Saturday, October 14, 2017

Nibbles of my First Book Tasting

Preparing food for other people makes me nervous. I worry about everything, from taste to presentation. Will they eat it? Will they like it? Will I be bringing home an empty dish licked clean or a platter that has hardly been touched? (Believe me, I've been on both sides of that one.)

I had a similar feeling recently when the ADK chapter I belong to was looking for program ideas. I knew of this new "recipe" for promoting engagement with books that I really wanted to try out. Only, I wasn't sure how it would go over with the crowd. Will they eat it? my worry began. Will they like it?

They put me on the calendar though, and this week, I tried out that new recipe with my colleagues. I hosted my first-ever Book Tasting. My colleagues ate it all up, and I brought home a very full heart (and a cupcake topped with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, too).

Book Tasting is not an original idea. I have heard others' accounts and seen pictures of Book Tasting events done with students and adults in many other settings. The short what of a Book Tasting is that participants have the opportunity to sample several books in the course of the event, giving them just enough to taste to decide if they want more. Beyond that, there seem to be a great variety of ways a Book Tasting could be tailored to the audience and their needs or your purpose.

For me, choosing the books was the hardest part. I knew the guests at my Book Tasting encompassed a wide range of positions in education. I would be entertaining six teachers (PreK through grade 6), a librarian, two literacy coaches, four elementary principals, and the curriculum coordinator. My goal was for every guest to taste a smattering of books that would expand their repertoire, books they might find useful in their work with students or that they would be able to recommend to others with whom they work. I wanted the featured books to represent fiction and nonfiction, picture books through middle grade. For this reason, selecting the books for my tasting was tough. I had to accept that I wouldn't be able to include every book I've loved and want everyone to know about. I helped narrow my selection for this tasting by deciding to showcase new releases, only books published in 2017. I could have picked all picture books, or all nonfiction, or all professional texts. These were all ideas I considered but put aside.

I also thought about having several small tables of four and seating my guests according to who they worked with (primary students, intermediate students, teachers). I considered serving each table their own platter. I ruled this out for this particular tasting because I wanted the coaches and administrators to see a range of books rather than be limited to one group. This lead me to seat everyone at one big table. I created a spreadsheet with each guest and seat number and laid out the rotation of books so I could "see" which five books each guest would taste. Ultimately, this set up and book passing showed the potential of the same book across different audiences.
The placemat at each place setting was my own creation. I peeked at several other educators' ideas on the internet before making my own. There are lots of resources to be found, many that prompt students to record information about the title/author/genre of the books they taste. Because my audience were colleagues in assorted roles, I wanted the 11x17 placemat to serve as a sheet for note-taking about what books they saw, their ideas and impressions of the book, and who they might tell about the books they tasted. I also knew that my guests would only taste five of the fifteen circulating titles, and that others would talk about titles they did not see, so I included a sixth box for recording other titles mentioned that piqued curiosity. When I created my placemat, I made my prompts specific to my guests and my purpose for hosting the event. I am happy to share a version of my placemat, but this is a really simple way to tailor your Book Tasting to your needs or purpose. Consider rewriting the prompts so that guests are thinking about your teaching point, using language that you use with your readers or learners.

Aside from the books, the most talked about element of the Book Tasting was the environment. I knew I would be hosting the event at school, but I also know it would be evening time and everyone would have already worked a full day and likely been to a staff meeting, too. My classroom library was the perfect place to host, but I wanted it to feel different: warm, homey, special. So, in addition to rearranging the physical space, I brought in lamps to change the lighting and purchased inexpensive red and white checked tablecloths. My colleagues helped with refreshments, including a to-die-for coffee punch and sweet cupcakes adorned with even-sweeter fondant classic book covers.

