Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Nothing Special

The starting line.
Before heading to his first period class, an 8th grade boy rushed into my room. "Miss O'Leary I finished UNBROKEN last night! I read nine chapters, I couldn't put it down. Like, I really liked it."

"Oh my gosh! I am so proud of you!"

"Yea, it's pretty awesome."

I felt like my heart was going to burst with pride for this young man. I did everything in my power to have a school-approved celebration at 7:25 in the morning. If I could've arranged for confetti cannons in short order, I would have. But someone was missing; there was only one other person on the planet who would understand.

"Did you tell Ms. Cotillo?"

"No, I was going to find her next!" I paraded him out into the hall, in view of his English teacher. I placed my hands above him, imaginary spotlights illuminating his literate head.

Though her beaming smile revealed she knew what he was about to say, Mary let him have the glory. She joined in our glee, cheered as he walked off to class, and then caught me in a hug as I dissolved into tears.

"That's it. We can hang our hat on that child alone. That's all we need. We can be done now!"

I wrote an email to my principal, telling him that Mary and I could now retire.

But today was nothing special.

"Can we just read today?"
No one knows UNBROKEN is the first book this young man has ever read on his own. No one knows that he attends replacement literacy classes multiple times a week and regularly tests in the below average range for reading. No one knows that two years ago, I made a promise to his worried mother: I would find a book that would make her son read. No one knows that as recently as last week he doubted his own abilities and was nervous about finishing on time. No one knows that he wrote "All In!" in his class journal way back in September, when writing his goals for the year.

Today was nothing special.

By the time the morning was over, we were visited by three more children, all singing the same tune: "I Couldn't Put It Down Last Night!" As we walked to lunch, preparing to test these eager readers, Mary looked at me and said, "And today was nothing special. Like, we're still a week away from the due date. They're just loving it!"

Let the adventure begin.
The adolescents who crammed our testing table before eating their lunches today - there was a line - were overwhelmingly struggling readers. The first six kids, packed in like sardines at a table meant for four, were all Special Education students.

As of today, 141 kids have passed the test for UNBROKEN. Seven of them have asked to take another one "because it was fun" or "I want to prove it even more."

And today was nothing special.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


Yesterday we cried for all the right reasons.

Just before last period, a lovely 8th grade student - and, as of today, she's an official 3-Peat - came up to Erin in the hallway and handed her a folded note.

"This is for you and Ms. Cotillo but you can't read it until you're together."

Two hours later, the faculty meeting had ended and the two of us remained; together, we unfolded her hand-written letter.

The two of us, joined in weepy Crazy Reading Lady bliss, shook our heads in quiet awe of what we had been given.

We decided her words were enough to warrant their very own blog post.

If only these kids knew how thankful we are for them. They are the reason this program exists. They are the reason we have the very best jobs in the world.

There were a lot of ideas we tossed around for the title of this post: Love, Wow, This is Why We Do It, When You Least Expect It. But we settled on Thankful. That is what this young lady so honestly and eloquently expressed, and that is what we were left feeling after reading her letter.

For all the readers who've come along on the journey.
If you haven't had one of those beautiful teacher moments in a while, please allow us to share ours with you.

We are thankful.

Mary and Erin

December 3, 2014

Dear Ms. O'Leary and Ms. Cotillo,

When I first found out we were reading the book UNBROKEN, I did not know what to expect. I personally love non-fiction [and] war books so I was excited it was that genre. Reading UNBROKEN is like time travel. The author Laura Hillenbrand takes people of all ages back to the 1940s; which they may not have lived in. Louis Zamperini seems like an old friend I have known my whole life after reading UNBROKEN. His personality, background, and character is well-described while leaving some mystery.

I am so thankful for the chance to read this incredible story. UNBROKEN has taken me to places I have never been before and I have found my inner soldier. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for choosing UNBROKEN for All In! 2015! It has changed the way I look at society, life, and the world around us.


8th grade

Monday, November 24, 2014

Veterans Day Part Two: Courage Brings Us Home

HMMS band led by Ms. Nicole Wright
Just after 12:30 on Monday, November 10th 2014, all of our planning and negotiating and adjusting and cooperating came to beautiful fruition.

Thanks to the HMMS music teachers and students, the ambiance was perfect.  The strings quintet and band provided just the right mood.  
So much to love about this!

