One Author, One Librarian, One Teacher; Three Nerds by Nora Raleigh Baskin, Beth Parmer, and Jimmy Sapia
Nora: When I was asked if I would be willing to teach creative writing at an underperforming middle school in an urban neighborhood with a very small budget, my first question was: What does “underperforming” mean?
But I was willing– despite how little they could pay or what that meant exactly– because I’ve been feeling, since my kids are grown, it’s my time to give back. Besides, I’d been teaching writing for almost twenty years; I could do it in my sleep, right?
I was scheduled to teach, two back-to-back hour-long sessions, made up of combined ELA classes (roughly 60 kids in each group), in the library, twice a week, for eight weeks.
No problem. I put together my eight presentations ranging from The Name Game, Reverse Room Raider, Said is not Dead, to First Lines using examples from diverse and contemporary fictional titles. I had my laptop, my dongle, and my remote control clicker.
I was all set to go.
Five hours later, I was in my car, heading back home, in tears.
My head hurt, and my throat was hoarse from having to shout over the din of chatter in the large library space, from trying to reach kids who were sitting at tables that stretched to the back wall. I had used up all my energy and enthusiasm, practically standing on my head, while going through a powerpoint presentation on character and plot, hoping to share my love of books and writing. I was met with apathy and disinterest.
I had failed miserably.
My drive home happened to take me right past the school where Jimmy Sapia teaches 6th grade, less than a mile from where I was now working. Swallowing my sobs, I Voxed my fellow Nerdy book Club member and left him a message
Jimmy: Upon receiving the Voxer message from Nora, I could hear the disappointment in her voice. How can two schools, some geographically close, be so different? This complex, rhetorical question is one which I struggle with daily. From a literary perspective, how can we expect students to become passionate readers if they’re not surrounded by a wide variety of texts and genres in their classroom and school environment? No book talks. No book speed dating. No time for student recommendations. No time for read aloud to build community. This was the topic of conversation when I invited Nora into my classroom to talk with students who were reading Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story for our book club. Nora and I immediately began to have deep and meaningful conversation about how books should surround students if we want to help foster a love of the written word. She immediately noticed my immense classroom library. What broke my heart was when she said that beyond the Nerdy Book Club ecosystem, she referenced how many classrooms and schools don’t have high quality engaging texts for kids.
Nora: While waiting to hear back from Jimmy, I remembered speaking that morning with a paraprofessional who had been in the library during my sessions. Sensing my frustration, she offered some of her observations. She explained that the students had come in already uneasy and on-guard. Most of them hadn’t been to the library all year; it was an unfamiliar environment. Not only that, but the transition from their classroom to the library had been a negative one.
Quiet down. Stop fooling around. Don’t sit there. You two can’t be at the same table. So why didn’t you bring something to write with?
Secondly, she pointed out that the group was very large, and made up of students from different classes. They didn’t know each other, and this was going to affect their willingness to participate.
She kindly wanted to let me know, the chaos wasn’t my fault.
But it wasn’t theirs either.
After leaving a message for Jimmy Sapia, I decided if I was going to make this work, I would need as much help as I could get. I knew exactly who to Vox next.
Beth: Last year I started my role as a K-8 librarian in our state’s largest district. I run two middle school libraries and supervise nine elementary aides. I was certain I would master the juggling act of 11 libraries after several months, but year two is here and it is still a challenge. Some days I question whether I’m helping even one single person in any of my schools. It was on one of those days that I saw the Voxer message from Nora. Kids. Books. Engagement. This was something I could do. As I listened to Nora talk, I recalled my first experience with eighth graders.
Shoulders back, chin up, smile wide across my face, I held up a picture book, but before I could get the title out, I heard, “You think we’re stupid? Is that why you’re reading us a baby book?” The sighs and laughter started, and then they turned to face their friends and began talking. The redness creeping up my neck and across my cheeks betrayed my confident façade, but I wasn’t ready to give in. I shared the wisdom I had learned from so many Nerdy Book pals, that picture books are for all ages, that they are short pieces of text we can analyze just like the worksheets they more commonly see in class, and that my friends all across the country read illustrated books to their students in middle school. I asked them to give it a chance, and they did. Once more, I held up The Fog by Kyo Maclear and as the words began to roll off my tongue, and the artwork captured their attention, this book performed the magic act I knew it could pull off.
So without any hesitation, I told Nora that picture books were her solution. Released just the week before with illustrations that would allow all of her students to see themselves in a book, I said Love by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long would turn things around for her.
Nora: *Smacks forehead* After twenty-five years teaching Hebrew school and all my years before that being a preschool teacher, I knew the magic and power of picture books, but I was hesitant.
