Teacher Tuesday

I can’t wait to meet Jen Vincent in person, though I’ve had fun getting to know her through her Nerdy Book Club posts and through her blog (co-written with future Teacher Tuesday-er, Kellee Moye)

Jen has worked in special education for the last ten years, traveling to seven different schools to teach students who are deaf and hard of hearing and are mainstreamed into regular education classes. This year, she’s working as a teacher leader for her school district. She‘s teamed up with another teacher to take charge of the Teacher Mentor Program, leading the professional development for all new teachers and their mentors. Her school district is the second largest in Illinois, with over 50 schools serving early childhood (preschool) through high school. 

When I think “passionate about books,” I think of Jen! So, pour yourself a cup of cozy chamomile tea and meet this amazing teacher, starting off with a peek at her past! (Sorry, no photo. She wasn’t able to snag one while home for the Thanksgiving holiday. But don’t you just know she was darling?!)
  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: My mom used to pack peanut butter and honey sandwiches for me! Sticky and sweet and delicious. 
  • Best friend in grade school: Alicia moved near me in 2nd grade. We rode the bus together and rode our bikes back and forth to each other’s houses all the time.
  • Times you were the new kid in school: I was never the new kid in school! I was lucky enough to live in the same town all through school. There were lots of times I secretly wished I could move and be the new kid just because I thought it would be great to start over and meet new people. 
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: I had lots of great and memorable teachers but Ms. Urkovich was one of my English teachers in high school who inspired me to stretch. I had her for Composition, and later, British Literature. She was intense and made me think about reading and writing like I never had before. She was the perfect example of a teacher who was hardcore and serious about learning but who really cared at the same time. I respected her for pushing me. 
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: I could never climb to the top of the rope in PE class. Never. That always bothered me. I did, however, make a basket that brought my whole team back into the game one time when we played Bombardment (it’s like Dodgeball). I’m very proud of that moment!

 Okay, now let’s get to the juicy bits of the interview. Jen, you have a passion for “building community around books.” Why does having a community built around books matter? 
I think most readers – whether they are kids or adults – love to talk about what books they are reading…and we probably don’t ever get enough time to talk about books. Developing respect and rapport with others, in or out of the classroom, is essential for learning in school and in life. If we talk about books and share books we love, it’s a great way to develop that relationship but also to establish a community that can learn together. Using books as a way to develop such a community is perfect. As a teacher, I believe students in a class should feel this sense of learning and excitement about literacy. But why shouldn’t they feel that same sense of community of literacy in an entire school and even an entire district? If we hope to encourage students to be lifelong readers, doesn’t it make sense that we show them how adults everywhere in their school, in their entire district, in their community are lifelong readers themselves? 
When we e-chatted, you shared your belief that books “magically connect people of all ages, across time and place.” Can you talk more about that? Give us some examples of where you’ve seen that happen.  
Over the summer, I read On W
by Stephen King and he talked about how writing is like a time machine that links the writer with the reader. The author writes words and builds a story – characters, setting, plot – and the reader gets that story kind of like osmosis when he or she reads it. It kind of is like magic. We have books that tell stories that people read years ago and that we still read today. Look at Colby Sharp and John Schu reading through all the Newbery winners, as if they were kid readers from 1922, or ’32, or ’42.

At the same time, there are books that readers young and old enjoy. Books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games that are as wildly popular with young adult readers as they are with adults. This year, one of my students read Wonder by RJ Palacio. Her mother also read the book and it was great for them to share the book together. What’s really amazing is that technology has now made it more evident than ever that readers around the world are reading similar books. 

For example, I reviewed Jon Klassen’s newest picture book This Is Not My Hat and a Twitter friend in Germany told me how it wasn’t going to be available to her for another month or two. She was antsy with anticipation and wishing she didn’t have to wait. It’s amazing to think of the friends I have on Twitter all over the world because of our shared love of books. Finding someone who loves a book you love is kind of like finding someone who grew up where you grew up or went to college where you went to college. For me, sharing books with someone is like drinking insta-friend – it cuts through time, age and place. It truly is book magic.

What are some of the steps involved building a community around books?  

There are lots of things that can build community around books and they all depend on a teacher’s comfort level and knowledge of books. For me, the place to start is to really embrace reading children’s or young adult literature. Teachers shouldn’t be ashamed to read what their students are reading. I would suggest teachers talk to students about books they love or seek out the school or public librarian to ask for current titles appropriate to the age/grade level of students they teach. Choose one that appeals to you and dive in! The community part comes from sharing this book with the students. Teachers could have a place where they display what book they are reading. Teachers can give kids time to share what they are reading – this could be time to meet in partners or small groups or a bulletin board where kids can celebrate what they have read. I recommend reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer or Stephen Layne’s Igniting a Passion for Reading. Both are excellent resources with ideas for building a reading community. 

Talk a bit about what happens when you talk about books with students. 

It’s amazing how students open up when I ask them about books. The very first time, it’s almost as if they are surprised that I know a lot of the books they have read, but then they get excited and start sharing what books they love or why they love them. It’s pretty easy to tell which kids don’t read much because their eyes get wide and they seem stuck when it comes to being able to talk about books. It’s safe to say I haven’t read every book that exists so there is usually a book or two kids will recommend to me that I’ve never read before, and that’s awesome, too! I love when kids can tell me about books I should read.

Talk a bit about what happens when they talk books with you.  

As I said above, it kind of depends on the child/tween/teen. If he or she knows books, then we start going back and forth and sharing titles. If he or she doesn’t know books well, then they might ask questions about the book I share or sometimes they do seem to stop and search their minds for a book to share. In general, I would say kids love to show what they know, so they try to engage in the conversation…and I just love that the conversation gets to be about books.