The Student Council met our visiting veterans at the door, gave them a tour of the building, and conducted a brief interview.  It warmed our hearts to see the generations connect in such a meaningful way.  Mary's daughter was lucky enough to get to meet and interview a Korean War veteran, and she repeatedly referred to him as "my veteran."  So sweet.  
Sweet Anna with "her veteran"

We'd encouraged students to dress up or wear red, white, and blue the day of the assembly.  The Community Service Club distributed yellow ribbons to all students and adults involved, giving us a unified look.  They also wrapped  UNBROKEN books in red, white, and blue ribbons.  Tucked inside each book was a letter written by a member of the Student Council, thanking the service men and women for their work.  These books were later presented to our visitors as gifts.

As students and visitors filed in, the band played and we showed a slide show of HMMS students and teachers pictured with the veterans and active service members in their families. It was touching to see teachers with their parents, children - often much younger in the photo than they are now - with grandparents.  It set the perfect tone.

When everyone was seated, Erin and Mary took to the podium to kick off the kickoff with these words:

"Welcome to the first day of All In! 2015. It’s only fitting that our official launch is happening the day before Veterans Day, giving us the opportunity to celebrate both Louie Zamperini, the heroic subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s book UNBROKEN, and the heroes of our community. Today, we welcome 15 Franklin veterans as well as Senator Karen Spilka, Senator Richard Ross, and Representative Jeff Roy.

On September 27, when Unbroken was announced as the book for All In 2015, Horace Mann students found themselves in an unexpected situation. There was no countdown, no assembly, no screaming audience, and no balloons. In fact, the craziness everyone expected of the crazy reading ladies was missing altogether. Thank you for forgiving us, and please allow us to explain. 
Everything we do has always been about fun. It's fun to read a popular book with friends. It's fun to leave school and go see a movie. It's fun to leap into a recycling bin filled with shredded paper and go diving for dragon's eggs. The CRL are all about fun! And that's great, and we love it, and it works...but.

Sometimes you find yourself called to do something greater.

Life is all about choices. Our favorite literary characters teach us that. Katniss chose to save her sister; Bilbo chose an unexpected journey; Tris chose to be true to herself. When we chose UNBROKEN, we knew that it was going to be different.  We knew that it was important...a story we and our students needed to hear. We also knew it was an undertaking far greater than any we'd attempted before.

Sitting before us are the students who read The Hobbit as 6th graders, proving teachers, principals, and literacy experts wrong. They said it was too hard. You taught us to never, ever under-estimate you.

Sitting to our left are 7th graders who conquered a 500-page text in their 6th grade year and led this school on a march that shattered All In!’s participation records and brought us our biggest year yet. They said we couldn't fill six busses. You helped us prove them wrong.

And to out right sit our newest recruits. Students who have never before gone All In!, yet signed up anyway. You know not what this experience will require of you, but neither did our hero Louie Zamperini.

What is a hero? A hero is a person who puts others before themselves, like Katniss. A person who pushes on despite their fear, like Bilbo. A person who acts on their convictions, like Tris. A hero is a person like Louis Zamperini...someone who maintains a positive attitude even in the most negative situations and never, ever, ever gives up.

You can almost see her whole face!
Heroes become heroes because of the choices they make. We hope that you will choose to join us in this adventure. We are confident that each one of you is capable of rising to the challenge and discovering the hero within yourself."

The Student Council representatives then took the microphone to introduce "their" veterans.  Please take a moment to digest what these remarkable young people did.  Not only did they serve as ambassadors for the school and welcome our visitors, they also conducted interviews and turned their notes into formal verbal introductions presented to an auditorium packed with people.  And half of them could barely see over the podium!
Representative Jeff Roy is going All In!

State Senators Richard Ross and Karen Spilka addressed the crowd, encouraging them to find ways to recognize the service of veterans and urging them to read the book.  Representative Jeff Roy inspired our young crowd with the following:

"Books can change your life. What others have written and said is more the heart of who we are and the way we are, than many of us could imagine.

And books are always accessible. In fact did you know that there are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the United States? In fact, there are 17,000 libraries, compared to 14,000 McDonald’s. I have nothing against McDonald’s – I like a Big Mac every now and then myself -- but the food for thought available in libraries is much more satisfying." 

Introducing the dramatic reading
2012 Hunger Games co-victor

Current high school students - we call them our All In! Alumni - and a handful of 8th graders and future three-peats performed a dramatic recital of the introduction to the book.

