We’re so pleased to share the Arts in the City segment featuring Behind the Book, author Page McBrier, and Ms. Laroche’s class at PS 154 in Harlem:
Thanks to Carol Anne Riddell and the team at CUNY Arts in The City for this thoughtful piece!
We’re so pleased to share the Arts in the City segment featuring Behind the Book, author Page McBrier, and Ms. Laroche’s class at PS 154 in Harlem:
Thanks to Carol Anne Riddell and the team at CUNY Arts in The City for this thoughtful piece!
Behind the Book offers more to students than books, authors and literacy skills. We also provide students with the chance to think critically about issues around them through our Social Justice programs.
“There’s always a way to present a subject that’s controversial or difficult in a way that students can comprehend,“ said Bureen Ruffin, a Program Coordinator for Behind the Book.
“I did a program with high schoolers featuring a novel that dealt with surveillance and identity, featuring a Muslim character. This was in a classroom with immigrants but the teacher and I weren’t sure whether they would be able to understand the complexities of identity.”
However, the students responded deeply to the themes of the novel.
“When they met with the author it was so clear that they weren’t just understanding the story but also resonating with the complicated issues that the character dealt with,” she said. “I think we often underestimate children’s abilities to think critically.”
Given the current political climate, it’s more important than ever that we not let students get discouraged – and empower them instead. Christine Fleming, who’s been a Program Coordinator for Behind the Book for 11 years, sees the influence of the last election on her students.
“In this year’s climate the students seem to be charged to be change agents,” she said.
Chris believes the programs are a success when you see passionate reactions from students. “Either they are outraged, curious about pursuing a cause, or writing to a legislator, writing to city council, being activists, or just practicing good citizenry,” she said.
This year Chris will be working with a 9th-grade class on a non-fiction novel about a pacifist’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. She will be taking them on a field trip to the United Nations. “The kids see this peace keeping body that has an armed force. They have armed soldiers that keep the peace,” she said.
The trip is expected to elicit questions about violence and if there’s a justification for violence. “You make them think: Is violence justified? Is bullying violence? When does your liberty begin and mine stop?” she said, “We touch on all these big questions in almost all our programs.”
Overall the Social Justice programs give students an opportunity they otherwise may not have. We work with many at-risk youth who have the talent to succeed but aren’t always given the necessary tools. Behind the Book’s Executive Director Jo Umans works first-hand in the classroom every year.
“We’re working with a lot of kids who see social injustice every day of their lives. And I think it’s our job to teach them that there’s an alternative to standing by and just letting it happen,” she said.
“And I think it’s our job to empower with them with skills to fight back in an educated way that could actually give results. Not to fight, not to scream at each other, but to empower them to make positive changes.”
Listen below to hear Jo’s description of one of her current programs, about a 13-year-old boy who finds an abandoned baby and thinks he can keep her.
We have 26 social justice programs for this year (either completed or upcoming this spring), which is almost 40% of our programs. We plan to continue to increase this number annually so we can provide students with the skills needed to seek social change.
This guest blog is from Brian Bonilla, a senior at Brooklyn College, who delved deep into these topics with all of our Program Coordinators.
Here at Behind the Book, we’re gladdened to announce the brilliant launch of a new partnership with the VCFA Young Writers Network. This group, formed by alumni of the prestigious Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program, are working with us to bring more authors to our partner schools in NYC.
Members of the VCFA Young Writers Network joined us in DeWitt Clinton High School and the Bronx Academy of Letters this fall – sending both alumni and faculty to work with our students.
We’ve long enjoyed working with Coe Booth (former VCFA faculty member), and we were delighted to meet current VCFA faculty member Daniel Jose Older. Based on his recent novel Shadowshaper, our students are writing and illustrating fantasy fiction set in their real-life neighborhood. Here’s Daniel in class, signing copies of his book to give out:
The students, particularly the soon-to-graduate students at DeWitt Clinton, benefitted from having published and pre-published authors both lead and supplement the class as writing coaches. Our Program Coordinator Chris Fleming, who has been working with high school students for 11 years, could not have been more pleased with the kids’ response. They left the workshop with a true understanding of the way professionals think through the writing process.
Of course, volunteers are there to encourage students as much as lead them. Per Chris, “The students took their own writing more seriously because a professional writer took them seriously.”
We especially love when the learning goes both ways. Lyn Miller-Lachmann, YA and middle grade author, worked with Spanish-speaking students at DeWitt Clinton on their writing, an experience that empowered her to accept a bi-lingual professional offer, saying:
The highlight for me was being able to give students writing instruction and feedback in Spanish. It was a huge confidence booster for me because I would like one day to teach writing or lead a writing workshop in Spanish or Portuguese, in which I’m equally fluent… This afternoon, a professor at the University of Porto asked about my availability in future years to teach a writing workshop. Thanks to my experience with BtB, I could give her a yes.
