Editor’s Note: This is the final post for the Teaching for the Whole Story blog. Ariel Sacks will continue to write for Education Week Teacher as a monthly columnist. You can find her articles here.
Reading a book and meeting the author is not just a cool event to shake up the regular school routine--it’s a powerful learning opportunity that can affect students academically and personally. I’m thrilled my students had the opportunity to read the novel American Street and meet the author, Ibi Zoboi (pictured left). This experience was made possible through a partnership with The Center For Fiction, here in New York City, and the whole novels approach we use in my classroom to read the book and prepare for the visit.
We have participated in this program with Center For Fiction for several years, each time with a different author and novel. Two years ago we read Rogue and met author, Lyn Miller-Lachlan, which was fantastic, and last year (while I was out of the classroom), 8th graders read The Memory of Things, and met author Gae Polisner. Each time, the impact of the experience on students has striking, even though the particulars are quite different with each novel and author.
After some time to reflect on the significance of this opportunity, here are five big takeaways that show how author visits impact student learning.
1. The Author Is A Real Person!
From an academic standpoint, the most obvious benefit of students meeting the author who wrote the book they have just read is that the concept of this “author person” becomes concrete--they see that a real human being has created every inch of the story. We can remind them this, of course, but it’s difficult for middle school students to grasp. Largely, they interact with characters and events in books as if they are real. They know the story world is not the same as the real world, but this distinction is not central to their experience. That changes dramatically when students meet the real live author, talk to them about the book, their life, and their writing process. (We can approximate this by watching a recorded interview with the author. I like to do so after students have read the whole book and have at least begun to discuss it, so that the author’s commentary on their writing doesn’t influence the students’ first reading.)
2. Authors Get Ideas From Their Experiences as Well As Research.
Students really appreciated how open Ibi Zoboi was with sharing details of her life. She presented about her childhood in Haiti, immigration to the United States, experience assimilating, and later learning about the Haitian culture she had left behind. Many of these experiences were clearly channeled into the main character in the book. She also created characters from other people she knew growing up, as well as people and places she didn’t know. For example, she grew up in Brooklyn, but set the story in Detroit. She had to research Detroit. She described virtually driving through the streets on Google Maps. She created certain events in the book based on news stories of violence against young people of color that had stayed with her. To develop some of the characters that weren’t based on her own experiences or family and friends, she had to find people to talk to who would know more than she did. (She shocked students by sharing that she spoke to actual drug dealers to find out what might happen to a certain character, and how it would happen.)
Hearing about this work impressed and inspired students, and gave them a window into the creative process. “I understand how she got some of her characters now. There were tough kids at her school and she put them in the book,” one student said. Another noted, “I feel like there is a deeper meaning to the book now. It is based on some of her life, but she brought it to other levels.”
3. The Author Creates, But the Story Lives With Readers.
With Ibi Zoboi’s visit, there were a few moments that demonstrated to students what an important role they have as readers in constructing the meaning of the text. The first moment came when a student asked her what she thought the theme of her book was. She paused and then said that she thought this was really something the reader should decide, not her. This showed in a very real way what English teachers sometimes struggle help students see--that there are multiple ways to interpret a text, that we are not just looking for a right answer, but we are creating meaning as we read, think, discuss, and write about a piece of literature.
Later, this lesson came up again in an even more dramatic way. At the end of the novel, American Street, a character is shot. There is some ambiguity regarding who the shooter is, or if it is suicide, and students spent time rereading and debating this in class. When a student asked Ms. Zoboi which character fired the shot (I’m trying not to spoil the plot here), she answered that she actually did not know. She explained that she couldn’t decide, and so she left it that way for readers!
I was wondering if students would feel unsatisfied by this answer, but in our debrief they shared that this was one of the things they loved most about her visit. “I like how she wasn’t entirely sure of everything in the book, but like with [Character X]'s death, she wanted readers to guess,” one student said. “She wanted us to think about it,” another added. “And theme too--she decided it was our opinion.”