I worried that the administrator who had hired me would think I was wasting my time, or worse —theirs. Afterall, she had hired me to bring up writing and reading scores. (Apparently this is what “underperforming” means.)
And what about the ELA teachers? They agreed that switching from the library– which held the larger number of students–to the individual classrooms would be much better. But while I would still be interacting with the entire 6th grade, it would be half as many times, half as many lessons, half as many hours with each class. And now I was coming in with a picture book?
Still, there was so much I could do with the book Beth suggested. Matt’s words were poetic and Loren’s illustrations were beautiful. There was so much here I could use to talk about inference, language, and word choice. It was also a wonderful feeling to know I’d be holding up illustrations where students would be seeing faces that looked like them. I hadn’t expected that it would take doing this, to fully realize how rare it was. It did, and it is.
Beth told me something else in her Vox message that gave me the perfect rationalization for reading out loud to these seemingly recalcitrant 6th graders. She reminded of something I deeply believe– that the power of reading belongs to the reader.
She gave me a quote from a well-known kidlit author that brought it all together perfectly. I decided I would open the next day with that quote and maybe, pretend I had made it up myself.
Beth: Nearly ten years ago I heard a line from Mo Willems that I’m sure I’ve misquoted after all this time has passed, but the idea has never left me. He shared that authors and illustrators bring 49% of the story to their audience, but that 51% is in the hands of the readers. This moment was a game changer. Had my high school self heard this, the intimidation of analyzing poetry and classic literature would have diminished. I share this with all of my students, and I shared it with Nora. We talked about how all students and teachers have different life experiences, and these shape how we connect with passages in books, how we interpret and react to them. When we free students to share what resonates with them, we are allowing them the opportunity to own the book and that reading experience.
Nora: After each class I would Vox Beth, give her updates and share more problems. She always replied by the end of the day. At home, I spent hours re-working my presentations. Beth suggested I use more visuals in my lesson plans.
Show don’t tell, she said.
Of course! Teaching writing was the same as writing writing.
So instead of slides with information and an entertaining decorative image, I now had slides with images that evoked questions. I divided up all my examples from literature directly into the information I wanted to impart, so that at no point was I doing all the talking for more than one slide. It was interactive throughout. When it was time for the students to write in their journals, we first did the exercise as a group and I had plenty of specific images to illustrate some possible ideas. Things were getting better, rapidly.
But how could I intimately connect to students who were sitting at rectangular tables? This school had recently gotten rid of their individual desks and had everyone in groups of three and four at separate tables spread around the room. It was designed to encourage teamwork, but I found it created distance between the students and me, and among the students themselves. It was also around this point, I noticed there were no bookshelves in the classrooms! No books!
In one Vox, I laid out my fantasy for showing up to my next session with a huge, rolled-up carpet under my arm, a massive pile of my own beloved children’s books in the other, and gathering all the kids together on the floor. Jimmy told me carrying an actual rug might be a “little difficult,” but both Jimmy and Beth approved of the new seating arrangement.
Beth: When Nora asked if she could move tables, I may have jumped off my couch screaming yes! Sharing a book together is a community experience and we cannot build that with students sitting at islands of desks or behind the barriers of tables. We must be together. Altogether. Totally invested in the moment. The physical act of coming together for a story is powerful. It is that act which I believe sets the stage for immersing a group of students into the story that awaits.
Jimmy: In our classroom, students have the choice to sit in a variety of places to demonstrate understanding. For example, mini lessons always begin on our carpet in the front of the classroom. I’ve heard in the past that having a carpet is very elementary school, but I could not disagree more. The feedback from my middle schools students has been overwhelmingly positive. Many other seating options await my students: standing desks, yoga balls, three couches, wobble stools, cubbies with carpets, outdoor three piece patio set, and Alexa collaborative seating. Classroom design is about community and student voice.
A flexible learning environment should be differentiated according to our students’ needs, just as their work is. With a flexible learning environment should come the idea of flexible thinking. Students should be at the forefront of the design process because after all, the classroom belongs to them. Furthermore, the community we can help foster through systematic classroom design can help foster a love of reading.
During my conversation with Nora after her difficult day, she mentioned my classroom design and she might bring a carpet into her creative writing presentations for kids. I quickly encouraged her to do so, after checking with school personnel. This lead to a discussing about creating community. To further our conversation, I mentioned utilizing pictures books during her work with the new students. This provides tremendous support and sends a clear message about her dedication to creating a shared experience with students in an approachable way. After all, picture books belong in all classrooms, pre-K through high school! Through this simple modification, I knew Nora would begin to see and feel the results.