Thank you, VCFA Young Writers Network! We’re looking forward to continuing this partnership, and to seeing the student anthology that these students produce.
We hope you’ll visit their website for more info on their work, which extends to Boston and Philadelphia too! http://vcfa.edu/youngwriters
It’s the month of love, and Behind the Book is taking in all its forms: from war zones to ocean troughs to New York City streets with Elliot Ackerman, Marah Hardt, and Lara Vapnyar. Invite your sweetheart and join us February 9 at 7PM at venerable KGB Bar in the East Village.
Elliot Ackerman’s just released and highly anticipated second novel, Dark at the Crossing, is a timely story of stunning humanity and tension: a contemporary love story set on the Turkish border with Syria. Both a former White House Fellow and Marine, Elliot is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Green on Blue. He is based out of Istanbul, where he has covered the Syrian Civil War since 2013. His writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories. He served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.
“Dark at the Crossing is every bit as taut and harrowing as the place it depicts, a region where fifteen years of relentless war play out in filthy refugee camps and upscale shopping malls. Elliot Ackerman has written a brilliant, admirably merciless novel of broken lives, broken places, and good intentions gone awry.” – Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk & Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
“Here is a thriller, psychological fiction, political intrigue, and even a love story all wrapped into a stunningly realistic and sometimes horrifying package. Put Ackerman on the A-list.” – Library Journal (starred)
Dr. Marah Hardt is the author of the hilarious yet serious and widely praised Sex in the Sea, an “oceanographic Kinsey Report” that was named an Amazon Best Book of 2016 and an Oprah.com Best Book for National Reading Month. Sex in the Sea humorously dives into the sex lives of sea creatures to explain the sustainability of oceans and the influence of human activity on the survival of aquatic species. Marah is Research Co-Director for the non-profit Future of Fish. A coral reef ecologist by training, she is a former research fellow at Blue Ocean Institute. She has written for Scientific American and The American Prospect, among other publications. She currently embraces life as a mermaid in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado.
“Funny and entertaining . . . but it is also a warning. Misunderstanding the mating habits and needs of sea life poses great risks to our own way of life.” – The Miami Herald
Lara Vapnyar’s latest novel, Still Here, an exploration of life, death, and social media, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2016. Still Here follows the intertwined lives of four immigrants in New York City as they grapple with love and tumult, the challenges of a new home, and the absurdities of the digital age. Called “Jane Austen with a Russian soul” by Louis Menand, Lara is the author of two other novels and two collections of short stories: The Scent of Pine, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, Memoirs of a Muse, and There Are Jews in My House. She is a recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship, and Goldberg Prize for Jewish fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, and The New Republic. Lara emigrated from Russia to New York in 1994 and began publishing short stories in English in 2002. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature at CUNY Graduate Center, and teaches writing at New York University and Columbia University.
“Still Here is flat-out wonderful, the work of a generous imagination that overflows with stories, some humorous, others heartbreaking, all resonant. The novel is timely in its trenchant dissection of technology and post-recession America, yet classic in its evocation of love and death, ambition and identity, families and friendships forged and broken.” – Anthony Marra, author of The Tsar of Love & Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
We’re lucky enough to get to work with kids each and every day – but we know many of you are not. So we asked a few 5th-graders to write about their own experiences, and what they think about reading, writing, and the books and authors we introduced them to. Here’s what they had to say:
I had an amazing time last year with Behind the Book. My favorite part was the drawing. I had to draw a jaguar with extra adaptations, so I put my jaguar in a sky environment. It had wings, a bluish color to camouflage in the sky, and a white stomach to camouflage as a cloud. The most memorable part was when my classmates and I got our books. I couldn’t believe it. I was a published author! The book I got to keep was amazing. It was all about animals and plants in the Amazon Rainforest.
I love to read and write. Most of my free time is spent reading, but the Behind the Book program made me love it even more! It felt great to become a published author. After the program, I wanted to become an author when I grow up.
I hope this year’s Behind the Book is even more fun. I wonder what kind of activities my classmates and I will do this year. I wonder what this year’s theme for Behind the Book will be. I am excited to create another book. I am excited about this year’s Behind the Book program, because Behind the Book is an amazing program.
