February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Surprise! It’s Kwame Alexander

Seventh graders at Tolland (CT) Middle School are thrilled to see who their surprise guest is.

Educators usually have to plan for months to execute an author visit, but that, happily, was not the case for Lauren Volpintesta, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Tolland Middle School in Tolland, CT. On Tuesday, May 2, during Children’s Book Week, her class received an impromptu visit from Newbery Medal Award winner Kwame Alexander and his friend and guitarist Randy Preston.

The two were in Connecticut for a few school visits and had a window of free time. They were on their way in to Reins Deli in Vernon, CT, for turkey pastrami on rye, when Susannah Richards, associate professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, approached the pair. She hinted that one of her former students, Volpintesta, was teaching Alexander’s books and had raved about how her students were connecting with The Crossover (HMH, 2014) and Booked (HMH, 2016) in particular. “Susannah just kind of stared at me, and I knew what that meant,” Alexander told School Library Journal. When they agreed to drop by the nearby school, Richards sprang into action, calling the school’s principal, Mary Grande, to get quick clearance for the visit.

At 11:30 a.m., Alexander and Preston walked into Tolland Middle School. A delegation of giddy seventh graders led them to small auditorium, where they gave an energetic presentation. Soon everyone in the room was moving to the beat.  “Even though I was famished, I love saying yes, so Randy and I did an impromptu mini-concert of poetry and music, which I called The Mixtape.” It was so much fun for Alexander and Preston that they’ve now added it to their school-visit repertoire.

Alexander, left, and Preston get ready to perform for the kids.

“We were so surprised to have Kwame come to our school!” gushed 13-year-old Emerson Ricciardone. “He made everything really fun and for those of us who didn’t read his book yet, now we all want to!”  Another seventh grader, Jillian, “really loved hearing his poems as songs because you could hear all the rhythm and rhyme he included in them.” Volpintesta was impressed that “his poetic verse completely transformed students’ impression of poetry, the meaning of it, and furthermore, its impact on readers.”

“Kwame Alexander’s words paired with Randy Preston’s tunes reintroduced poetry to students in a dynamic way,” agrees Richards.

By 12:30 p.m., Alexander and Preston had signed a few books, delighted the school community, and ignited an interest in poetry, reading, and rhythm in the students. It was finally time for those sandwiches. “Of course, we told Susannah she was treating us to lunch!” laughs Alexander.


Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.

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