Three Student Council representatives asked their adviser if they could write poems to present at the assembly.  We didn't see or hear the poems before they were read to a crowd of 500 plus.  These young ladies handled themselves with such poise! 

White Cliffs and three words
The assembly ended with a slideshow of a Community Service Club project - my three words - accompanied by an 8th grade future three-peat singing The White Cliffs of Dover.  The Crazy Reading Ladies, having held their emotions in check for an almost unheard of 60 minutes, may have cracked just a bit as she sang.

When the Milford Daily News reporter's questions were answered and the auditorium was empty, Mary turned to Erin and said, "That could have been the worst assembly we've ever managed or the best.  I honestly don't know.  I was just in 'get-it-done' mode."  Judging from the comments we've received since, we've decided it belongs in the "best" category. 

And it wasn't one minute after the stage cleared before someone said, "I don't know how you're going to top this next year!" 

Well, it's not the fist time we've heard that. 

There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow just you wait and see.

There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Veterans Day Part One: An Unexpected Journey

"The Best Laid Schemes..." 
Book Release: 11/11/14. Perfect timing!
In a brilliant marketing move, Random House publishers decided to release the YA version of UNBROKEN on Veterans Day.

Back in September, when the title was revealed to students and parents, The Crazy Reading Ladies decided that an assembly on November 10 would be absolutely perfect. We would honor veterans and officially kick off All In! 2015. Sage advisers warned us: there wasn't enough time.
Pshaw! To whom were they issuing this advice? Did they SEE our Divergent assembly?! We had until November 10 - almost two whole months! In CRL time, that's like a year and a half.

As we set about planning, Gandalf (a.k.a. our principal) cautioned us, "Keep it small and book-centric." 

Okey dokey!
Mother/daughter selfie with Senator Ross!
We ended up with a thirty-piece band, a string quintet, three politicians, eight visiting high schoolers, fifteen veterans, a Student Council honor guard, and local cable access television. (And a partridge in a pear tree.)

Gandalf - who knows full-well we ordered confetti cannons last year - should have known better.

Honestly, though, we started off trying to follow orders.  We wanted to keep it small! We're good tributes/Hobbits/initiates/soldiers, after all.  But, as good heroes often do, we found ourselves pulled astray.  As Robert Frost taught us, "way leads on to way" and original paths are difficult to rediscover.  One decision lead to another and we quickly found ourselves on a path leading to spectacle.  In this Part One post we try to unravel the twisting road and leave you a trail of breadcrumbs, should you ever decide to try to follow our footsteps. To experience the day itself, please read Part Two. 

Something Old and Something New
Early in the brainstorming process, a colleague suggested having teachers read the introduction of the book as part of the kickoff assembly.  We thought that idea was wonderful, but we wanted the day to be as much about students as possible, so decided to invite former All In! participants to do the honors.  We sent emails to the high school, inviting our HUNGER GAMES co-victors (now Juniors!), our HOBBIT and DIVERGENT Literary Leaders, and others whose participation was memorable.  Most were happy to help, but a handful couldn't miss class, and we ended up needing five more voices.  Of course, we're never at a shortage for manpower!  Current 8th graders - our future three-peats - were more than happy to step up and help us out.  So far, so good!  We talk about the importance of the day, read the introduction, promote the book...done and done!  

We Are Looking for Someone to Join in an Adventure
How do you have a Veteran's Day Assembly without inviting veterans?   Short story: you don't.  Erin made a few phone calls to our super helpful and right-next-door Senior Center and before you knew it, we had seven seniors RSVP that they'd be pleased to attend.  They helped us by advertising our invitation in their newsletter.  That newsletter fell into the hands of the social director for a local assisted living center, and they brought eight more veterans to our door.  Because of the help of these local organizations, our students got to meet and recognize veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and those involved in more recent conflicts.  

This important and necessary addition to the festivities required that we strike a respectful balance between promoting the book and honoring their service.  Many conversations were had about how best to do so.  Which leads us to the involvement of many people and school clubs.  

Our Loyal Band of Adventurers
My 3 words video
So many people in the school community wanted to be involved.  SO many!  We were, quite honestly, overwhelmed in the best way possible.  There have been times over the past three years that the CRL have felt a little like the middle child of our community.  To have so many genuine offers of help was enough for our grinchy hearts to grow three sizes.