Let’s say I’m not a teacher or librarian. Just a plain old adult. But I want to encourage my niece or nephew or neighbor to read. Can you give me some suggestions about book talking and book sharing that might help?

I honestly believe people (not just kids) are particular about what books they read. I almost said picky, that’s almost the right word, but I think particular is better. There are some books we would hesitate or refuse to pick up, but others that we can’t get enough of. The first step, in my mind, is to figure out what this niece or nephew likes to read. Ask what he or she has read lately, what movies he or she has seen and loved lately, what he or she is in the mood for. From there, I would recommend a special outing either to the library or to a bookstore (independent is even better). I know my kids like to have special Mom and Dad time, and making a special trip to look for books it always fun for us. Sometimes we get a hot chocolate or a smoothie afterwards (depending on the season) and read our books…pairing books with treats is a fun activity. I guess the answer would be showing them that you are interested in what they read, helping them find books they would like, and then making it into a special bonding time to hang out and talk about books. It’s as much the experience as it is the book – which kind of ties into reading communities in a classroom!

How could “book communities” help readers sample genres outside those they normally are drawn to?  

As I just said, readers can be particular about what they like. But people in general also like to feel part of a community and connected with others. When we create this great community of readers, it’s natural for readers to share books, and then it becomes normal for kids to want to read what others are reading. Since we all have different tastes, we aren’t always going to share the same books. This is where the power of community comes in. As we see what others are reading, it prompts us to try a book that might be outside of our normal or beloved genres.

What are some of the different ways you share your favorite books with your students? What are some of the ways you extend the book through activities like art projects, etc?

I love taking pictures with books! When I was teaching, my students always brought a book with them. They would take a picture with their book and I would take a picture with my book and then we would share what we were reading. I would also bring in stacks of books to book talk or for them to preview when I knew they were almost done reading a book. We also would add to their To-Be-Read lists as we discovered books to read in the future. Fun art projects depend on what strikes me when I read a book. My favorite book-extension activities come from Happy Birthday, Author, by Eric VanRaepenbusch. I love all of his ideas. Often, I would bring in snacks that related to a book with my students. We would talk about books, listen as I read aloud or booktalked while having a book-related snack.

What has most surprised you in your efforts to build a book community where you live and teach?  

I’m always surprised when teachers or parents aren’t familiar with current titles in kidlit for their students or children. I don’t know if I will ever get used to that; for now, I just get over it. I make it my focus to introduce people to new titles or new authors or new genres. I think any parent of a preschool- through elementary-aged child should know Mo Willems and at least one of the many books he has contributed to children’s literature. I don’t care how old you are, his books are endearing and hysterical. When I hear of a book that I don’t recognize at all, that’s a great surprise. I love learning about new books.

How can the different components of the book world – authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians – work more cohesively together to help build a community around books?  

Twitter and blogs have opened the door to this community! It’s so exciting. I love being able to reach out to people who live in different parts of the book world but are only an e-mail, tweet, or blog post away. It’s pretty amazing! When I was a kid, I remember feeling like authors were old people [ed note: I’m not that old!]  who lived far from me and to whom I could send a snail mail letter but probably wouldn’t get a response. Thanks to blogs and Twitter, that whole impression has changed. We have so many amazing ways to be connected.  Any time an author, illustrator, editor, publisher, editor, bookseller, librarian, or reader can use and embrace technology in a way to build this sense of community makes a big difference. It still blows my mind when I post a review or tweet about a book and the author or publisher responds or contacts me. It’s crazy. Any of those people in that list of book world citizens you mentioned are complete celebrities to me. Technology has helped me feel so much more connected and so much more part of this fun book world because of the ease with which we can reach out to each other.

Have you heard about that project, Little Free Libraries? The spirit of this project was the first thing I thought of when you proposed this topic. Have you heard of other ways communities have come together to spread the love of books and reading? 

I have! They are so cute! I would love to have one but I’m not handy nor is my husband (and they are kind of expensive…). Maybe someday. I love the school that created the video with the song Gotta Keep Reading

I remember seeing it on Oprah and thinking it looked like a blast! I have found
some of the most dedicated educators on Twitter who share a love of books and reading. Earlier this year, Nerdy Book Club sponsored the Babymouse For President Photo Contest. That was phenomenal. It was so much fun to be a participant (and a winner!). On our blog, Kellee Moye and I host the kidlit/YA version of the It’s Monday What Are You Reading? meme. That has turned into quite a community of awesome bloggers who share what they are reading and reviewing. We love sharing what we are reading and seeing what others are reading through this meme. It’s all great.

What else would you like to say about the power of talking about books/sharing books/building a community around books?  

I simply want to reiterate how important it is to share books with everyone – children and adults. We learn about ourselves, about others, and about the world through reading. Sometimes we read to find ourselves and our experiences in books and sometimes we read to understand feelings or experiences we might never have. No matter why we read, reading is important. Adults need to model reading for kids and then also model what it means to be a reader who shares books and talks about books. We all have our own circles of influence. No matter how big or how small, we do make a difference, and if we can encourage or inspire anyone within that circle to pick up a book and read, then we’ve had an influence.

Can you see why these Teacher Tuesday interviews have me so charged up?! Wow! Jen — you rock. Thank you for all you do to build community around stories. I feel so proud of all the teachers and librarians like you, who are out there every day connecting kids and books. What a wonderful world this is, with people like you!

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