Teacher Tuesday

We’ve heard so many creative ideas for connecting kids and books this year here at Teacher Tuesday, and today’s is especially tasty! It comes to us from Alyson Beecher, who actually serves as an administrator in the Pasadena (California) Unified School District. A former principal, her focus is elementary literacy and providing professional development support to school librarians. She is particularly involved with Madison, Cleveland and Jackson Elementary schools.
Let’s peek at Alyson’s past: 

  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: Pizza!  I still love pizza, but have become much more fussy about the type of pizza now.
  • Times you were the new kid in school: My family moved the summer before 2nd grade and as a result, I got to be the new kid in a class that had been together since kindergarten.  It wasn’t easy trying to break into the friendship groups that had already formed.  In small towns, your status as the “new” kid can last a really long time, and it wasn’t until Junior High that I finally stopped feeling like the outsider.
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: In high school, I had the same English teacher twice.  Mr. H. was someone who kept challenging me to read more complex novels and to write more.  One summer, I asked him for a list of titles to read and read dozens of assigned books just for the fun of it.  As a result, I always felt that my college English teachers fell short of the standard set by my high school English teacher.

Alyson, you shared with me that one of your biggest passions is the Literacy Café program that you started with a parent a few years ago. Where did the idea for this program come from?
Sometimes the best ideas come during the most surprising moments.  Three years ago, the school I was at was facing the possibility of closure.  While we sat in numerous meetings that would determine the fate of the school, a parent and I started chatting about our love of books.  We also started brainstorming ideas for sharing books with children.  She had heard of an idea for Literacy Cafés from when she was a teacher.  Of course, we tweaked the concept and made it our own and the Literacy Café program was born. (Read an article about it here.)
Why do you think such a program is so important?

When we started the Literacy Café, we weren’t really sure how it would work and if the students would respond the way we hoped they would.  We wanted an experience that would bring books alive for children and help them become excited about reading. 
What are the gains you see for students?

Every classroom is made up of diverse learners.  Students in urban school settings often face greater challenges.  By making learning hands-on and engaging, students relate better and tune in more.  The Literacy Café appeals to a wide range of learners.  Teachers can easily differentiate activities.  Every student will find something that they can connect with during a Café whether it is a writing exercise or an art project or something related to observation and investigation.  Students help one another complete projects and comprehension increases as does oral language skills.  And, everyone has fun in the process. 
What are the benefits that you see for the entire school community?

When we created the Literacy Café, it became the one thing that brought us together the most effectively as a reading community.  We had been trying to develop into a school-wide reading community for a couple of years.  However, the attempts we tried were only getting us so far.  The Literacy Café gave us shared experiences to talk about and involved students, teachers, parents, and in some cases even authors and illustrators.  It jelled us together and gave us our identify as readers.
What is involved in preparing for a Literacy Café?

One of the biggest parts in preparing for the Literacy Café is finding the right book and making sure that children have been exposed to it.  A novel will take longer to share with students than a picture book.  Next, we need to identify what themes we want to focus on and create the activities.  From there, everything kind of comes together.
Have you found that particular titles or genres work best?

The nice thing about Literacy Cafés is that you can use any book or theme to create a Café.  You are really just limited by your own vision and creativity. 
Can you please share about one Literacy Café, in detail?

I have loved so many of the Cafés that we have done but probably my favorite was the Harlem Renaissance Café.  Despite the amount of time it took to plan and prep for that café, I felt that it truly captured everything we wanted for children and learning and exposed them to a rich part of history. Hereis a link to a blog post I did about it.
What has been the biggest surprise/joy of doing Literacy Cafes?

Literacy Cafés reminded me of how much I love teaching and how many children really love books.  Young children love looking at picture books and having someone read aloud to them.  However, many children lose some of that excitement, as books become more challenging for them.  The Café makes stories accessible for children and allow them to interact with the text and with one another.  Sharing food, working together, and digging into the ideas behind a story bring smiles to the faces of children, which most certainly made me smile.
If a parent, teacher or librarian wanted to start a Literacy Café at his/her school, what first steps would you recommend?
Start small and start with a book that inspires you.  When I read certain books, I just know that I have to share them with students.  If I am super excited about the book, then it will be easier to think about ideas and activities.  In my Nerdy Book Club post on Literacy Cafés, I shared 10 steps for running a café. 
It is clear that you are completely committed to creating community around books, so much so that you founded a grassroots organization called Bridge to BooksWhy did you take such a leap?

A friend, Alethea, and I were at a book event and started chatting.  She was a bookseller at the time and I was a principal.  I teased her that booksellers and librarians had all of the “good stuff” when it came to books (swag, Advanced Reader Copies, teacher guides) and yet, educators were teaching reading to children and had them 6 hours a day and didn’t know about any of these resources.  We started thinking about ways to connect teachers, librarians, booksellers, publishers, and authors/illustrators to provide literacy events for children and teens.
Links to some of our recent events can be found here and here:

What has most surprised you about this investment of your time and resources?

When we did our first event, we were wondering if anyone would show up. We were surprised that there were so many authors who wanted to participate and that over 100 people came.  Since the first event nearly 2 years ago, we have done almost a dozen more events. We have created events around everything from picture books to graphic novels to middle grade books to young adult novels.  Everyone (volunteers, authors, illustrators, publishers, and more) has been incredibly generous with his or her time and energy. It is still a really great feeling when everything comes together and we see the looks on the faces of children and authors as they interact.
What else would you like to say about this grassroots venture? 

Over the past two years, Alethea (@frootjoos on twitter)and I have talked about the possibilities of creating this into a true nonprofit and not just some volunteer project that we love.  The feedback we have received from everyone regarding the events has been extremely positive.  There is definitely a need for interactive multi-author literacy events for children and teens.  Part of us has wondered if we could make a living from doing something like this?! So far it is still a dream and we aren’t giving up our day jobs, but if we win the lottery, hey, who knows…
What else do you wish I’d asked you about Literacy Cafes?

What was it like to host Newbery winner Katherine Applegate in one of our SpecialEdition Literacy Cafés? (click the link to find out!)
Last February (2012), shortly after the release of THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, we had the special opportunity to host author Katherine Applegate in our Literacy Café.  Katherine shared with us how she created her story of Ivan and what had inspired her.  She interacted with children as they spent some time writing bits of their own stories and answered questions.  Katherine was amazing with the children and I know for certain that if I was 9 or 10 years old and had that experience I would remember it forever.  I will certainly cherish my signed copy of THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN and the stuffed Ivan that Katherine gave me that day.  When I was in the audience listening to the Newbery winners being announced and heard them say that Katherine had won the Newbery Award for IVAN I nearly jumped from my seat.  Never would I have believed that our Literacy Café would have hosted a Newbery Award winning author. 
Every effort to connect kids and books has its own great surprise, it seems! I’m so grateful to Alyson for this great information about Literacy Cafes. Learn more at Alyson’s blog or follow her on Twitter, @alybee930.

No Responses to “Teacher Tuesday”

  1. fishgirl182

    wonderful interview! i know aly and her commitment and passion to educating and literacy are truly an inspiration. i would love to see literacy cafes in all schools one day. and if i win the lottery, bridge to books is definitely going to become a true non-profit. keep up the good work!