Greetings from West Bloomfield, Michigan, where I've just finished up a wondrous week of school visits, taking advantage of the University of Colorado's spring break to be able to absent myself from campus for a five-day immersion in some of the most delightful schools in America. The amazing West Bloomfield Township Public Library, recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service (the nation's highest honor for libraries), partners with the public schools for their Pine Tree reading program, which has been going on for over thirty years. The children read 20 titles from a selected list, with all kinds of delightful challenges and incentives to entice them to read all 20, and then there is a week-long Pine Tree celebration, all funded by the public library. And as part of this year's reading extravaganza, they invited me.
I love going to schools and talking to kids, Even more, I love just being in schools and seeing wonderful teachers at work - and maybe, just maybe, coming away with a few book ideas?
At one school, I had the chance to sit in on the dress rehearsal for the fourth grade choir concert and hear the kids singing a medley of patriotic tunes, as well as bopping along to the Beach Boys, "I Get Around." At another school I dropped in on the before-school knitting club, where the children were knitting and crocheting colorful yarn squares to stitch together into blankets for the homeless. I did two evening programs at the public library where I got to answer questions that went far above and beyond the usual "What is your favorite book?" and "How many books have you wrote?" Instead, I was asked questions like: "You told us that it's important to put vivid, sparkling details in your stories when you write them. But sometimes I think I'm putting too many details in mine. How do you know the right amount?" Oh, and one media specialist shaved his head to reward his students for meeting their Pine Tree challenge.
Then today I spent time at Sheiko Elementary, one of the most diverse schools I've ever visited, with students of so many races and ethnicities. It was pajama day, so most of the kids were there in pj's, complete with fuzzy bathrobes and stuffed-animal slippers. (Some teachers, too!) After my two assemblies, Mrs. Claudette's Daniels's students invited me back to their class for their "salad bowl." I had no idea what this "salad bowl" was going to be. Of course I said yes.
When I reached the room, soft music was playing to encourage quiet reflection. While most students sat on traditional chairs, some sat on big hoppy balls, so that they could get their wiggles out in a non-disruptive way. The "salad bowl" itself involved students taking turns in sharing their writing, in a "share when the spirit moves you" format, a tossed salad of diverse ingredients, if you will: poems, persuasive essays/speeches, whatever the students chose to offer.
Mrs. Daniels went first, sharing a piece of her own about the different fathers she knew and loved as an adopted child. I don't think I've ever seen a teacher so willing to share her own writing with her class, willing to accept the inescapable vulnerability all authors feel when they allow others to see and hear their work. Some of the student pieces were ardent speeches making well-reasoned arguments for greater environmentalism and social justice. Some were modeled on template poems provided, such as "Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair" by Langston Hughes. Poems on homework and ice cream were hilarious; poems written in the voice of a mother sharing hard-won wisdom with her children were deeply moving.
And then, it was time for the actual edible salad bar, served in a corner of the classroom. And time to sing a "birthday rap" to the birthday boy of the day, who stood on a table surrounded by his classmates who honored him with a birthday greeting set to the tune of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang. (No, I did not recognize the tune myself, but the much younger media specialist who was my host for the day identified it for me).
What a gift to be in the company of such a gifted teacher. What a joy to be in the company of such motivated students.
Thank you, West Bloomfield Township Public Library, for a magical week. And don't be surprised if some future book of mine features pajama day, a salad bowl sharing of kids' funny and poignant poems, or a birthday rap....