An Open Thank You Letter to Kwame Alexander

Dear Kwame Alexander,

 

Thank you for making us openly weep last year at the ILA conference when you said, “The mind of an adult begins with the imagination of a child,” and “all kids are the good kids”  When we heard you say those words and the room burst into thunderous applause, we knew our graduate students and the children they teach needed to hear the same message.  We knew they needed to hear your powerful poetry brought to life by Randy Preston’s music.  We watched you invite people onstage to rap with you, we saw an entire auditorium captivated by your stories, and we recognized this engagement as the kind of interaction where real learning happens.  

 

As professors at a local university, we are invested in preparing literacy teachers to motivate students to become lifelong readers and writers.  Beyond your emphasis on the importance of literacy, we needed you to talk to our students about equity.  How could we show our students in Nashville the power of words and motivate all students to read?  As we left ILA, we began to scheme.  

Our scheming led to you inspiring hundreds of teachers and students at a literacy pep rally!   

It wasn’t easy making sure that students who really needed to hear your message were there, but we made it happen, because all kids deserve to feel hopeful and valued as readers and writers.  Literacy is a shared focus in our state, district, and community.  As we began to plan, the state commissioner of education, the dean of our college, the superintendent of the school district, teachers at local schools, and many community non-profits wanted to join in the effort.  With everyone working together to help our children develop as readers and writers, we were all able to get you here.

And you wowed us all. You told the story of Kevin and how all Kevins need to be in the room. You engaged readers from second grade to high school and inspired them to keep trying, to “Be a Star.” You told the story of all of your rejections in life and told kids that you knew you were not all the no answers you had gotten, that there is a YES inside everyone. Local high school teacher Jarred Amato and his high school students, who started ProjectLITCommunity, met their favorite author. Kids from all over Nashville were shouting in excitement. Over poetry.  We handed out copies of The Crossover and Surf’s Up and we saw students grinning ear to ear proudly walking out of the rally with a brand new book.

 

Then we ate hot chicken together and you left.  What happened after you left is what we really need to thank you for.  Thank you for the lasting impact you had on our graduate students.  They will be better teachers for all of their students because of you.  As one of our graduate  students said:

 

“Seeing him speak live really pushed me to reflect on my own practice. Now that I see this new level of engagement, I’m challenged to think about what texts I am putting in front of my kids. I realized that many texts can be very focused on rigor and high expectations, but less focused on interest and engagement. How can I get my kids to love reading when reading has equated to exit tickets and standardized tests? Looking ahead, I am going to try to be an educator like Kwame…engage a crowd, motivate young kids, get my words STUCK in my kids’ heads. I am also going to push myself to put engaging, relevant texts in front of my kids.”  

 

Another of our students remarked, “I loved Kwame’s response to a female student asking what he would write about in a book ‘for girls.’ He simply told her that it would be about a boy named Filthy McNasty who loves basketball. As someone that is constantly fighting the good fight against gender roles in my classroom, I loved to hear him say something like that!”

 

One graduate student, a math teacher, who vulnerably admitted she did not really like to read, after seeing you said, “I’m sure this is a little shocking, but just to show my commitment to reading this summer, here are a few of the books on my summer reading list:

  • Booked -Kwame Alexander
  • The Playbook -Kwame Alexander
  • The Hate U Give -Angie Thomas
  • American Street -Ibi Zoibi

She will be a stronger teacher because she is a reader now.  Thanks to you.

 

And here is the impact you left on children, in the words of our students, who are their teachers:

 

“The next day I talked with the ones who came out to the event. I asked them what they thought about it and one of them told me it was the first time they ever cared about what a writer had to say. I thought this was pretty powerful, considering so much of my job is trying to get kids excited about what an author is trying to tell them.”

 

Another student told us, “Not only do I think the field trip was worth it to see an awesome African American author speak about failure and motivation, but the students also got to see literature celebrated. Additionally, they got to see other students that looked like them speaking up about their hardships. Speaking powerfully, confidently, and openly about their own issues. Using their own literacy to do something that matters, and make connections with others.”

 

Several teachers remarked on the shifts they saw in their classrooms: “I got to see my kids fight over books. Not over shoes, or Takis, or candy. BOOKS. And, they quickly calmed down and stopped fighting when I asked them to share.”

 

“I struggle to engage 21 students in a room for 50 minutes, yet he was able to engage an auditorium of students for an entire production. It was incredible to watch even some of my resistant, ‘too cool for this’ students respond to Kwame’s pleas to the crowd. I watched my students fight over books, then come to school the next morning to tell each other how many pages they had read overnight.”

 

A middle school librarian wrote, “Our kids chanted, ‘Poetry, poetry, poetry!’ Totally spontaneous enthusiasm.”

 

Thank you, Kwame Alexander, for writing books that make kids love reading, for telling stories to remind us that all the kids are the good ones, and for changing the reading lives of hundreds of children in Nashville.  

 

Michelle Medlin Hasty teaches secondary literacy and instructional coaching courses at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. She thinks reading for work and talking about books all day is the best gig ever.  Classroom experience teaching adolescent readers and writers led to her research interests in writing instruction, students’ perceptions of themselves as readers and writers, and critical literacy. Her favorite days are spent convincing high school teachers to use picture books with their students and sharing stories with her four sons. You may contact Michelle at michelle.hasty@lipscomb.edu.

 

Ally Hauptman is the Lead Faculty for Instructional Practice at Lipscomb University in Nashville. She teaches courses in foundations of literacy and disciplinary literacy.  She is also honored to be the chair of the ILA Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award committee.  Teaching in first and fifth grade and being a literacy coach for a middle school, she has learned a few things. No matter the age, students love to hear a good book read aloud.  If you provide students access to great texts and give them choice, they will read.  She typically begins her day reading the news and ends her day curled up with a great middle grades book.  If you would like to talk about books and reading motivation please email her at alhauptman@lipscomb.edu.

 

Entering her 32nd year of teaching, Julie Simone has taught everything from preschool to graduate school. She is currently an Instructor in Lipscomb University’s College of Education and Lead Faculty Liaison for Teach For America. Simone’s work and teaching focus on inclusive, responsive, and effective practices for equitable access in classrooms and communities, with an emphasis on the roles literacy and family engagement have in building a more equitable and just society. She can be reached at julie.simone@lipscomb.edu.