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 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 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.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What a difference a year makes...

Hi, All. 

Mary here. 

My girl in July, 2013
These days I find myself marveling at how much things change and grow over time.  I know exactly what is sparking this sense of wonder: my 12 year old daughter.  One year ago she was a round faced cherub who couldn't reach the glasses on the middle shelf of the cabinet.  Today she bought sticky notes and notebooks in preparation for 7th grade and has plans to meet a girlfriend for lunch.  How time flies.

July 2014...all about selfies
It was just about one year ago that Erin and I put together our first Crazy Reading Ladies blog post.  So much has happened since then.  We celebrated reading with 280 students at Horace Mann and 180 at Southwest Middle School, our first satellite All In! school.  We presented at the annual NELMS and IRA conferences.  We wrote an article for Reading Today and were thrilled to be picked up by the Marshall Memo.  We're hearing every day from teachers all over the country, and even a few internationally, who want to help their students discover the joys of social reading. 

In the spirit of reflection (and to post something while Erin's away on vacation and I'm missing half my brain), I thought we'd re-share with you our very first blog post.  To those of you who have joined us along the way, welcome!  To those who have been with us all along, thank you.  We are so incredibly thankful to have your support. 


TO OVERWHELM: to overpower, to overcome by superior force, to ignite, to empower, to engage.

We were seated next to each other at a round table in the Assistant Principal’s office. We’d recently aired a promotional video, and the unscripted sound effects of one 7th grade boy amused us so much we used it to punctuate humorous moments in the film.   Word had gotten around that said boy was getting flack from his friends, and we’d been called in to “fix” the problem.  Up until now, our entire experience had been filled with warm fuzzy feelings, weepy hugs, cheering kids, and once-in-a-lifetime teaching moments.  This was our first whiff of negativity and we were wrought with concern. 

“Do you want us to cut it?  Do you want me to re-record you?”

“What did those kids say?  Who was it?  Let’s get them down here!  Seriously, you are the star of that video, man.”

“The teachers are already fighting over who gets you next year!  We are so sorry this happened…”  

 When the dust settled and we took time to listen (silence is not one of our practiced virtues), middle school drama proved to be just that.  Our young literacy leader loved the video exactly as it was; in fact, he suggested we post it to YouTube saying, “It’ll totally go viral!”

After our young man left, we were left staring at our administrator.  And then it happened. 

“Do you two have any idea how overwhelming you are?”

With the intention of putting us in our place, our assistant principal had effectively christened us with our new identity.  

Me? Overwhelming?
We are overwhelming.  Overwhelmingly excited, overwhelmingly passionate, overwhelmingly talented, overwhelmingly successful. 

We couldn’t have come up with a better moniker if we tried.

Mary and I are literacy soulmates.  Although different paths led us to our present teaching positions - an Elementary classroom for me, the publishing world for her - we both landed at Horace Mann Middle School in the fall of 2010.  We had such similar personalities and professional ideologies that we found ourselves brainstorming without even thinking about it.  We could (and would) spend hours talking about kids and teaching.  Not only did she encourage my crazy ideas, she had most likely thought the very same thing.  We are each other’s biggest fans.  We finish each other’s sentences, love and hate the same books, appreciate a well-placed semi-colon, understand the importance of fashion when teaching a novel, and both thought being called “overwhelming” was a huge compliment.

Cornucopia Relay Race - our take on a "book club."
Our journey of school-wide reading adventures started serendipitously. We were both at an 8th grade ELA department meeting where the conversation was meandering and the agenda loose at best.  

“So, Shawn (our Gandalf, aka Principal) mentioned that he thought it would be cool to have the whole school talking about one book.  What do you guys think about taking on a book club?”

“Half of my kids did their Summer Reading book talks on The Hunger Games.  It’s popular.  And there’s a movie coming out…”

“Hey, you don’t think he’d let us do a field trip to the movie, do you?”

OMG, Peeta so dreamy.
Turns out he would, and the weeks that followed were filled with marathon planning sessions, feather boas, reapings, kids reading in the cafeteria, and “Peeta or Gale?” posters plastering the hallways.  Letting passion and ridiculousness be our guides, we threw together a massive (and, dare I say, overwhelming) school-wide reading initiative that included taking half of our student body - 221 students - to The Hunger Games movie on a perfect Monday in March of 2012.

The movie was followed by full-contact trivia competitions, talent shows, cornucopia relay races and scavenger hunts.  Along the way there were costumes, district theme songs, and a whole lot of kids crossing social boundaries and having fun together.  They let us know that this worked.  It worked well.  And it just felt right. 

When the year ended and we had a chance to catch our collective breath, we marveled at what we’d helped unfold.  We thought we’d caught lightning in a bottle – the perfect book at the perfect time.  But what we’d found was so much more.

Middle Earth Runs on Dunkin
We found passion.  We found purpose. We found our calling, and we found each other. We are the crazy reading ladies.

Now with two successful adventures behind us (we followed a certain hobbit on an unexpected journey in 2013), we are more than ready to go all in for 2014.

We are honored you’ve decided to come along for the ride.

And we promise to be as overwhelming as possible.    

Erin & Mary

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