#KidsNeedMentors Pairs Authors and Educators

After her successful #KidsNeedBooks campaign, author Ann Braden and partners are piloting #KidsNeedMentors to facilitate ongoing author/educator/child relationships.

It started simply. Author Ann Braden wanted to give a stack of books to a teacher. In the spring, she tweeted her donation proposal in search of an educator. She used the hashtag #KidsNeedBooks and suddenly a  Twitter campaign was born. People inside the publishing world and those who are just avid readers joined in to donate piles of titles to teachers and school librarians in need—and continue to do so—via Twitter.

The experience opened Braden's eyes to the incredible need of so many educators, as well as the generosity of those in the publishing world. It also sparked another idea: If the books alone make an impact, what could happen if these kids had access to the authors themselves? What if she could connect authors, educators, and children in a personal, sustained, and coordinated way?

Braden

“Authors love kids and books, teachers love kids and books,” Braden said in May. “Bringing these two together is a really powerful force.”

Fellow author Jarrett Lerner was one of the first to join the #KidsNeedBooks movement. At one point, he spoke with Braden about a program in the United Kingdom called Book Buddy, where authors have ongoing relationships with schools. The two talked about trying to create a similar program in the United States—and make it accessible to schools that couldn't previously afford author visits. Connected through Twitter, fifth grade teachers Kristen Picone and Kristin Crouch volunteered to help with the project. The four created #KidsNeedMentors, a free program that matches authors with educators in a literary partnership that lasts throughout the school year.

"It’s fun to work with other people who are just as determined and workaholic as you are," says Braden, who spent much of her summer preparing for the September release of her debut middle grade novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, while organizing spreadsheets of educators and authors who were interested in the project, and coordinating with Lerner, Crouch, and Picone.

Braden recruited Picone and Crouch—fifth grade teachers from different schools in New York— as collaborators, to help match authors with educators, as well as to make sure someone was speaking for the needs of the teachers and librarians.

“I was a social studies teacher in middle school and I never had author visits,” says Braden. “The schools where I taught, they never had them, so I don’t feel like my experience [would help]. I feel like I was teaching in a different world...like it was back in the Stone Ages.”

Crouch, who teachers at Van Rensselaer Elementary in Rensselaer, NY, wanted to be a part of #KidsNeedMentors after noticing her students saw authors as more of an abstract idea than an actual person. After a couple of Skype visits with authors and one in person visit from Kate Messner while on her Breakout book tour, Crouch noticed a difference in her class.

"I call my students writers, I tell them they are writers, I tell them they have stories to tell, and I show them they have stories to tell," says Crouch. "We work through big ideas and small ideas and what they want to say, but they really don't see themselves as being authors, because books to my students...there's a separation. I wish I could put my finger on what that separation is. They don't see the work they're doing as something that could be shared with other people."

The disconnect faded when the author was in front of them talking about the process, the origin of the idea, the revisions. They students then realized it might not be so different from where they get their ideas and their struggle to write; they decided maybe they have stories worth telling, too, Crouch says.

Picone, too, was motivated to volunteer based on observastion of her own class after Skype visits with authors. 

"I’ve seen the difference that it made for them, as far as inspiring writers, inspiring readers, and really helping kids understand the power of the written word," says Picone, who teaches at R.J.O. Intermediate School in Kings Park, NY.

She wanted to create that "ripple effect" in other schools.

 

 

Like Braden, Lerner is a #KidsNeedMentors author and organizer

 

MATCHMAKERS

As Picone helped match educator with author, she tried to get the best possible fit to benefit the students.

"It was like a big puzzle for me, but I went over it with a fine-tooth comb," she says.

The four organizers didn't have a lot of information. They had grade level, state, and whether the teacher was in a Title I school. One mission of the program is to try to overcome the inequity in author visits, because of cost and remote location. As part of that, Title I schools were given preference. 

“One of the things we hope to achieve is to lower the bar of accessibility,” says Braden.

Without demographic information or even the specific geographic location in many cases, they focused on matching age-appropriate authors to classrooms in the same general geographic region to possibly facilitate an in-person visit. Crouch and Braden live a couple of hours from each other and will be partners for the year, building a relationship while documenting any issues that may arise during the process. Picone and Lerner will be paired with a different author and teacher, respectively, to get a perspective beyond that of the four founders. 

"The first year's really going to be a learning process to see what's feasible and what isn't, what works and what doesn't," says Crouch. "We're really excited."

It's a large pilot program to track. When Braden posted the form for teachers and librarians to register, she was overwhelmed by the response. They reached the maximum 300 educator participants in two days, even receiving some registrants from outside of the school community. 

“There are public librarians in there that we’re hoping we can [accommodate],” she says. “I feel like there are ways to work that out...once you have an educator and an author on the same team.”

School participants include librarians, classroom educators from grades K to 12, as well as some literacy specialists and other staff who don't have classrooms but see groups of students. The majority of teachers are fifth grade educators, and the largest group of authors write middle grade books, so the numbers work out, says Braden. The authors on the list cover almost all genres, including nonfiction, picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA. Matches will be announced the first weekend in August. 

“Exciting #KidsNeedMentors News!” Braden tweeted on July 29. “…will be announcing the author/educator pairs in 1 week! If you're signed up, be on the lookout for an e-mail next weekend. We're so excited to see what this collaboration can do for kids! GO TEAM!”

Each author-educator librarian pair will be given a #KidsNeedMentors framework: The author sends or delivers books to the classroom in the fall, stays in touch month-to-month either via email, FlipGrid, or postcards. Then, in the spring, the author joins the class for an in-person visit, or via Skype, if it's a distance too far to travel. 

That’s the guideline, “but it’s really up to the pairing to make it work for them. We want it to be a pretty organic process where the author and educator touch base to see what’s the best fit.”

MONITORING ISSUES AND IMPACT

Braden, Lerner, Crouch, and Picone will check in with the participants throughout the year to monitor any problems and keep up-to-date on what the pairings are doing.

"I want to know the impact and what the ripple effects are going to be," says Picone. "Which kids are going to become writers, which kids are going to become readers this year who didn't think they could do it before, or didn't have the inspiration, motivation, or confidence they may get from having this ongoing conversation and connection to a published author."

It doesn't have to be a visit from J.K. Rowling to inspire either. The lessons and inspiration are the same whether a writer is self-publishing a small print run or on the bestseller list.

“The common core is that the writing process is not easy, but it gives you power to be the person in charge of key decisions, sometimes for the only time in your life,” says Braden. “I think helping kids act on that and see [the author] as a real human can make them step into their power and step into their own ability to say, ‘Hey I do have things I want to say’ or ‘I do have stories in my head.’”

Authors can talk about the problem solving that goes into writing, she says, as well as the process, the rejections, the revisions, and the need to persevere. 

But the value in the relationship is not just to the students.

“As an author, you’re in a vacuum a lot of the time when you’re writing," she says. "The idea of having a structured way to have an ongoing relationship with the people you’re writing for is exciting."

And the students will develop a connection to the author and continue to seek out their work.

"You create those partnerships, you've created a fan for life," says Crouch.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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