For this post Bryan and Susan combine to talk about how they have collaborated. Their experience is a prime example of how a few conversations at small conferences can energize and enhance your teaching and academic work. Maybe we can convince them both to come to Las Vegas for the next UNLV Summit on the Research and Teaching of Young Adult Literature. (Stay tuned for details about our keynote speakers and about opportunities to present in the next few weeks.)
The Superpower of Hope: Matt de la Peña’s Superman: Dawnbreaker and Rose Brock’s Hope Nation
by Bryan Ripley Crandall and Susan James
This summer, the two NWP site directors thematically infused Rose Brock’s non-fiction collection, Hope Nation, and Matt de la Peña’s Superman: Dawnbreaker in their summer leadership institutes for teaching writing. The Superpower of Hope was a partnership between two locations where K-16 educators had the opportunity to build writing portfolios, to explore best practices for teaching writing and to work with a co-constructed question, “What is the Superpower of Hope?’
So, you and I focused our institutes on The Superpower of Hope this year, a two-state initiative in support of educators attending our summer programs. I was impressed at the energy, enthusiasm and dedication of your teachers and how much they had already bonded by the time I arrived.
You were the first to mention Rose Brock’s Hope Nation to me in a text message and I believe you quickly sent me a copy the very next day. That is always how you roll. Soon after, Rose Brock was invited to be a guest at Saugatuck StoryFest in Westport, Connecticut. She’s a powerhouse of a human being and it was so much fun spending time with the two of you.
Do you remember how you pitched the book collaboration with me?
At last year’s NCTE, I also picked up the Hope Nation audiobook, and loved listening to the essays, as well. Sometimes I think listening is even more powerful than reading, and this was especially true for Libba Bray’s chapter, “Before and After.” Her story hooked me and made me think critically about what Hope actually means. I was driving back from my parents and became so engrossed with the story that I had to pull over to listen attentively. It is so beautifully written, and the content is heavy; I realized I needed to think about the story rather than drive distracted. I stopped, listened, absorbed the truth, and soaked in her inspiration. Phew. What a brilliant writer!
Hope is a word I’ve thought of often, ever since the tragedy in Sandy Hook, an elementary school that is close to Fairfield University and where I live. At the time, I looked to National Writing Project sites to find inspiration for how to help communities heal. In partnership with author Trina Praulus, CWP-Fairfield and I did a butterfly release of Hope For the Flowers. We dropped the books off in schools, churches, doctors’ offices, masques, synagogues and libraries. Our campus knew there was a tremendous need for community conversations, and we delivered 600 or more copies of the book to the region. For me, books have always been Hope.
Like you, I’ve been thinking about Hope and its relationship to our current world, especially in relation to the myth of Pandora’s Box. It’s funny, I like to show a quick cartoon (8 minutes) about Pandora’s Box to undergraduates to bring them up to speed on the Pandora story of her box (which some say is actually a vase or cup). It’s a fast rendition of the story and, although not the quality of today’s animations, I like to challenge them by asking, “Is hope an evil, too?”
Perhaps this is why middle and high school teachers need to explore Hope within their profession and as a theme with students and teachers. Why did you and your teacher leaders turn to Hope as a theme?
As for Hope and teachers, the first year of my NWP site’s existence, I continued the idea of using themes during the summer institute. The first year, I selected “courage” because building a National Writing Project site by myself required a lot of work and hours, and a whole lot of “courage”. I feared I would not successfully provide what the teachers needed.
The next year, however, I worked with a group of teachers who were participants during the first year, and they selected the theme of “Hope.” I spent hours organizing resources to use in a massive text set, and one of the books I fell in love with was Rose Brock’s Hope Nation, which was published a year before Emerald Coast Writing Project debuted. As you know, I have never known a stranger, so I reached out to Rose Brock and asked her and Jeff Zentner, author of The Serpent King, Goodbye Days, and his latest Rayne and Delilah, to help me kick off our institute with Skype visits. The rest is history, as I have become good friends with Rose, and Jeff still Skypes each year with the teachers.
We also used Kelly Chandler’s Olcott’s A Good Fit For All Kids:Collaborating to Teach Writing in Diverse, Inclusive Settings, and Ronnie Sidney’s Nelson Beats the Odds. We wanted to do a better job addressing the writing needs of all kids, including those with learning disabilities. We often discussed, “Is the real superpower having the ability to reach all kids?” Lucky for us, too, we picked up Jerry Craft’s New Kid at the last minute, which added another amazing layer to the conversation. It was a great summer of using YA texts within the National Writing Project tradition, and all of us are better educators because of it.
In Florida, we started the year with nearly 3,500 positions that needed to be filled. As the Orlando Sentinel noted, “If you teach in Florida, pay is low, bureaucratic baloney is high, and the politicians are more likely to demonize you than support you” (Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel, August 13, 2009). Our teachers were just getting a handle on the Florida Standards, and now they are being rewritten. With this comes new textbooks, more high-stakes testing, and the need for additional planning and professional development, but with limited funding and support. Add with this loss there’s also the unregulated charter schools, and it is a hotbed of stress. Teachers feel our children are not at the forefront of thought, and that needs to change.