On the evening of the Book Tasting, my guests prepared their snack plates and found their seats at the table. They were treated to five "courses," and had three minutes with a book during each course. Then the book was passed to the guest on their right. When all five rounds had been served, I asked my guests to share if any of the books they tasted really stood out to to them, or anything in general they thought all of the guests needed to know about the books they sampled. Many books were widely recommended, like Matt Tavares' Red & Lulu. Others were debated. The two most talked about books were Two Truths and a Lie: It's Alive! (for it's appeal to a wide a range of readers) and After the Fall (because, well, have you read it?). In fact, the need to talk about After the Fall lead to an impromptu read aloud because we didn't want to spoil it for anyone.
This book nerd was the giddy-type of happy to listen in on other readers' initial discoveries of books I know and love to recommend. While I hated to be the bearer of bad news as the timer signaled it was time to pass the book on, I loved listening to the audible, involuntary responses as my guests turned pages, peeked under jackets, admired art, and stole nuggets of did-you-know from the acknowledgements and back-matter of the books they sampled. Their temptation to begin talking about their books to the guests around them about the books they held was all the assurance I need that they were enjoying their time."This makes me wish I still had a classroom," said one guest. Another, "All I want to do is keep reading." Guests went home with titles to share with their teachers, colleagues, and even a few titles for Christmas gifts. Before the night was done, my principal--who was one of the guests--told me she'd like us to do a Book Tasting as a whole-staff in the spring. Obviously, I agreed.

If you are thinking about hosting a Book Tasting, here are some questions that might help to guide your planning:
  • Who is your audience?
  • What books do you want to introduce them to?
  • What do you want to help them learn or notice about books?
  • How will you structure the time spent with each book? Note-taking? Reflection/sharing?
  • How will you design the space for your Book Tasting? How will your guests be seated?
  • How will you reflect on the success of your event?

My first Book Tasting was a big hit, and it was eaten right up. I'd encourage you to try it. As with any recipe, you can borrow mine, but you'll want to season yours to taste. I'd love to hear how it goes.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What Happens at the Campground...

...becomes rich story material for Maine author Tamra Wight's Cooper and Packrat series. 

Today marks the release of Mystery of the Bear Cub, Book 4 in the series.

The ecological mystery-adventure series, published by Islandport Press and illustrated by Carl DiRocco, features Cooper Wilder and his family who own Wilder Family Campground. In each book, Cooper's campground responsibilities or his love for exploration and geocaching lead him to a moral conflict wrapped up in a mystery to be solved. In Mystery at Pine Lake (Book 1), the friends are on a mission to identify the person responsible for harming the loons' nest on the lake. Cooper and his friends find evidence of poaching in Mystery of the Eagle's Nest (Book 2). Mystery of the Missing Fox (Book 3) has the growing group--alert to trapping--coming to the rescue of the stolen fox kit.

In writing the Cooper and Packrat series, Tamra draws on the experiences of her family-owned campground, Poland Spring Campground. Her own wonders and curiosities about the wildlife in her backyard and the campers who visit the campground provide her with plenty of realistic inspiration to write her fictional stories.

Life at the Wilder Family Campground becomes a real mess in Book 4 when the town makes a shift towards recycling more waste at Cooper's recommendation. Cooper's inspired and eco-friendly idea comes with unanticipated challenges for the campground and other small businesses in the area. Before long, someone is dumping trash illegally in the area around the campground and trouble arises with foraging bears. Cooper's sense of responsibility to solve this problem kicks into high-gear, and he and his friends resolve to make things right: for the town, for the campground, and for the bears.

For my readers and me, "Wilder Family Campground" is a particularly familiar setting. Last year, when our summer program featured academic programming to support the part of the curriculum about state history, we read Mystery of the Eagle's Nest. In a truly special and unique arrangement, Tamra hosted our group for an author visit at Poland Spring Campground down the road (literally) from where we read and grow and learn every day. Tamra took time away from writing and serving campers to treat our readers to a tour of the campground, and in an instant, the Cooper and Packrat books came to life. We hiked the trails of the campground, looked out at the campground's own eagle's nest (and strained to try to see evidence of eaglets), and heard Tamra present about writing, wildlife photography, and the research involved in writing the series. The students settled in for lunch in the fire ring and a read aloud with the author herself. The experience of stepping inside the setting of a series the students love is one they still talk about and has made them eager to continue reading.
There is a spot in our classroom library ready and waiting for my copy of Mystery of the Bear Cub, but I know it will likely be empty a while longer because my readers will be anxious to get their hands on this next adventure. And with big ideas and tough questions for them to grapple with alongside Cooper and Packrat, I'm anxious for them to read on, too.

