Last year when I saw that Sharon Draper was going to be at the 2013 IRC Conference I was giddy with excitement. I had discovered Draper's YA novels only within the last few years as I was exploring books to suggest for my reluctant readers. My first discovery was Romiette and Julio. I can't remember why I even picked up that book, but I'm guessing it was recommended by somebody who knows reluctant girl readers well. It is currently my go-to book for our eighth grade girls who are kind of tough and looking for escape into the world of romance. I, personally, am not shamed to admit I am a romance novel junkie, so as soon as I started the book, I knew I was going to love it. I did, too. From beginning to end.
Three years ago I had an eighth grade girl recommend Just another Hero while doing a book talk on it. I picked it up from the library, and I immediately loved the book, but something bothered me about the book. It wasn't until after I read the entire book that I discovered that I had read the third book in a trilogy before reading the first two! Oops! So off I went to read the Jericho series, and again I loved them.
Going to see Sharon Draper at IRC wasn't on my agenda, originally, because I often feel selfish for going to see authors speak when I could be gathering strategies and programs to bring back to my staff. I made the decision to see Draper at the last minute because I had gotten to meet her the day before -- also completely on a whim, and I wasn't impressed with the other offerings during her time. So off I went . . . What a fantastic decision that was! What an amazing and insightful educator!
Draper started off her session with the story that got her started. She was a high school English teacher at the time, and she talked about how her students would write the "Draper Paper" and so on. One of her toughest kiddos that year challenged her after another writing assignment. "Yo, Mrs. Draper. Why don't YOU write something?" So she did. He challenged her to enter a story writing contest. Months after she had written the story and submitted it, she received a phone call telling her that out of 25,000 entries, she had won first place - $5000. This short story became the first chapter of Tears of a Tiger.
After Draper wrote the first book, she said she marketed herself like crazy. Conferences, conventions, you name it, she was there with a stack of books, flyers - anything to get her name out there. Draper believed that without the hustle she may not have gotten her name out there. This is a solid lesson on perseverance and self-esteem. For one to market herself in this way, she had to have a firm belief that people would love what she had written. And they did. After Tears of a Tiger, Draper went on to write Forged by Fire, and Darkness Before Dawn completed the trilogy.
The Jericho series drew its inspiration from an experience Draper had with an initiation, so-to-speak, in a high school in which she worked. At this high school, the students had a day called "9th grade chase-home day" on which all of the seniors would chase the freshmen home. Draper recalls the horror of the idea, and the fact that the day was overlooked by the administration year after year as if it was a school-sponsored event. She recalls walking out of that environment and not looking back, but being inspired to begin Battle of Jericho - a story about a hazing incident in a high school that got so out of control that . . . Oh, never mind. Guess you'll have to read the story to find out just how bad it got. November Blues came as a sequel to Battle of Jericho, and then finally Just Another Hero, a story about school violence. Draper commented on today's world and how she felt like she was able to capture today's teenager in her novels, and I tend to agree with her. The situations are real, the precursers are real, and the aftermaths are real.
During her session, Draper also brough attention to her Ziggy and Sassy books, which were written for elementary students. This news excited me because I didn't realize that she had written books for kids this young. I also am always looking for books for my own children with characters in them that expose my children to races other than white. Although my children are biracial, the racial makeup of the school that they attend is largely caucasian, and my husband and I do our very best to expose our children to people of all races through family, playdates, books, movies, games, and television. My daughter is at the perfect age for a Sassy book, so we will be going to the library over spring break to take a look for them.
Being a teacher herself, Draper sympathizes with the need for thoughtful questioning. To support teachers and parents, she has written thought-provoking questions and writing prompts which can be found at the back of these younger readers and on her website. Upon reviewing the questions after Common Core standards were released, she was pleased to find that many of them were already in alignment with what CCSS is requiring of students. Those questions that are not aligned will be rewritten in the near future to support the standards of Common Core.
