Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Faculty Voices with Marsha Chall: REFLECTIONS ON THE AUTHOR VISIT

Marsha Chall and friends
The author visit—a heralded event for both invitee and inviter. In my two decades of visits, Murphy’s Law has sometimes defined the day’s dynamics, from hyperbolic scheduling (the worst being 12 presentations in one day), to dysfunctional room assignments (full afternoon sun for a slide show), to vomiting children (I try not to make them sick).

The reason for my continued forbearance as a visiting children’s author is that most experiences defy Murphy’s Law: What can go well, does, and sometimes eclipses even my expectations. Tired feet and weakened vocal chords do not dent my conviction that an author’s presence deepens and emboldens the connection between stories and readers, enriching both author and child, so that by the end of each visit, “I am wrapped in a sweet humility of secrets” (Isak Dinesen).

As a visiting author I have found these things to be true:
  • Authors create readers. Basal reading texts and worksheets might not. I visited a tiny school in Southwest Minnesota where the sole reading curriculum was, of all things, books. Reading class was conducted in the library where every child could freely choose literature to read daily. The school could not afford to buy a basal reading series, so it couldn’t afford not to use the library. These young readers created outstanding companion writing and art in preparation for my visit. They also achieved the highest reading scores in the state.
  • Readers create authors. If I had never been a prodigious reader, I would not write. Reading my own work to children allows me to hear it as a reader, so that I write far more with the reader in mind. By winnowing passages from my work for oral readings, I have discovered that my best writing is what I like to read over and over and that children listen to with open faces and respond to with silence, laughter, gasps, echoes, or murmured acknowledgements. Writer and readers have connected across the arc of story. We have felt and shared our humanity.
  • Authors create authors. On a deep winter day in Northern Minnesota, five middle-grade girls encircled me after my presentation. They were skipping some of their lunch period to spend time with me, hungry for something besides fish sticks. As they shared the details of their changing families—a runaway mother, a new stepfather, a smaller bedroom, horrific pet deaths, parents’ unemployment—I slowed the pace of my book signing to give them space to tell their stories. Dinesen’s words reflect the truth of this telling: “All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

Author to author, we are entrusted with the sweet humility of secrets. An author visit is a compelling responsibility, but also a privilege. Humane. Humbling. Honorable.




11 comments:

  1. Our district is trying to go back to basal readers, and with Common Core, they're trying to use short non-fiction passages for everything, and underline sentences, circle words, etc. WAY TO KILL READING! My girls love reading, you know, books. I feel like authentic reading always leads to higher test scores, as you mentioned in your post.

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    1. I used to write notes to teachers about those horrible basal readers. I told them it was a miracle they had a SINGLE READER in the whole darn school if that's what they get for their effort. Ugh.

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    2. Reading begets reading. Thanks for your sagacity, Josh!

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    3. Wise admonition, Donna. And what about teachers who read to their students regularly?

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  2. Best experience as an author: Read to a group of 3rd grade kids who then write a story and share. Learned that from Marsha.

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  3. I really want to be an author, so I can do author visits. Seriously. It's an amazing way to transform the culture of a school. Author visits CHANGE LIVES. I remember when Tasha Tudor came to my school. The teacher told me I couldn't go see her because of my behavior, BUT I know that if I won the story -writing contest, I got to have lunch with her. EVEN BETTER!

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    1. Once a writer, always a writer. How amazing to lunch with Tasha Tudor!

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