Last year when I was doing Behind the Book, it was very fun. I was learning about creatures in the Amazon Rainforest. I remember that I chose a Macaw to write a story about. My favorite part was when we were drawing pictures of the animals that we chose. The whole class had to change the environment the animal lives in to a different environment and show how they will survive in the new environment. At the end of creating our book, we got to keep it. The book had everyone’s writing and drawings in it. When we got the book, I told myself that this book holds lots of memories and I made sure I didn’t lose the book, because if I did, I would have done hard work for nothing.
I love to write because you can express your feelings and don’t have to worry about anything. Sometimes when you are writing you make mistakes, but you could always learn from your mistakes, just like reading. At first I really didn’t like reading, because it takes up most of your time and you don’t have time to play, but my view of reading changed after the Behind the Book program, because it made reading fun and taught the class you can try different things when you are reading. When my classmates and I published the book, it made me feel like I was a great author. It also made me feel happy about myself, because I learned new things, which made me feel like a genius at writing and reading.
I’m looking forward to be able to write our own books in the Behind the Book program and publish and sell the books in bookstores to make money for the school. The school needs money to be able to afford books, papers, and other items we need. The school has money, but if we do this, we would be able to have more money to spend on trips that could teach us new things. There are many things that make me excited about Behind the Book. One of them is that when we are finished with a program, it is like we are little authors who will grow up to be good authors writing lots of books for children.
This year when we do Behind the Book, I hope we have a wonderful time doing it and learning new things. The Jumbies looks like a great book to me. The cover makes it look scary and fun to read.
Both Aaron and Haddar are current students who worked with us last year as well. If you’d like to take a look at their student book – which made such an impression on both of them – click here:
When Jackie Haggins, 8th grade ELA teacher for Eagle Academy for Young Men II, needed help, Behind the Book was happy to assist. Ms. Haggins’ school lost their whole library when their building, which holds several schools, was reconfigured.
Luckily we were able to donate books for the new school library – now housed in Ms. Haggins’ classroom – and she has seen a real difference. “Other kids in the building are now coming to my room to read books,” she said. “It’s increased the amount of reading our students are doing across the board and throughout all grades.”
Ms. Haggins, who’s been teaching at Eagle Academy for three years, uses the books and integrates reading in multiple ways. “On Fridays we have independent reading, if they finish work early they can read, and they can check out books to take home.” This isn’t the first time Behind the Book and Ms. Haggins have worked together. Last year we set up a program for her class. “It was a wonderful experience. The kids from beginning to end got to become involved in the creative process,” she said. “It helped them to develop more ownership over their writing. I saw a lot of creativity in them that I haven’t seen before.”
Click here to see the work: http://www.behindthebook.org/programs/gallery-of-student-work/straight-outta-brooklyn/
The book that her students created last year is a big hit with her current students too. “I have copies of the books that were made. My students like to read them and talk about them, knowing that their friends upstairs made these books.”
As for the library, Ms. Haggins sees the importance of having books available for students. She likes to see her students use the library on a regular basis. “It makes me happy. I like seeing that they know the library is there. That they know there’s a resource,” she said. “I like that they know that these things are there for them.”
Often times resources as simple as books for students aren’t available to them. Ms. Haggins put it best in saying that if you think children don’t like to read then “You haven’t found the right books.” Behind the Book knows that students love to read and learn.
We welcome all types of book donations, so we are able to help schools like Eagle Academy. (And thanks to Penguin Random House, Scholastic, Hachette, Rosemary Stimola Literary Agency, and so many of you who have made projects like this possible.)
We may not be able to donate a library to every school but even one book can change a student’s life.
This is the second in our series on partner school Eagle Academy, from Brian Bonilla, a journalism student at Brooklyn College.
This week, we’re all celebrating history, culture and family with our food. Here in NYC, we’re lucky enough to be located in the most diverse city in the world, with every culture’s food at our fingertips and a great sampling of language and culture.
Many of our students come to school learning English as a second language, and they are often the strongest English speakers in their homes. Behind the Book is here to help – in fact, 20% of our students last year were English Language Learners. We work extra hard to supplement ESL classes with staff and volunteers that speak multiple languages themselves.
At PS 154 in Harlem, working with the same ESL class for the second year in a row allows us to see the impact on – and progress of – the students. They’re tying their language learning to their cultural learning, and getting in some samples of new foods as well!
Last year, Mark, a third-grader originally from the Dominican Republic, met Jake Perez. Jake wrote Sweet Coco: Dessert With Dad, and shared his story of immigration – and his flan! – with the class.
Jake taught Mark a few words in sign language, including the sign to show agreement. If you put your thumb to your forehead and point your pinky at the person that you agree with, you’re doing it right. If you do it the wrong way, Mark will patiently correct you. (Some of us may have some, ahem, experience in being corrected several times.)
