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Empowering Children through Poetry and Publishing

April 30, 2015

By Kristen Setzler Simensen
Director, Calhoun County Library
St. Matthews, SC

In July 2013, I had a conversation with Newbery Award-winning author Kwame Alexander by phone. Kwame, author of the children’s book, Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band, is well known for his Book in a Day program. If you’ve heard of the Book in a Day program, you already know that Kwame is a bit of a cliff jumper; he goes to a school and works with around 30 students of various ages to write, publish, and market a book of student poetry from start to finish in one day.

I approached Kwame about doing Book in a Day, but rather than with 30 students, with 2,100. I knew right off the bat that I was speaking to a fellow cliff jumper, because he didn’t hang up the phone when I asked if that would be possible. He paused, thought about it for a few moments, and slowly said, “Yeah, I think we could probably make that work.”

Teacher Sally Prickett poses with Kwame and one of her students.

This project was conceivable given that we are a small county (pop. 15,000) and have a productive partnership with our local schools. That partnership is the result of the amazing commitment of the professionals on our Literacy Committee, comprised of school administrators, librarians, and curriculum specialists for each school and the public library. Before this project, we offered joint year-round reading programs for students to meet visiting authors such as Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, and Melinda Long. Students read at least one of the authors’ books prior to a school visit, and the kids and teachers really looked forward to it. But as we all know, literacy is about more than reading; it’s writing, too.

Teachers such as Kathy Link participated in a dynamic, hands-on poetry workshop with Kwame Alexander at the start of the project.

Kwame conducted a poetry workshop for English Language Arts teachers in our county, who then worked with their students to write individual and class poems around a central theme. Art students also created artwork to illustrate the poems. Students then shared their poetry with Kwame when he came to their school a couple of months later. Of the 2,100 students in the K-12 grades, over 1,600 contributed to their school anthologies. The works were compiled and were turned into published books. At the end of the project, the public library hosted a standing-room-only poetry reading featuring students of all ages and abilities.

Many students had the opportunity to share their poems, inlcuding students in grades 1 - 5 in a self-contained class at Sandy Run K8 School.

The excitement felt by the student creators  was a testament to the power of self-expression through creative arts and writing, and we are thankful to IMLS and the South Carolina State Library for helping to make it all possible. The impact of the experience  was no surprise to Kwame, though. Talking about the project after the fact, he said, “Teaching students how to write and express their thoughts is empowering. If we teach them how to actually publish their work, it can be life changing. It teaches them how to make something that was impossible possible. I started Book in a Day because I felt that if you give students control over the writerly—and yes, I said writerly—process, if you give them ownership of the publishing process, they will by default become engaged writers and readers. What better way [is there] to promote literacy than by teaching them how to become authors?”


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