This interaction impacted students’ understanding, not only of the book, but the reading process itself. “Before I thought it was a regular book, but now I see it as a book for discussions; she wants us to find the answers,” a student said. What he’s talking about--readers building their own interpretations--is essential to the study of literature. Connecting with the author helped make this point real for my students.
4. Author Visits Help Teachers Move Out of Chief Thinker Role. I’m an advocate for teachers to move out of what I call the “chief thinker role,” which is so ingrained in our education tradition, in order to make room for students’ critical thinking. But I still catch myself in this trap! The whole novels method is designed to draw out students’ thinking, and thanks to that process, when students started debating the identity of the shooter in the climactic scene of the book, at least I kept my bias to myself. Though I encouraged the debate, inside I felt certain the answer was clear: it was no suicide. [Character Y] was definitely the shooter.
So when Ibi Zoboi answered my student’s question about this by affirming both interpretations, it took me a moment to process. I was surprised and humbled! How wonderful, though, to have proof that the teacher is not always right!
Especially when it comes to literary analysis, we need to stay humble and open-minded. Bringing the author onto the scene absolutely has this effect, and I believe that’s a win for everyone. (What could be more irritating to a novelist than knowing that teachers are imposing their interpretations of your book on readers?!)
4. Authors Are Role Models For Young People.
Ibi Zoboi not only taught my students about literature, but she was a role model as well. It’s meaningful in itself to have an author of color and an immigrant, speaking to a room full of students, mostly of color, who come mostly from immigrant families. But Ms. Zoiboi embraced this connection and opened it up for discussion. That was touching to students. So many of my students are in some stage of the process of assimilation she described going through herself.
Here are some of their comments about it:
- “I like that she told us about herself before going into the book. It felt like everyone was involved.”
- “She noticed things about us, different things, like where we come from, our ancestors.”
- “I like how open she was with us about her background, her story. She was willing to share a lot and not many are.”
- “I liked how she wasn’t scared to talk about her culture.”
- “We are from the same country. I’m from Haiti too.”
- “She came from a poor country and now she’s a successful author,” someone said.
Getting to know Ms. Zoiboi a bit had a personal impact on my students, and I’m so happy they got to experience that and connect it to their lives and their reading. She also described conversations she’s had with students all over the country around ideas in this book--some who don’t share her experiences at all, but the conversations are meaningful across those differences.
On that note, when we met Lyn Miller-Lachman, author of Rogue, two years ago, her story impacted students in a very important and completely different way. Ms. Miller-Lachman has Asperger’s Syndrome, and the main character she created does too. In addition to sharing about her writing process, she shared quite a bit about what it’s like to grow up with Asperger’s, how she’s found role models, and become successful and comfortable with herself. Hearing this was a lesson in itself, especially for middle school students who are so concerned with fitting in. We did and do have students on the autism spectrum in our school and communities, so the issue is relevant to everyone. Nonetheless, for many students, Ms. Miller-Lachman’s story wasn’t a direct identification, but a chance to empathize with someone whose experience is quite different from theirs.
Either way, students gain tremendously from connecting with the people behind wonderful books they read. This is especially true for authors who represent marginalized groups.
How To Set Up and Prepare For a Author Visit
Of course, many authors will come to your school for a fee. If funding is not available, this list created by children’s author Kate Messner in 2009 (so may or may not remain current), includes authors who will Skype with classes for free. I imagine it’s worth contacting any author, especially with a recent release, to see what the possibilities are.
Some years back at a different school, the amazing Jacqueline Woodson visited after we read one of her books. I put together this blog post with tips for preparing author visits in middle school, based on that experience.
The short of it is--
- We read the whole book first
- We go through a process of student-driven discussions. These help ensure that the visit is highly relevant to the curriculum and students feel the significance of meeting the author.
- Then we brainstorm questions for the author as a class.
- I print copies of the list of questions for each student, so that students have them to refer to during the visit. This boosts the number of students who participate, and the level of questioning.
- Although in the blog post linked above, I talked about grading students for their participation, I no longer feel the need to do this. But it’s a step than can be helpful depending on the context.
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.