Mark’s classmate, Shayneze, remembers the art class in which they made a chef hat and apron and decorated the clothing with cultural symbols. One idea that resonated deeply with her was that Jake wants to write more books – but first, he has to read more and more books. At the age of 7, Shayneze had already learned that writing takes a lot of effort and many revisions.
Both children were very proud to show us that they’re reading English at grade level. They showed us their current written work, and the many many books in their classroom. Soon, they’ll be on to chapter books!
Mark and Shayneze are excited to be working with Behind the Book again this year. Their teacher, Ms. Acevedo said they are “constantly speaking about how exciting it was. At the beginning of this school year, they were very happy to hear they would be working with Behind the Book again.” They’ve met Adam Rubin and read Dragons Love Tacos while continuing their study of culture and food to enhance their language learning.
As the program started, what were they most looking forward to? Their field trip to eat tacos. (Can you blame them?) Both kids were introduced to tacos for the first time, and in the process they learned about corn in Mexican culture. The students are going to go on to research family recipes, and bring in samples at the end of the class to celebrate!
Here at Behind the Book, we’re thankful for bright students like these, and for great teachers like Ms. Acevedo. We’re also thankful for our friends – volunteers, supporters, and partners like you.
Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!
These three women will grab you by the brain as they read from their new work. Join Behind the Book on December 8 at 7PM at KGB Bar in the East Village. We hope to see you there!
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s stunning debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, has received widespread critical and popular acclaim and was shortlisted for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and an Amazon Best Book of July 2016. Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Here Comes the Sun sheds light on the island’s disenfranchised, particularly on the hardships suffered by its LGBT community, as it focuses on a family facing the impending destruction of its community in Montego Bay, a place most outsiders see simply as paradise. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, ELLE Magazine, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Kweli Literary Journal, Ebony, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Lambda, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Hurston/Wright, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her writing has been awarded a Richard and Julie Logsdon Fiction Prize and two of her stories have been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in Fiction. She was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and lives with her wife in Brooklyn, New York.
“In Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn has written the ultimate antibeach novel . . . . This lithe, artfully-plotted debut concerns itself with the lives of those for whom tourists can barely be bothered to remove their Ray-Bans, and the issues it tackles—the oppressive dynamics of race, sexuality and class in post-colonial Jamaica—have little to do with the rum-and-reggae island of a Sandals commercial . . . The author has a gift for creating chiaroscuro portraits, capturing both light and dark . . . Here Comes the Sun is deceptively well-constructed, with slow and painful reveals right through the end.” – Jennifer Senior, The New York Times
Marcy Dermansky’s wildly imaginative and mordantly funny new novel, The Red Car, was named one of the most anticipated books of 2016 by The Millions. A razor-sharp exploration of a women’s search for self-realization, The Red Car follows Leah as she undertakes a road trip colored by sex and sorrow and surreal delight to claim an unexpected inheritance from her former boss – a red sports car. Marcy is also the author of the critically acclaimed novels Bad Marie and Twins. Bad Marie was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer’s Pick, a finalist in the Morning News Tournament of Books, and named one of the best novels of the year in Esquire. Her first novel, Twins, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick. Marcy’s short fiction has been widely published and anthologized, appearing in McSweeney’s, Five Chapters, The Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Her essay “Maybe I Loved You” appeared in the best-selling anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. Marcy has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and The Edward Albee Foundation. She is the winner of the Smallmouth Press Andre Dubus Novella Award and Story Magazine Carson McCuller short story prize. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her daughter Nina.
“In vivid, dreamlike prose . . . . Dermansky delivers a captivating novel about the pursuit of joy that combines dreamlike logic with dark humor, wry observation, and gritty feminism.” – Kirkus (Starred Review)
Sonya Chung’s masterful new novel, The Loved Ones, is a multigenerational saga about family, race, and difference. In prose recalling Elena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector, The Loved Ones follows the intertwining lives of Charles Lee, the African-American patriarch of a biracial family, whose connection with a caregiver, Hannah, uncovers her Korean immigrant family’s past flight from tradition and war. Sonya is also the author of Long for This World. She is a staff writer for The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship & Residency, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Key West Literary Seminars residency. Sonya’s stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Crab Orchard Review, Tin House, The Huffington Post, Sonora Review, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, Short: An International Anthology, and BOMB Magazine, among others. She has taught fiction writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, NYU, the College of Mount St. Vincent, and Columbia University. Currently she lives in New York City and teaches at Skidmore College.