I knew the magnitude of this theme, of Hope, when teachers asked to continue it during the NWP Invitational Summer Institute for a 2nd year. It all came together this summer, when you arrived in Pensacola right after Rose Brock, and the three of us became instant friends due to our shared passion for books and working with teachers. Your idea of adding Matt de la Peña’s text and a theme of The Superpower of Hope made this summer extra special. Why Superman? Why now? Do we all have superpowers as classroom teachers?
The All-American Diner was famous for two things: cheap, massive portions of french fries and a generous owner who never seemed to stop smiling. The owner, however, was not as all-American as the name of his restaurant might suggest. Davie Baez was one of Smallville’s first-ever Mexican immigrants. He’d move to town in the 1960s, from Oaxaca, and never left. He eventually married a local woman and had a large family and became a citizen. (51)
A few summers ago, when Matt de la Peña spoke to our students and teachers, a boy asked him what he was working on next. This is when I first heard him talk about Superman: Dawnbreaker and I remember him responding that Superman is, in some ways, the epitome of an immigrant. He’s the ultimate illegal alien. He comes from Krypton, yet serves the nation with strength, pride and integrity. He isn’t of this place, but arrives to this place with Hope that it can be better than it already is. That is a message I learn again and again with the young people I work with.
CWP-Fairfield provides opportunities each summer for young people and teachers to explore writing together. This year, I was lucky to have a history teacher, and YA Author, Michael Belanger, in my summer institute. He wrote The History of Jane Doe (Penguin Random House, 2019) and came to the institute not so much to tune his own craft, but to find ways to be a better writing teacher. This is what he had to say about The Superpower Hope,
As a teacher and writer, I’ve had a lot of time to think about hope—and hopelessness—in my career. It takes hope to start a new draft. To teach a class. To fail and try again. As a participant in the Connecticut Writing Project this summer, we talked a lot about Hope, in particular how it can be an antidote to fear. That really clicked for me. Because Superman and Batman were all about action, but teachers and writers have to live in their heads a lot of the time, and sometimes the best thing—the only thing—we can do is Hope.
Sometimes Hope takes time; it’s not only storming the bad guys’ headquarters or saving someone from a burning building. Really, for me, I’ve learned that teaching and writing are Hope. Because they speak of always striving for better. To be better. And I’m not just talking about being better than the person you were yesterday. Teaching and writing are about more than yourself, they’re about passing on hope to others. When you turn on the news, check Twitter, walk down the street, it’s easy to see a lot of fear. But if I can keep writing, keep teaching, then suddenly I have this superpower, the ability to see the world one way and imagine it another. It might not be as stylish as a cape—or it might be more stylish, depending on your view of capes—but it’s the best we’ve got. And it’s what gave us Superman and Batman in the first place.
I met Matt back in 2012 at NCTE, and I have enjoyed reading his stories and following his career. When he told me he was writing a version of Superman, I immediately bought it, as did you. Although there are variations on the Superman story, the plot is consistent with a character who looks, on the surface, to be an ordinary citizen. Whether it is the power of adaptation that The Hulk demonstrates, the memory-wiping kiss that Superman displays, or the x-ray vision or enhanced senses of Wonder Woman, these superheroes use their abilities for the benefit of humanity. No career is even close to comparable as teaching. Under the most extreme circumstances, teachers have continued to be the one factor in education that makes the difference in the lives of students. They know what each student needs, and they pull out all the stops (superpowers) to make kids a priority, despite the odds.
Belanger, M. (2018). The History of Jane Doe. New York: Dial Books, Penguin House
Brock, R. (Ed.) (2018). Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration. New
York: Penguin Books
Chandler-Olcott, K. (2019). A Good Fit For All Kids: Collaborating to Teach Writing in
Diverse, Inclusive Settings. Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.
Craft, J. (2019). New Kid. New York: Harper Press
De la Peña, Matt (2019). Superman: Dawnbreaker. DC Comics. New York: Random House
Lone, J.M., & Burroughs, M.D. (2016). Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in
Schools. New York: Rowman & Littlfeld.
Luke, A. (2010). Pedagogy as gift. In A. L. J. Albright (Ed.), Pierre Bourdieu and Literacy Education. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.
Kennelly, B. (1996). Poetry My Arse. Ireland: Bloodaxe Books, Ltd.
Maxwell, S. (2019). “3,500 teacher vacancies in Florida. This is what happens when you abuse
public education.” Commentary in Orlando Sentinel. August 13. Retrieved from:
Paulus, T. (1973). Hope for the Flowers. Paulist Press.
Sidney, R. (2015). Nelson Beats the Odds. Virginia: Creative Medicine: Healing Through
Zentner, J. (2017). Goodbye Days. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers
Zentner, J. (2017). The Serpent King. New York: Penguin House Emblem
Zentner, J. (2019). Rayne and Delila’s Midnite Matinee. New York: Crown Books for Young