Our 7th grade REACH teacher showed us Good Morning America's "My Three Words" campaign, and the Community Service Club ran with it.  They made a video of the HMMS community response to the question, "What does the word 'hero' mean to you?"

The CRL know that music plays a large role in student buy in.  We've always chosen an official song for each book.  The kids hear "Some Nights" by Fun and cry "The HOBBIT Song!"  Nothing but Eminem would work for DIVERGENT.  But this assembly about the struggles and sacrifices of veterans didn't really call for modern pop music.  Instead, we begged help from our talented music teachers. 

Strike up the band! 

Our strings teacher agreed to provide a quintet of student players stationed in the lobby to greet visitors.  Our chorus teacher pulled her select chorus to sing the National Anthem to start our assembly.  She also worked with an 8th grader on a solo of "The White Cliffs of Dover" and provided accompaniment.  Our band teacher directed the student band as they played patriotic songs while the audience entered and exited the auditorium.
7th grader chatting with "her veteran" 
About a week before the assembly, the Student Council adviser approached Erin to ask how he could get his kids involved.  In one week's time said adviser and his band of "get it done" kids pulled off the following:  a smorgasbord of cookies and muffins and other goodies to serve our visitors after the assembly, letters of thanks to give to each attending veteran, a patriotic honor guard to applaud for and greet them as they entered the school, and friendly and respectful guides to lead visiting veterans to their seats.  As we discussed the details involved, Student Council members also took on the task of interviewing and introducing the veterans and presenting them with a copy of UNBROKEN as a gift.   

Our school community has also participated in Dress Up for Charity, in which we raise awareness of a current issue and students and staff dress up to show respect for the cause. On November 10, All In! sponsored Dress Up day for our nation's military and students and staff donned their fanciest (or most patriotic) attire for the occasion. That lifted the tenor of the day and made our guests feel even more honored. 

Since our mission was to strike the delicate balance between honoring veterans and promoting ALLIN15, we decided that it would be appropriate to educate the students about the content of the book and explicitly tell them why we thought they should read. ALLIN15 was also the very first time the staff knew about the book before the students did, and many took the opportunity to read it over the summer. Given this, we decided that teacher testimonials would be the way to go. And our staff is just game enough to permit a troop of middle schoolers - we call 'em our Crazy Reading Minions, we meet Mondays after school - to shove a camera in their faces and push record. Once edited, "Teacher Testimonials" had a running time of twelve minutes; it speaks volumes that the longest video aired at the assembly was filled with our wonderful comrades who willingly stepped out of their comfort zones and spoke about a book.

Without the help of these teachers and students, we're not sure we could have struck the appropriate balance between honoring veterans and promoting the book.  We are truly grateful. 
                                                Wizard's Council
Rep. Roy, Sen. Ross, Sen. Spilka
Somewhere along the way, Gandalf suggested inviting state politicians to attend.  This has been standard operating procedure for major school events, so Erin dutifully sent off emails to all the folks we could track down, with no real expectations.  Within a matter of days we'd received positive responses from Senators Spilka and Ross and Representative Roy.  We also got a "maybe" from Governor Deval Patrick.  Just sayin'.
An Unexpected Journey
What began as a "small and book-centric" assembly morphed into something much, much bigger.  Check out Part Two to read the rest!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why YA?

Anna and Annabelle.  Both go All In!
My daughter Anna was in 4th grade the year I put corkscrew curls in my hair, spray painted them pink, and wished 220+ middle school students "Happy Hunger Games! "  I attended her 5th grade conference dressed as an elven princess from THE HOBBIT.  Having modeled that level of passion for two years, there was no way I could dissuade her from reading DIVERGENT when she officially joined All In! in 6th grade.  Was I concerned about the content?  Yeah, I was.  This is, after all, the girl who didn't know what a commercial was until 2nd grade because I'd only ever allowed PBS.  It was Colleen, a friend and colleague and mother to two well-adjusted teenaged children, who reminded me that 11 year-olds are capable of discerning the difference between fantasy and reality.  Those words rang true a month later when Anna reacted to Edward's ocular encounter with a butter knife with the word "gross," but found her climbing into my bed after a 2am nightmare sparked by a Rachel's Challenge assembly about the massacre at Columbine.  Fantasy vs. Reality.