It worked! The teachers were sharing with me how amazed and happy they were to see their kids eagerly raising their hands, writing (a lot) in their journals, participating in the conversations, and (willingly and enthusiastically) sharing work out loud.
I felt better too, but almost as soon as I stopped worrying about myself and what kind of job I was doing, something else became apparent, and took center stage, a whole new kind of doubt and confusion.
Most of these kids had much bigger problems than their reading scores. Their true life stories were often more real than the fiction I was bringing in to talk about. I was –in a new self-absorbed kind of way– beginning to feel small and insignificant. I felt. . . .well, silly, for making such a song and dance about books and reading, in the light of what a lot of these kids were dealing with everyday: heat, food, violence, homelessness.
And once again, Beth told me something that allowed me to keep coming back and believing in what I was trying to do.
Beth: I cannot guarantee all of my kids go home to a warm place with enough food for dinner, and some days I don’t know how to process this. Some days I get emotional packing my own kids’ lunches because I can ask them which fresh vegetables they would prefer with their hummus. I understood what Nora was saying. I think we’ve all been in that place where we wonder if what we are doing is enough, if it matters. There is a lot I don’t know, but I do know ALL students deserve the best education possible. All students deserve to learn in welcoming environments filled with high-quality literature. All students deserve to have experiences with authors. I wanted those students to have that time with Nora. I want learning opportunities like that for all kids. I told Nora that we show up to our schools with smiles, with new book ideas, with a willingness to listen and a desire to share messages of love, acceptance and inspiration because if not, we were denying them what all students deserve.
Nora: So it’s been a couple of months since I stopped teaching at this public school and in a way, it feels like a far away dream. Getting up in the dark and cold, walking my dog with a flashlight, gobbling down breakfast in my car, and arriving at school just as the sun comes up. Realizing, too, that this is what teachers do every morning, every week, year after year.
As an author I go into schools all the time. And in one way, it gives me a unique perspective. For instance, I can feel as soon as I walk into a building, how the teachers and administrators work together (or don’t), what the atmosphere and teaching philosophy is. Some teachers are engaged in my presentation and workshop, others see it as time-off. Some principals come up to greet me, others don’t know I’m in the building. I am not judging, just observing. But being embedded so to speak —as I was this winter—was a very different experience.
I learned much about myself and more about the educational disparity in our country, by living it firsthand. I am certain it will affect everything I do, everything I write, everything I talk about going forward. I am still unpacking it.
But for this blog, I wanted to speak, mostly, to one truth:
If it weren’t for the Nerdy Book Club, I might well have accepted the negative explanation I was offered, and pinned a whole failed experiment on “indifference and laziness” (not my words).
But instead, because I had the opportunity to share in a unique approach to literacy and teaching, my experience was a wholly different one. If I have given just one child a new, positive perspective on reading and writing this year, it is only because I had the Nerdy Book Club community standing behind me.
Beth: Nora contacted me at a point where I was feeling I wasn’t enough-not present enough, not helping enough, simply, not enough. She helped me reflect on what I was doing, and reminded me our work extends beyond our own buildings. Had it not been for the Nerdy community, I would not know Nora and would have missed out on this experience. The three of us love the way this community has connected us with each other and so many others. The Nerdy Book Club has not only made us more informed about children’s literature, but it helps us reflect on our teaching and we know it will continue to stretch our thinking. This exchange is what being part of this group is all about. We collaborate and support one another because the work is hard, and without colleagues who lend a hand, without colleagues who cheer us on, how can we be our very best for the children?
Jimmy: Being part of a community so knowledgeable and informative as the Nerdy Book has had a significant impact on my instructional pedagogy. Through building such incredible relationships with authors and other readers equally as passionate about reading books has translated to my students’ excitement about reading. I was honored Nora would reach out for support and ideas to help her on her journey. This group has impacted my teaching in ways I never knew imagined, and for that, I am beyond grateful.
Nora Raleigh Baskin is the award winning author of thirteen novels for middle grade and young adult readers.You can find her at Norabaskin.com /@noraraleighb
This is a video Beth made of her students listening to a recording of Nora reading Nine, Ten.
Beth Parmer has been in education for 17 years, and is currently a K-8 librarian. Before diving into the library world, she taught second grade for twelve years. You can find her gushing over her favorite books on Twitter: @Beth_Parmer.
Jimmy Sapia is a passionate teacher in Stamford, CT. He teaches sixth grade Individuals and Societies. He’s a proud to be an active member of the Twitter educational community and was chosen as a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader and a PBS local digital innovator. Jimmy was the Stamford, CT Teacher of the Year in 2014. He loves children’s literature and strives to become better everyday. Follow him on Twitter @mrsapia_teach