I'm anxious for you to meet Cooper and Packrat and read Mystery of the Bear Cub, also, so I'm giving away a signed copy of one of Tamra Wight's Cooper and Packrat books. To win, comment on this post and include the title of the book you would most like to have and an email/Twitter handle where I can contact you. I will randomly select a winner the day before Tamra's book launch event on October 18 and will have your book signed to whomever you choose. Happy Reading!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Author Visit: Writing Workshop with Linda Urban

I sit at a table in my classroom, side by side with my students. Our workspace is layered with notebooks and index cards and black Flair pens and their covers. The students hands--and mine--scrawl a memory onto our pages. I'm finding myself transported to Barcelona, 1995; I'm sitting down to dinner with my high school Foreign Language Club. And while I'm about to sample that first ringlet of calamari again, I'm also keenly aware that my classroom is still and busy, humming with an aura of writers at work. 

"And, stop," a voice cuts the quiet. "Who has something they would be willing to share?" 

Half a dozen hands go up, and Linda Urban proceeds to move from one student to the next, signaling the students' moment, each reading aloud with confidence and pride the writing produced from an image conjured up through the selective questioning of the visiting author.

This week Linda Urban returned to OES to lead writing workshops for my 5th graders, enlisting their help in co-researchers about writers notebooks. Each workshop began with a glimpse into Linda's own notebooks and notebooks of other creators of kidlit, emphasizing the imperfect and the importance of writing in our notebooks for ourselves first. Then, my students and I participated in exercises selected from Linda's own study of and with comic-artist Lynda Barry (What It Is, 2009, and Syllabus, 2014). The curated exercises Linda facilitated were geared towards engaging writers and quieting their critical mind while using their writing notebooks as a place of play. My students were enthusiastic workshop participants and co-researchers, many producing more writing in short spurts of time than they typically do in our regular writing workshop and complaining when time had run out.

After school, Linda presented a third writing workshop session, this one for an audience of district colleagues and staff members. The adult audience wrote through many of the same exercises, and Linda shared her message about the importance of play in writers notebooks with research from numerous leaders in the field of education.

I am not new to the inspiration of Linda Urban. Linda and I collaborated in a long-term partnership a few years ago that shed light on Linda's process while revising Milo Speck: Accidental Agent and influenced me to strive for as much authenticity as possible in my classroom writing instruction. I've hosted Linda Urban at OES twice before, in both a classroom visit and a whole-school visit with assemblies designed for primary and intermediate audiences. I've witnessed her interactions with individual students and groups of almost 200 and know first-hand that Linda Urban's energy, sense of humor, and genuine nature contribute to her highly-engaging and phenomenal way with students.

And yet, I will never turn down an opportunity to be reminded.

Linda Urban's writing workshops were a terrific success. Here's why:
Linda builds quick and easy rapport with writers--both students and adults. In her willingness to share her own examples, Linda's model of vulnerability invites her workshop participants to take safe risks, also. Linda's interest in and respect for students has them eager to embrace their writer-selves.
Linda's suggestions are practical in practice. Each of the exercises and ideas Linda shared can be done in little time, making the commitment to "try it out" feel doable in and among all the other constraints we face in the classroom. Many of the ideas and practices Linda shares will require small shifts in the work we already do with students.
Linda's presentation is well-balanced between sharing her own story and examples, those of other writers, and issuing an invitation for student (and adult) writers to play and write. Our sessions were close to two hours long, and the participants could have gone for longer.
Linda's message about using notebooks and making time for play is important. And sometimes we need these important reminders to revisit, or we need the chance to slow down and experience the truth ourselves in order to recommit to doing what is best for students.

My week has been spent picking up little gems that my students and colleagues are putting down from our time with Linda Urban. It has been gratifying to overhear students make reference to their time spent with Linda, to incorporate small bits of what we shared together into the last few days in the classroom, and to bump into colleagues who attended the afternoon professional development session and hear them express how meaningful that time spent writing with Linda was to them.

We're thankful to have shared a day writer-to-writer with Linda Urban, and her words and encouragement will last through the year and beyond.

You can have Linda visit your school or classroom, too. (And honestly, I don't know why you wouldn't...) Send an inquiry or find out more.