People who know The Crazy Reading Ladies are somewhat surprised when they hear that we are embracing a YA adaptation of an adult book for our 2015 All In! program.  We are, after all, champions of complex text and challenge.  We put Tolkien in the hands of 6th graders and vehemently defended the decision to any naysayer.  We stirred the proverbial pot in our school district by using this very blog to publicly disagree with the disturbingly common objection that there are kids who "can't" read well enough to participate. 

So what changed?

Are we caving to the pressure from a handful of parents who complain that our choices have been inappropriate?  No.  We have and will always support a parent's decision to say no to their child, but we will not force that no upon an entire school population.

Are we choosing the YA version for the simplified vocabulary and sentence structure to make it more accessible for the kids who "can't" read the original.  Um...hell no.

What it all comes down to is the very same observation that Colleen made to me in the staff lunch room one year ago:  11 year-olds know the difference between fiction and reality.  And this year's book, UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand, is reality.  

Recently The New York Times published an article on the increasing trend of retrofitting non-fiction books for the Young Adult market. The piece explored several books undergoing the transformation and spoke specifically about Laura Hillenbrand's upcoming YA adaptation of UNBROKEN.  Erin shared the NYT article with the students of her 8th grade replacement literacy classes (translation: support classes for struggling readers) and reported that half of her kids felt "insulted" by the insinuation that they can't read the original book and admitted that reading the YA version would "feel like cheating."  The other 50% were excited that a book on such an interesting topic would be accessible to them; they would be more likely to read it. The comments Erin posted on behalf of her kids became a "NYT Top Pick."

The thoughts of Erin's students were echoed by the majority of people posting comments.  We're doing our youth a disservice by taking a rich text and dumbing it down.  We're raising a generation of sissies by sugar coating life.

The Crazy Reading Ladies would like to officially go on record with the following:

We did not choose the YA version of UNBROKEN because we do not believe our students are capable of reading and understanding the adult version.

We chose the YA version of UNBROKEN because the story is not a story.  It's non-fiction.

Allow me to set up a metaphor to make my final point.  When teaching my students about critical reading, I compare the activity of reading to that of sailing on the ocean.  You can read a text on the surface, just like you can sail on the surface of the water.  You see things, you feel things, and those things are interesting and
Damn it, Jim.  I'm a teacher, not an artist. 
real.  But if you were to strap on some SCUBA gear and dive beneath the surface of the water and the text, you'd see a whole lot more and it would likely be a whole lot more interesting.  

I go back to Anna and her tears at 2am after learning the ugly truth about school shootings. As a teacher, I want her to read well-written, challenging material.  As a mother, I want her to experience life through literature and learn all she can.  As both, I want her to maintain her youthful trust in the world for as long as I can possibly manage it.  And it is for this reason that I ended up casting my vote for the YA version.  The YA version is enough to give her a sense of war, it's cruelty and injustice, and enough for her to question exactly how people could treat each other so poorly.

In other words, I think that it's enough for her to snorkel through the world of the Pacific theater of WWII.  She doesn't need to don SCUBA gear and immerse herself in it.  There will be plenty of time for that when she's older. 


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Unbroken: The Right Book at the Right Time

Welcome to the CRL Version 2.0.

For three years we've stuck to a familiar playbook and enjoyed fabulous results.

1. Choose a popular young adult novel with a movie adaptation in the works
2. Tease the heck out of it
3. Reveal the title with pomp and glitter cannons
4. Quiz readers and celebrate accomplishments
5. Fill the buses and see the movie
6. Engage in literary silliness 

That was then, CRL beta.

It's safe to say we're doing things a little differently this year.

Why?  It's not because we planned it that way, not because we were bored and wanted to spice things up a bit, not because parents or staff complained, not because we bought in to Common Core.  We are changing things because  All In! has always, always been about the book, and this year we are honoring our truth by going about things a little differently.

What is the book, you ask?  Oh, right.  Oops.  :-)
47 Days from Reveal to Book Release

By now, most people in the country have read or heard rave reviews about Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.  Most people are also aware that the female half of Brangelina produced what is rumored to be an Oscar worthy feature film based on the book.

But how many people know that there is a YA version hitting shelves on Veterans Day, November 11th?

CRL and Kevin, beside the busted box.
Reveal Day - September 27. 2014
The Crazy Reading Ladies know, and we recognize lightning in a bottle when we see it.

This book is so different from anything we've done before that we've scrapped the old play book, hired a new offensive coordinator, and have our sights set on a winning season.

