It is a great pleasure to host Katie Sluiter once again. Katie posted a few months ago about YA in the middle grades classroom. It is worth a second look. Katie is one of those dedicated teachers who manages to do amazing things in the classroom while being a wife, a mother, a cub scout leader, and a blogger (you can see her brief bio at the end of the blog). This time, Katie addresses the issue of author visits.
This past fall, I found myself star-struck surrounded by authors. I was fortunate to be at the ALAN Author Reception the night before the official conference. Once to the entrance, I took a second and just looked around the room: Laurie Halse Anderson, Jason Reynolds, A.S. King, David Levithan, Brendan Kiely, Neil Shusterman, MT Anderson, Sara Zarr, Tim Federle, Matt de la Pena. As I moved around the room introducing myself, I could hear myself fangirling, and I couldn’t stop. I told A.S. King that I identified so much with Vera Diez. I had to hold the folds of my dress so I wouldn’t try to hug Laurie Halse Anderson. I told David Levithan that he saves lives because my students finally found themselves in a book when they read his work. I gushed and I took selfies. Then I went back to my classroom and relived it with my students. To my surprise, they were fascinated that I met so many authors too. We often wonder aloud in our book talks, “how did they come up with this story?”
The auditorium buzzed with anticipation on a sunny March Monday as hundreds of eleventh grade students filled the seats, clutching their copy of All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. They had all read it with their English class and were given a copy to possibly get signed. I filed in the back with four of my eighth graders who had also read the book on their own, and whom I wanted to treat with this special author visit. One poked my arm and said, “There’s Jason Reynolds! He’s right there! He looks just like he does on the book cover!”
This was not their first author visit this year, however. In January Gary D. Schmidt dropped by after all of our 8th and 9th graders read his newest novel, Orbiting Jupiter. He spoke separately to our 8th and then 9th graders in an assembly and then held a smaller, more intimate 90-minute writer’s workshop with about twenty students.
Our district has been hosting authors since the 2012-13 school year. It has become a popular tradition for our 11th grade students to all read the same novel by an author who then comes to speak. Students also produce a piece of writing inspired by that year’s author that is included in a published anthology. Our junior high school, where I teach, added the yearly author visit for 8th and 9th graders during the 2015-16 school year when Jonathan Friesen stopped by to discuss his books Jerk, California and Both of Me.
While I have read the arguments discouraging whole-class novels, I’ve watched as these visits become one of the highlights of the year for many of our students, especially those who may struggle to find connection in ELA class.
I surveyed 192 students, mostly junior high school, about how they felt about the author visits. While most agreed (73%) that they didn't feel their teacher taught the novel any differently than anything else they read, 62% said they paid attention and enjoyed the book more than anything else they did all year knowing they would meet the author in some capacity. Students also commented that they felt the books we read by visiting authors were better books than anything else we read. A 9th grader commented, “We spend the rest of the year reading Shakespeare and The Odyssey so it was so nice to read a book that is new and for our own age” (about Orbiting Jupiter).
When asked what are the best parts of having the author come and speak, answers varied, but many agreed with what this 8th grader said about Gary D. Schmidt’s visit: “When an author comes, you get to learn the deeper meaning of the book and where his ideas came from. I would have never guessed the characters were based on students he had in a boys [sic] prison!”
I asked six teachers many of the same questions wondering if they would be less enthusiastic since it’s never easy having someone else make decisions for you regarding curriculum. Half of the teachers admitted teaching the book a little different knowing the author would be visiting. There was more focused on the “why” of writing, as one teacher pointed out; “what might have motivated the authors” as well as discussing “more writer’s craft.” They also stressed recording all the wonderings students had while reading since they could actually have a chance to ask the author.
The teachers unanimously agreed that the author visits are a positive opportunity for our students. While one teacher voiced the concern that a few of the novels have been too easy for his/her students, it was stated that seeing and/or meeting someone who is a successfully published writer is important for students--that it made the experience of writing more real to students.
One high school teacher put it this way: “One positive impact of such visits is to encourage reading/literacy. Students tend to be more vested when they know they'll have the opportunity to meet and hear an author. They also like knowing that others are reading the same title - I see that student talk more about the book with others who aren't necessarily in their English class - it's kind of like a giant book club. Another benefit is that students are able to see that published authors are real people. When they hear their stories about writing, rejections, revisions, etc., students are more apt to believe that they could do the same thing some day.”
Teachers and students alike agree that the author visits are a wonderful opportunity. The only suggestion that came up on both surveys was whether or not it could be possible to have smaller group sessions with the authors. Most liked the assembly-style, but felt they would get more out of smaller sessions. For many of the authors, we have been able to offer one or two writing workshops that students have had to apply to be a part of. Many authors have the agendas set as part of their contracts; schools can choose from a “menu” of assembly-style or small writing workshop events.
We have a fabulous Media Center Specialist who is not only a voracious reader of Young Adult Literature herself--and keeps both our high school and junior high Media Centers stocked with the latest and most high-interest titles--but she is also a huge advocate for literacy and writing and authentic experiences for our students. She works closely with our county’s district library to bring in talented authors once a year for the area high schools. Each high school contributes a set amount to the cost, but most are paid for by the district library. Because of that, our media center budget is able to provide a copy of the book for each 11th grader to keep for their own. Many eagerly stand in line after the author's visit to get it signed.
Our junior high visits are funded entirely through the Media Center budget and not in coordination with any other schools. This makes finding affordable authors more difficult. It also means that we can order classroom sets of the books, but not one for every student.
Even with the cost, our Media Center Specialist--backed by our administration and the teachers--believe in author visits as a powerful experience for our students. As another teacher stated, “When students get a chance to see and talk with an author, they see that they are actual people who made actual decisions in writing a text. It makes reading more approachable to them, and also encourages them to pursue their own writings.”
2016: Jonathan Friesen--Both of Me and/or Jerk, California
2017: Gary D Schmidt--Orbiting Jupiter
2017: Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely - All American Boys
2016: Jacqueline Woodson - Brown Girl Dreaming
2015: Dr. Sampson Davis - We Beat the Streets
2014: Sonia Nazario - Enrique's Journey
2013: Tom Rademacher - Knocking At Your Door