Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A First Experience With a Writer-in-Residence

To be honest, I had never considered sponsoring a writer-in-residence before I attended the AISL conference in Florida a few years ago. One of the sessions was a writing workshop with the children’s author Adrian Fogelin. As I was going through the experience I kept thinking about how much the boys at my school would get out of attending a workshop like that. Further, I realized that teachers observing the workshop could take the ideas and implement them themselves in future years.  As happens with many big ideas at conferences, however, many of the details of this one got pushed to the back of my mind as I got on with the daily activities of being a school librarian. And yet, the seed had been planted.

Later that year I was fortunate enough to go to Columbus for the AASL conference. At a session about the Coretta Scott King Award, I heard talk about the poet and photographer Charles R. Smith Jr. Several people spoke with great enthusiasm about what an amazing presenter he was. Intrigued, I looked him up online and saw that not only did he do school visits, but he also gave writing workshops. The idea of a poet with dynamic presentation skills coming to my school to teach writing was irresistible. I had to look into it.

I’ll say it upfront; booking a writer-in-residence is no small undertaking. First, of all there is the issue of cost. I happen to have a healthy budget for visiting authors but even so, committing my entire author budget so that we could have three full days with Charles R. Smith, Jr. made me hesitate a little. In order to get a second opinion (and some much needed reassurance) I invited my department to join me for a Skype visit with Mr. Smith. On the video call we talked for about half an hour about what a visit to my school could look like. At the end of the call I got the thumbs up from my team and felt confident to proceed.

The next step was a flurry of emails with Gillian, Mr. Smith’s wife, since she handles his bookings. We negotiated the dates, fees and program, ending up with a commitment to teaching eight writing workshops, as well as four large group presentations. Once everything was locked in place we showed a video of Mr. Smith performing a poem and asked which teachers would like to have him teach a class. Before the video was even over, teachers were passing me notes (actual notes) asking to be involved! It was late winter and we had the main elements worked out in time for his visit in November.

Early October saw me working on the visit again, this time doing what proved to be the hardest thing of all; scheduling all those workshops and presentations. I had twelve events to schedule over a three day period and umpteen things I had to avoid if I didn’t want to mess stuff up for other people. I laid it all out with post-it notes which I kept moving until things ceased to be problematic. The next task was easy; sharing Mr. Smith’s poems with our boys during library class. My 4th and 5th graders especially loved his biography of Mohammed Ali that he tells in verse. They also got a kick out of Hoop Kings and, since chorus is very popular at our school, the poems about the Boys Choir of Harlem.

November 14, the long-awaited first day of the residency arrived and with it came a feeling of relief - our author showed up on time and, as evidenced by the first classes and presentations, was going to be great! His workshops were highly engaging and I say that with some authority as I actively participated in them five times! Most importantly, this was the kind of guy our boys could look up to. They soaked up his message of looking after mind, body and spirit and were riveted as he described his personal fitness goal of taking part in American Ninja Warrior as the Poet Ninja.
Our culminating event was a workshop for faculty. The residency was taking place during our annual Allen-Stevenson Book Week and the library traditionally organizes the faculty meeting that week. We could think of nothing we would want more for our teachers than a chance to experience the workshop for themselves. We regaled our faculty with prosecco and home-baked treats and then settled down to learn from Mr. Smith. At the end of the session Mr. Smith shared his teaching resources so that teachers could implement his lessons after he was gone. Given what has been happening in our country of late, many teachers were enamored of the idea of creating a book along the model of Mr. Smith’s book I am America.

With the residency over, we still had two more days of Book Week to run. Without doubt, extending the traditional one-day author visit to a three day residency added to our exhaustion by the end of the week. If we had to do it again, would we? If we find a writer that is a great fit for us again, absolutely!

Have you ever had a writer-in-residence? How did it work out? Do you have any tips to share? Would you do it again? Leave a post and let us all know.

Sarah Kresberg, Library Director
The Allen-Stevenson School 

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