We'll keep you posted!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Author Visit Part 2: The Thrill of Victory

When I returned to work, I spoke to The Powers That Be about my concourse conversation with Mr. Wilson. Thankfully, they didn't need much convincing; I was already bubbling over with potential plans.

By Doug Wilson and Jody Cohan
"It's a new book. It's non-fiction." 

"It's about sports!" 

"We can talk about media literacy!"

"We can do montage contests! I can post lessons on ItsLearning."  

The Principal was enthused, our parents were on board, and I was one happy CRL. It was January; we had four months to pull this off.

Though I am far from an expert on the subject, I figured I'd share some tips for those of you planning your own Author Visit.

Leading a reporters workshop
1. Find one

Before we talk about balloons and faculty meetings and books and classroom connections, let's figure this out first.  

I consider us bonded, dear reader, so let me be totally honest with you: it ain't easy to find a good visiting author; actually, it's difficult to find a visiting author, period! 

If you want to know why such a wonderful initiative causes this CRL many a sleepless night each year, here are some of the avenues I have tried...only to come up completely and utterly empty:
  • publishing houses (in Boston and New York)
  • teachers in other districts
  • an open letter on Twitter in which I tagged dozens of local and not-so-local authors with an invitation; it received zero responses.
  • voicemail, email, snail mail
  • author websites 
  • local newspapers
  • Steve Krasner 2012
  • International Reading Association
It isn't easy. Throughout my search, I've learned that many schools don't offer these programs anymore and, if they do, they don't receive much media coverage. There isn't an accessible database, website, or blog that touts recent successes with author visits including contact information and fees (we've got your back.)

So here's the secret - talk to people. You don't have to run into Doug Wilson and Dick Button at the US Figure Skating Championships, but if you do, talk to them!  As much as it pains me to admit that my father is correct, let me declare on my little blog that - in this case - he is: It's not what you know, it's who you know.

Visiting Author book signing
Talk to colleagues, friends from high school, family members, and neighbors; think outside the box.  Does anyone know a blogger, reporter, author, artist, playwright or composer? Several years ago, our author was an 8th grade teacher's father's best friend who happened have a storied career with the Providence Journal as well as several children's books under his belt. I think we nabbed him because said teacher heard me wailing, relaying my author-woes at an ELA department meeting. He was next door and probably wanted me to stop crying.

He wasn't Veronica Roth, but most of our students - if they want a career in writing - will find his story much more applicable.  

The following authors are CRL-certified (yep, just made that up):

Steve Krasner
Christopher Golden - 2013

Christopher Golden

Doug Wilson

If you decide to work with any one of these fine gentlemen,we'd be happy to help guide you!

2. Plan ahead
  • As much as you are able, force yourself to make decisions ahead of time. 
  • Inform people as early as possible but only when final decisions are made. The Wilsons and I threw around several dates before settling on May 20. Only then did I announce the visit to staff, parents, and students.
  • Contact your local media: it doesn't always work, but it is worth a shot. We've arranged newspaper coverage for two out of three visits. Everyone loves a story about kids having fun at school!
  • Small considerations, like scheduling the 8th grade assembly later in the day due to testing, working around existing lunch schedules, or allowing the chorus to rehearse without changing locations are little courtesies that go a long way.
Front hallway: decked out and ready
 3. Make it real

By far, the biggest challenge I faced was to make this ABC Sports producer real for children who had never seen a single broadcast. Sure, I knew the Wide World of Sports theme song and was familiar with the moments featured in the opening montage, but we teach the ESPN generation.

This is where loving out loud pays off - my excitement about the visit inspired me to pour every ounce of energy I had into making this experience meaningful for my students and valuable for Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. Failure was not an option.
  • books were purchased for every member of the staff (due to one colorful word and one reference to, um, another physical activity, we felt we were unable to distribute the book to students)
  • I generated a page of "Classroom Connection" ideas and tucked it inside each book
  • several videos were shown on the morning news broadcast, introducing the student body to Mr. Wilson and his work, teasing them with some splat-tastic highlights
4. Prepare the kids

It goes without saying that the kids who are prepared are more excited, more engaged, ask better questions, are better behaved, and get more out of the experience. Since we know the benefits, don't be afraid to require work out of your students beforehand. This will look different depending on your author's area of expertise.  For Doug Wilson, I encouraged my students to watch the broadcast moments chronicled in his book. This man was an audio/visual expert, so I let them learn by watching. 
An Art Club creation
I used our online learning portal (ItsLearning) to create a course for the Visiting Author and enrolled all 497 students; there, I posted videos, polls, and discussion boards that coordinated with passages from the book. Students could watch Evel Knievel, Dorothy Hamill, Muhammad Ali, and Secretariat. And Michelle Kwan. A lot of Michelle Kwan (hey, it was my course.) 

