Teacher Tuesday

How oh how did I become acquainted with Erin Fitzpatrick-Bjorn? Did I visit her school? Did we meet at a Powell’s book event?

I honestly don’t remember.

All I know is that I’m very glad we made a connection. Erin is the K-8 District Media Coordinator for the Gresham-Barlow School District in Gresham, Oregon, engaging with sixteen schools across the district. Erin is a children’s literature powerhouse and I am so pleased to be sharing her insights with you today.

But first, a peek at her past:

  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: Whatever my mom packed! But what I really loved was that every day she would write a little something on the napkin she put in my lunch.  Sometimes it was a poem or a saying, sometimes a word of encouragement, or sometimes just an I love you.  
  • Best friend in grade school: Cindy Chimienti. We’re still friends now!
  • Times you were the new kid in school:  Just once, in fifth grade. Well, I guess when I went to high school, too, but everyone was new then.
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: MaryAnn Allegretto and Bill George were the two that inspired me to stretch, in completely different ways.
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: Wow, I’m not sure.  I think maybe speak French. I took a little after school class, but I never really got the hang of it.  I can still say the days of the week, though!
Erin, you mentioned that you’d like to talk about using picture books for middle school lessons.What prompted you to begin using picture books with this age group? 

My mentor librarian, the teacher who inspired me most to stretch as a teacher, was the one who introduced me to this idea when I was a classroom teacher.

In what ways do you use picture books with middle schoolers? 

I’ve used picture books in many ways with middle school students.  I’ve used them to introduce an idea like racism. I’ve used them in poetry lessons. I’ve used them to explore a concept more deeply, like the freedom of speech. I’ve used them to celebrate special events like Dr. Seuss’s birthday and Earth Day. I’ve used them to explore art and artists.

Even though many libraries call picture books “Everybody Books,” I’m guessing you may have encountered some resistance with your students. Have you? If so, how did you counter it?

Middle school students are smart and can be pretty sophisticated, and they hate being treated like little kids, so I was always very clear about why I was using a picture book right from the start. We talked about our focus and how the book(s) fit into that focus, and I talked with students about the different levels of meaning that can be found in picture books, and explored with them how sophisticated many picture books are (See: What has surprised you the most below). They actually really enjoyed using picture books, and I rarely encountered opposition.  If you create meaningful lessons and set them up well, no matter your vehicle, I find that students generally respond positively.

There’s also a little nostalgia piece in the reading of picture books that appeals to middle schoolers. They truly are still kids, no matter how much they want you to believe they’re not.  And most of them have a fondness for picture books. I think holding a picture book is a comfortable place for them.

How do you select titles?

When I was a classroom teacher, my school librarian helped me a ton.  She knew picture books, and I did not.  Now I’m much more familiar with what’s out there, and, more importantly, I know where to look for ideas, so it’s easier.  Basically, there are three really important elements I think about when searching for a picture book.   First, it has to be beautiful.  Not averagely beautiful, but incredibly beautiful.  Of course it has to be thematically related to what I’m doing.  Finally, it has to have points where I can stop and have students think and respond.  Some of my favorites that fit these criteria are:

Poem by Maya Angelou, Paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat

By Maribeth Lorbiecki and  David Diaz

By Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Poem by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Romare Bearden

By Maribeth Lorbiecki, ilustrated by K. Wendy Popp

What has changed in your classroom/library since you’ve begun incorpora
ting picture books? Changes in students’ skills or interest in reading? 

I’m not sure I can make a direct correlation between changes in skills or interest in reading with the use of picture books, but I will say that starting students out with picture books as a way of guiding discussion did lead to richer discussion when we moved further along with a topic.  

What has surprised you the most about sharing picture books with middle schoolers? 

One thing that surprised me about the whole experience was the level of sophistication, depth, and variety in picture books.  I wasn’t a librarian when I started doing this, and I wasn’t a parent, so I really hadn’t spent a lot of time with picture books since I was a kid myself.  It’s quite astonishing what’s out there. There’s a picture book on nearly any topic you might want to teach.  And the quality of so many picture books is incredible. These writers and illustrators are gifted at exploring and exposing our world and our humanity in ways both serious and fun.

Would you encourage other middle school teachers/librarians to use picture books? Why or why not? 

Yes, yes, and yes! I think teachers and librarians will find this to be a great way to engage students of all levels. the students I have worked with have really enjoyed using the picture books. A bonus to the whole process, of course, is that struggling readers aren’t excluded from a reading activity with all kinds of depth and don’t feel like the odd man out.  Low readers, as we know, can be excellent thinkers, but it’s often challenging for them to fully participate in an activity that requires reading something at a level beyond their skills.  

What do you wish you’d known when you started? 

I wish I would have been more familiar with what was out there, and I’m so lucky I had an incredible school librarian to work with.  Unfortunately, I know all too well that there are fewer and fewer school librarians out there to partner with.  Public librarians, however, are also an amazing resource, and if you don’t have a school librarian, definitely consider partnering with your public library for information and resources.

What kinds of outside resources, if any, do you employ (Skype, author websites, guest speakers)?

Ha! Skype wasn’t even a thing when I was in the classroom, that’s how old I am, but using Skype is a terrific idea to enrich this experience even more.  

What do you wish I’d asked you that I neglected to ask? 
Maybe what I’ve finished reading recently that I really enjoyed?  Why thanks for asking  I recently finished Hattie Ever After and I thought it was just terrific!  I’m a tough sell on sequels, but this one was a delight from start to finish.  I just love that spunky young woman!  And the woman who writes about her is pretty cool, too.

Ahem, I’m a little embarrassed about that, Erin, but also very grateful for your endorsement and support. . .and your blog review!

But mostly my inner eighth grader is very sad I did not have a savvy librarian like you in my school. Thank you for understanding that middle schoolers need picture books!

Want to hear more of what Erin’s thinking? Follow her on Twitter: @aweekoraweekend

Check out her books blog here. Check out the travel blog Erin writes with her husband here.