Taking it to the Classroom

Books & Literature  •  News

Local students are excited to see youth headliner Kwame Alexander during the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book.
Photo by Peter Hedlund.
Local students are excited to see youth headliner Kwame Alexander during the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book. Photo by Peter Hedlund.

This March, the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book will host close to 90 in-school visits by participating speakers, connecting K-12 students and teachers in Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and Waynesboro with acclaimed and inspiring writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals. A full list of author visits to schools planned as part of the 2018 Festival can be found on the Festival’s website. Keep reading to learn more about the Festival’s work in schools through this look back at the 2017 Festival youth programming.

It’s not every day that a neuroscientist from Columbia University sits down to meet with students at Charlottesville High School and discuss what motivates his ongoing research in spite of failures along the way. Nor is it a common occurrence for an author and illustrator of children’s books to read her work to students at Mary Carr Greer Elementary School in both English and Spanish.

Festival children’s author/illustrator Laura Lee Gulledge draws a character inspired by one of her children’s books. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Yet both of these moments took place during the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book. Dr. Stuart Firestein and author/illustrator Angela Dominguez were among the thirty-seven Festival speakers who visited local schools this past March. Hallways and classrooms across the region were abuzz in the days leading up to the 2017 Festival, as students eagerly awaited the chance to meet long-time favorites such as Tom Angleberger or public figures such as the civil rights and marriage equality activist Jim Obergefell.

Indeed, many Festival speakers look forward to the opportunity to engage with younger readers through school visits, regardless of the age level for which they write. Like Firestein—an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow and an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science—some speakers visit schools to discuss works of adult nonfiction, literary fiction, poetry, or even photography. Other speakers, such as Dominguez, a rising star in illustrated children’s book publishing, specialize in writing for teens or younger children.

Other 2017 Festival in-school speakers included the New Yorker writer David Denby; Marie Marquardt, co-chair of El Refugio, a nonprofit that serves detained immigrants and their families; Patricia Hruby Powell, winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award; award-winning photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales; and best-selling science writer Dava Sobel.

Festival author Liz Starin reads to local children from her book Splashdance. Photo by Peter Hedlund.

Festival school visits range from small-group meetings with students in afterschool clubs such as the Waynesboro High School Gay Straight Alliance, to classroom visits with direct tie-ins to curriculum, to schoolwide assemblies designed to get students across multiple grades excited about reading. In total, thirty-nine schools hosted author visits during the 2017 Festival, including ten of the thirteen Title I schools in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

And of the more than 30,000 attendees at the 2017 Festival, more than one-third of those were students meeting with authors during in-school visits coordinated by Festival staff. Indeed, though school visits are only open to the students and teachers at each school, these programs are an integral component of the Festival’s youth programming that provide increased depth and engagement with selected speakers’ work. Greer Elementary teacher Emma Peworchik says,

“I was very pleased with the overall diversity of the authors who visited Greer. It reflected the diversity of our student population and it was invaluable for our students to see people like themselves as successful writers and illustrators.”

Each year, school representatives in the region are invited to select authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals to visit, based on student interests and curricular priorities. Selections are coordinated with the support of Festival staff, ensuring grade and subject matter appropriateness in addition to the accompanying logistical details that often prevent teachers or librarians from attempting to plan author visits without this sort of institutional support. As a result of this thoughtful and deliberate planning process, in 2017, 97 percent of participating school representatives responded to an anonymous post-Festival survey that they thought the in-school programs broadened or enriched their students’ thinking.

Clark Elementary School librarian Mary Craig says, “We thoroughly enjoyed each one of our author visits this year. The authors were all engaging and their books were wonderful. Our students benefit greatly from the visits. This is an opportunity that they would not have without support from the Festival of the Book.”

Students gathered at St. Anne’s-Belfield School to hear illustrator Ekua Holmes speak during the 2017 Festival. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

In fact, the 2017 Festival included the record-breaking achievement of almost 100 school visits. For 2018, the Festival staff is working with members of the youth committee and other teachers, librarians, and administrators to continue to increase the impact of these school visits. Together, they plan to create more extensive materials to contextualize the speakers’ work and prepare students in advance for the visits. Ultimately, these resources will help classroom teachers and librarians get more students excited about the Festival and, in turn, about reading and writing. Leah Cole from Peabody School notes that “it’s great to be able to show youth, especially those students interested in writing, what they can do with their ideas.”

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