For Mr. Krasner the sportswriter, I ran off dozens of sports articles and sent an email that linked to a new one each day. The kids were encouraged to read his articles as well as non-fiction books of their choice.

For Mr. Golden the novelist, each student was required to read at least one book he had written. In addition to directing kids to local libraries and bookstores, we bought multiple copies of his books and sold them to our students at the school store.
Deck the halls!

5. Remind Harass  

Let's be honest: most of us are simply too busy to remember something we heard once. If you want faculty buy-in and well-prepared kiddos, you need to provide a lot of support on a very regular basis. Do you want teachers to assign YouTube viewing for homework? Then type it out, include the link, and send it to them.  One teacher even invited me into her classroom to write it on the board. If you can take something off teachers' plates, do it. And don't be afraid to repeat yourself!

My favorite poster
6. Take it on

This isn't a great tip for those trying to de-stress but if you, like me, are a bit of a control freak, don't be afraid to make things happen.  If you are worried about things getting done, do it yourself. Check and double check. Make phone calls. Confirm. Follow your gut. If you're worried lunch isn't going to arrive on time, you are probably right. Call your Principal and demand politely request that he deliver sixteen sandwiches to your room el pronto.

7. Party

I can fit 28 balloons in my car. In fact, after several book reveal assemblies, summer reading celebrations, and international literacy days, I can now strut into that store and state my mylar needs with confidence.

We Crazy Reading Ladies know a thing or two about spectacle, and it works. When you make something feel like a big deal, it is.
  • Balloons, posters, student-made signage...do it all! Mr. and Mrs. Wilson even picked up on my color scheme.  
  • Display a welcome banner signed by students and staff.
  • If you are welcoming a novelist, create a graph or poster that features different book covers and have the kids sign what they read, owning their accomplishment.
  • Have a book signing.
  • Contests/small group workshops: we've rallied our kiddos to create non-fiction, short stories, and video montages depending on our author du jour.
  • Food: if your school allows it, have it. Everything is better with food.
  • Invite the kids to dress up or dress according to a theme (sports jerseys, ABC sports colors, etc.)
  • Deck the halls - the art club was invited to create posters featuring "the thrill of victory" and "the agony of defeat." Last year, they made super snazzy book cover replicas. More than anything, I think this is what Mr. and Mrs. Wilson appreciated most. It was the warm welcome they so deserved.
8. Do your research

Doug Wilson - 2014
I can't take credit for what made this day a real success: Doug Wilson. Oftentimes we are tasked with hiring a speaker or performer without ever having seen him or her "do their thang."  Mr. Wilson gave me the opportunity to hear his message and map out his presentation to the minute. We had several extensive phone conversations about content (yes, I will teach Jim McKay; no, we are leaving Munich out) which allowed me to better prepare our students and staff. 

We had a complete dry run (with technology) the afternoon before and made some final decisions about content and timing. The result was a day of positively seamless presentations. He spoke about The Power of Words; it was outstanding.

9. Accept help
  • parents offered to buy lunch
  • colleagues covered my classes 
  • the Art Club moderator led two after-school sessions for poster making
  • Mary took over Writing Club duties
  • students served as a welcoming committee, escorting the Wilsons upon arrival
  • a parking lot buddy made sure every balloon made it inside
  • Mrs. Wilson and the Principal manned the controls at the back
Emmy-award winning Asst. Principal
The CRL don't do technical difficulties, so I dragged my Principal into that auditorium and had him make sure every button was lit and every switch was flipped. How was I supposed to know there isn't one "ON" button for the sound system? Apparently, there are six. And they have to be turned on in a certain order. I'm not kidding.

10. Say "Thank You"

When all is said and done, and you are basking in your post-Author Visit bliss, people are going to tell you how much they enjoyed the day. The kids are going to tell you it was the best day ever, that it really wasn't boring, or that it was the coolest thing they'd ever done. One 7th grade boy, after meeting Doug Wilson, said, "I think I found my place now." 

