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Teachers know that getting young readers engaged with stories and books can open up new worlds. Kids can fight dark forces alongside wizards, run with a wolf pack during the Klondike Gold Rush, or accompany a poor orphan with a big imagination as she becomes part of a new family. But it's not always easy to get kids to see this value—it's not easy to turn nonreaders into readers at any age.
Now, educators have access to many creative ways to get young readers engaged in reading and writing. One example is the annual KidLitPalooza event. For the past two years, this event has brought authors and illustrators to Long Island schools to stimulate students' interest in a world beyond video games through writing workshops, story illustration sessions, and fun reading presentations.
So far, two Long Island schools, Old Bethpage Elementary and Northern Parkway Elementary, have hosted these events. They are organized by JoEllen McCarthy, a literacy specialist, book ambassador for the Educator Collaborative, and regional coach who works collaboratively with school districts on best instructional practices, co-teaching, planning, and providing literacy coach support.
At Northern Parkway this past spring, kids were given the chance to meet, hear from, and work with authors and illustrators, including middle-grade contemporary novelist Stacy Barnett Mozer, poet Charles Smith Jr., and artist and storyteller Peter Catalanotto. They held workshops such as "Fun with Words," "The Power of Poetry," and "Drawing Stories from Your Life."
"Leading to the event, we have enthusiastic students motivated to read, write, and bond over the books and authors attending," says McCarthy. At the event, "the kids get to learn about process and spend the day making memories."
McCarthy says she's fortunate to regularly meet and work with authors and illustrators who are passionate about spreading book love, and she's excited about the chance to connect these "kidlit rock stars" to students. "I want kids to know these people who can be mentors and role models," she says. "At this event, there is tremendous hype about students getting to meet real-live celebrities! We want students to view these individuals as rock stars."
It seems like it's working. Students at Northern Parkway told McCarthy and Dr. Bilal Polson, the school's principal, that they enjoyed finding out more about the authors, working with them in small group sessions, and getting peeks into their writing during 90-second read jams. It allowed students "to share with their peers their love for literacy and was an opportunity to learn from and with some of their favorite authors and illustrators," says Polson.
And students weren't the only ones who had a great time. Teachers who prepared students for the special day and featured the works of the special guests in their classrooms are already asking when KidLitPalooza can happen again, he notes. "We all gained a new appreciation for the power of connecting with authors and illustrators. Students are reading more, writing more, and aspiring to be authors and illustrators," Polson says.
At the KidLitPalooza event at Old Bethpage Elementary, attendee and third-grade teacher Kathleen Sokolowski saw excitement on students' faces in sessions like the one led by author and illustrator Kelly Light, whose presentation included illustration tips. Sokolowski hopes it made students feel "more passionate about the process of writing and the joy reading can bring."
When it comes to the value of events like KidLitPalooza, Sokolowski concludes, "Any time you can bring authors to students and connect them, it's totally a win." Quoting psycholinguist Frank Smith, she says it helps students feel like they are part of the "literacy club." If schools can find ways to follow the KidLitPalooza model, in whole or in part, she recommends it.
KidLitPalooza, says McCarthy, is a truly collaborative "labor of love" effort among passionate educators who want to celebrate teaching and learning. "When you see kids and their reactions, it's unbelievable," she says. It's clear that young readers are responding to this message, so educators who are looking to get their students engaged with books might want to consider a more creative and immersive approach.