students were comfortable, we decided to throw a curve. The final meet-up was to be at the Maret School. The book we ultimately chose, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America by D. Watkins, was bound to make us uncomfortable again. Here we were, going to a high school campus that literally used to be a summer home for more than one POTUS, to talk about race and racial relations in America. I do not believe this meet-up would have been successful if this was our first time together, but because of our positive experiences earlier in the year, we decided to cross our fingers and trust our students.

First of all, in the words of one student, D. Watkins’s book is “fire.” Another student raved, “He seems to write everything I am thinking.” As our intense discussions turned from the theme of our course and the theme of the book, we started to think how we could approach our discussion with D. and with the Maret students. This gave us pause. What if students in the other class argued with the ideas that seemed so natural to us? What if the environment was not accepting of us? What if no one said anything? These were our fears, but I told them to trust the books. Trust the process. Trust each other.

We were not disappointed. D. was a natural. His experience working with students was immediately apparent. He set us all at ease as he started answering questions and talking about his experiences. His wisdom seeped into the group. As the discussion wrapped up and we transitioned to the area where D. was going to sign books for our scholars, I distinctly remembered looking out over Rock Creek, a vista once selected by former presidents for its beauty. I thought about literature and the impact it can have (and has!) on the course of our lives.

Some students drifted off to a basketball court to play with Maret students while we were wrapping up. Others sat and chatted on the porch overlooking the fields and the stately trees of Rock Creek Park. I was reminded of Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” in which he describes the “new world” that reading literature provides:

Then I felt like some watcher of skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This program has had value for my students, and I can only believe that it did for students at the Maret School too. The partnership was conceived by a group of students, and I had the flash of brilliance to listen to them. Claire and I have agreed to continue and grow the idea by working together again next year. There are so many possibilities.

I don’t know for sure the impact this program will continue to have on my students, but I do know that I will continue to ask them.

And I’ll be sure to listen to what they have to say.

Topher Kandik is the 2016 Teacher of the Year from the District of Columbia. He is a recent contributor to the book Arts Integration in Education: Teachers and Teaching Artists as Agents of Change (Intellect, 2016), and the 2013 recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award for Language Arts. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Allison; his son, Theo; and his pug, Molly Bloom