Encourage the students and staff to write their thoughts down and send along their words of appreciation.  Once again, I used the online course and created a gratitude thread. Over two hundred kids responded. The pages were printed and sent off to New York along with photos from the day's events.

"To Michelle Kwan, who brought us together."
Perhaps someday I will stop being surprised by this wonderful job or my miraculous kiddos...but not today. I look at this photo and can't quite believe it. The love of Michelle Kwan brought us together and the connection I made with the Wilsons won't soon be broken.

Is it August? Yes.

Am I already nervous about how I'm going to find another fabulous author for next year? Ohh yes. But in the last three years I have had three Author Visits that have looked completely different, and I know that is okay. Next year, it will come together the way it is supposed to, and our cherished tradition will continue. 

In Part 3, we'll talk about how we made this Author Visit a two-day affair; arranging our Skype session with co-author Jody Cohan!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Author Visit Part I: When Worlds Collide

Like so many wonderful things in life, my story begins with Michelle Kwan.
Told you it was awesome.
 And yes, we still have it.

My devotion-turned-admiration for this beloved athlete is no secret to my family, friends, colleagues, and students. In fact, it serves as a beautiful (and, at times, overwhelming) example of what we Crazy Reading Ladies hope to encourage, and what Michelle taught me long ago: love out loud. Wear your passion on your sleeve! Make signs! Gush! Let it out! OWN IT.  

Beaming behind MK's left shoulder.
World Championships, 2003.
Long before I was a Crazy Reading Lady, I was a Crazy Kwan Girl. My friends and I saved every penny we could and traveled to skating events around the world; I got my first passport to fly to the Torino Olympics. Each year, we counted down the days until her program music was announced and then burned CDs of her competition and exhibition pieces. I still tear up at the first notes of East of Eden or Spartacus. We bought tickets - several of us on the phone at once to guarantee the best seats - to competitions the minute they went on sale. Once there, we draped her hallowed arenas with bling-tastic signs and coordinated our outfits to match her dresses. Now card-carrying "grown-ups", we still associate cities with competitive memories (ahh, Atlanta. Oh, Crap Louis.)  Only recently - clinging to the safety net of YouTube - did I say goodbye to four dozen long-loved, meticulously labeled, color-coded VHS tapes. 

That's a Kwan Scream.
 Atlanta Nationals, 2004.
Ah, the glory days of Kwan. She gave us brilliant, beautiful memories, drew me to some of my dearest friends, and taught me lessons I desperately needed to learn. We were so, so lucky to be hers. 

Though I was never discreet about my love for Michelle in my professional life - I have a Wall of Kwan behind my desk and wear my "Got Kwan?" hoodie every sports jersey day - this year, my two worlds absolutely and completely collided into one big pile of literacy love.

In January, the US Figure Skating Championships came to Boston and my friends and I gathered for a fun reunion weekend. Out on the concourse, former ABC Sports director Doug Wilson was signing his recently published book, THE WORLD WAS OUR STAGE. As a skating fan, I knew exactly who he was. I recognized his hat, his voice, his smile. He had directed just about every skating broadcast I'd ever seen and had manned the helm of ABC's Wide World of Sports for fifty years. He was a legend. So I stood in line, bought a book, and struck up a conversation. Now, although it may surprise some of you, I consider myself a shy person. But this was the perfect storm. The chance to talk about books, my kiddos, and Michelle Kwan? I would not shut up. 

If memory serves, I was wearing my CRL shirt at the time; the man had fair warning.
C'mon Michelle, we know you 
still have skates!
Boston Nationals, 2014.

As we spoke about our mutual love for Michelle and waning interest in the competition at hand, I mentioned that as a reading specialist, I welcomed an author to my middle school each year. "Would you, by any chance, be interested in being our visiting author?" 

I knew it was a long-shot - I hadn't even spoken to my Principal - but sometimes, you just know. Wearing my passion on my literal sleeve paid off. We had a connection. Sure, Doug Wilson was an Emmy-award winner, published author, and sought-after speaker (and middle school is...an acquired taste) but what was the harm in asking?

The legend: Doug Wilson Boston, 2014
To my absolute delight, he said yes and we exchanged contact information right on the spot. I'm telling you, only good comes from being a Michelle Kwan fan.  

In Part II, we'll talk about everything that went in to making Author Visit 2014 as perfect as the Kwan spiral.