It was at this point in her session that Draper stopped to answer questions. She saved her talk on her most recent book Panic for the end. One teacher asked a great question, "How can I find balance between supporting and getting to know my students on a personal level and hitting all of the standards?" Draper acknowledges that this is a difficult balance, especially in today's age of education, but she also emphasizes that what makes us good teachers is the personal connections we are able to make with our students. She also concedes - the standards must be hit. Her compromise is to get personal in informal settings (lunchtime or after school) and hit the standards hard while in the classroom. She also highly recommends attending as many of your students' sporting events, concerts, etc. as possible. Kids notice when teachers show up, and they feel special when we do so.
The next question that was asked was, "How do you encourage reluctant writers?" Draper jokes about the trick in "teaching to the test" and instilling a love for writing. Are we teaching kids to take the test? Absolutely - but what we have to do is find a way to do it AND instill a love for writing. Her suggestion? Alternate required writing and fun stuff, and do a LOT of mini-writing assignments. Another idea she gave was the idea of writing descriptions of items. I was immediately taken back to Jeff Anderson's session where he "invites" his students to notice the quotation and comment on the use of grammar and punctuation. Draper's ideas continued to align with Anderson's in her next idea, which was a compare-contrast description between two things. Even though Draper is discussing physical items, the alignment with Anderson's idea of comparing the original quotation with the teacher-written one was pretty neat! I had bells and whistles going off in my head for at least a half hour after this! Drapers's final though on instilling a love of writing? NEVER GRADE POETRY. Poetry is like an extension of a writer's emotions. She believes that putting a grade to it would be like grading their emotions.
Sharon Draper took one final question before she wrapped up with a quick talk on Panic. "What did your teachers do for you to encourage writing?" Her response was, "You want me to think back THAT far?" Her audience laughed but hung on her every word. One of the things of what she felt most sure is that every student has a different need, and that means that not one teacher will have what every student needs. She picked up a lot from her fourth grade teacher because she felt like her fourth grade teacher focused on writing the most. Her friend, however, hated the fourth grade teacher and loved the fifth grade teacher because what that teacher offered was what her friend needed. Our job as educators is to offer as much as we can, and our students will absorb what is needed when it is needed.
To wrap up the session. Sharon Draper spoke of her most recently released YA novel Panic. It is book one of a trilogy, and it is definitely a book for grade eight and above. Through her description of the novel, I was able to pick up that the story is about the abduction of Diamond, a fourteen year old dancer. There are several other teen characters and an adult Miss Ginger, who is the dance teacher. I'm fascinated by this book and plan to read it very soon. What is so unique about it is that Draper, even with years of education and writing behind her, has managed to stay in the digital forefront by being adventurous. She has included, at the end of her book, a playlist of songs referenced in the novel. Her thought was to encourage her readers to create a playlist and listen to the songs as they are referenced in the book for a more multimodal experience. Her next step is to include QR codes in certain areas of the books where dances are referenced. Her daughter's dance studio has recently completed recording video of the dances and will have them uploaded so that when the QR code is accessed, the reader can also view the dance in the studio from the book. AWESOME! And genius, really. The fact that she is changing with the times and moving into the digital age with the kids is really something to be commended. Bravo!
She finalized the session with a three minute video "trailer" for the book and encouraged anybody interested in getting books signed to meet her upstairs. I had met her the day before, so I was in no hurry to move up there, but I was very grateful that I had made the decision to go see Sharon Draper rather than try my luck with another session. What did I take away from this? A few things, really. I see through this that everything happens for a reason, and inspiration can come from anybody and anything - you just have to look for it and remember it. Draper validated much of my educational philosophy, even though I've been questioning it a lot this year. She also made me feel better about not being able to connect with every student - sometimes it just doesn't happen. But when it does, so much good can happen in the student, which is what has happened to her over and over again. On this aspect, I can easily connect with her. I guess Sharon Draper and I have a lot in common.