“A gorgeous multigenerational saga of love and race, loss and belonging . . . Quietly expansive, the novel moves between the stories of the two families, alternating glimpses of the past with the present . . . Every last one of Chung’s characters is wholly alive and breathtakingly human . . . Elegant and empathetic, a book impossible to put down.” – Kirkus (Starred Review)
Our partner, author and illustrator Patricia Keeler, wrote this post about a Behind the Book program at PS46 in Brooklyn. We’re sharing what was originally published on drawntopicturebooks.blogspot.com. All photos below are also courtesy of Patricia Keeler – thanks Patricia!
It’s a good thing Myra Hernandez started her life journey in the mountains of Peru working with a witch doctor, because it takes a kind of magic to put free books in the hands of hundreds of kids below the poverty line.
Last week Myra and I walked into the classroom and every child was holding Julio Leitao’s and my book DRUMBEAT IN OUR FEET! I’ve done school talks before, but seeing that each child was gifted their own book, made the visit unique.
Myra and I helped the students make a water circle where we stepped into a puddle of river water and called out to our ancestors. We painted a dot on every child’s wrist in memory of a lost relative. The children acted out a tale from the life of Nzinga, a famous African queen.
Next week Myra and I are returning to the classroom for a Draw-A-Thon. We are sketching side by side two different images. The children are guessing from our drawings:
2. How many types of instruments below are made from gourds?
3. Which animal is a REAL African animal? (Hint: A trick question, but can you name this unique animal?)
1. Number 1 is an African elephant
2. Three instruments are made from gourds – shaker, xylophone, and a stringed instrument called a kora or lute
3. Both 1 and 2 are animals found in Africa; animal number 2 is an opaki, a member of the giraffe family
You don’t need to be published to help out in New York Public Schools with BEHIND THE BOOK. Volunteers are needed for research or writing or art coaches. Here is a link for more information on BEHIND THE BOOK. www.behindthebook.org
And if you do a picture book presentation or volunteer, Myra might take you out to lunch!
Eagle Academy for Young Men II is an all-boys school located in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn. They work with children from grades 6-12, empowering inner city young men to reach their potential academically. We at Behind the Book have the pleasure of collaborating on programs with some of the teachers there.
Ms. Matin teaches 7th grade and will be working with us for the first time this year. “I did see my colleague, who also teaches 7th grade English, use Behind the Book with his class last year and the kids were so excited and so engaged,” she said. “They loved having this author come in because it’s an opportunity you don’t get all the time. I really wanted that opportunity for my scholars this year.”
Although Ms. Matin says she has a “very supportive staff and principal,” teaching at Eagle Academy, like any teaching job, can have its challenges. Many times the teachers at the school are almost like a second parent. “A lot of the boys are being raised by single mothers and a lot of the mothers are working two or three jobs,” she said.
This lack of a male role model in many of the student’s lives, coupled with the violence and other issues that come along with growing up in the neighborhood, can be obstacles for the children. Having teachers who are motivated and care about the students helps combat these obstacles. Ms. Matin hopes her students will grow from meeting authors during our program with her class. “I want to show my scholars that authors have a purpose for writing and a lot of times they write because of experiences they faced in their lives,” she said. “A lot of our scholars don’t like writing. I want to show them that they can transfer their personal experiences onto writing and perhaps publish their own work one day.”
Ms. Maxwell, who’s been teaching for eleven years, worked with us for four years at CS 21, an elementary school in the same neighborhood. She has seen, first-hand, the effects of our writing and research workshops. “I have seen some scholars open up more, they become more expressive in their writing or with each other.” Maxwell understands the need for children who learn differently to have access to different ways of learning. She spoke about her experience working with us for a particular class. “I loved it. We had illustrators come in and we did a whole segment on creating pictures or concrete poems,” she said. “When the kids are able to see that there’s an actual person that created these things it brings excitement to them.”
She believes it’s helpful for her students to be able to relate their reality to their academics. Maxwell says it’s important for teachers to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to reach their students. However, it’s difficult to teach a large number of children and give them each the proper one on one time that is often needed to learn. Ms. Maxwell, who is teaching many kids this year, appreciates the extra hands that come along with working with Behind the Book and our volunteers. “I conference with each and every one of them. So if there’s 25 of them and I have 90 minutes, it’s impossible for me to do that,” she said. “So if they (BtB) come in that’s maybe 5 people in the room meeting with certain scholars. It makes the writing process go faster.”
We look forward to working with Eagle Academy II this year and hope create an experience that impacts their scholars for the present and future.
This guest blog was written by Brian Bonilla, a blogger, aspiring writer, and journalism student at Brooklyn College who finds time in his schedule to work for Behind the Book! We’ll be posting a three-part blog series on our partnership with Eagle Academy. Stay tuned for more.