Meet the Authors: From the Book to the Classroom

At Behind the Book, the key to our programs is bringing authors and their books into classrooms. The author workshops – those visits in which the author interacts with with the students – are opportunities for students to engage with the book on a deeper level. Authors bring their book to life in part through writing exercises and discussion of their own personal writing process. To give you a front-row-seat, we’ve compiled two videos spotlighting four separate author visits to kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Meet the Authors: Levis and Maldonado

In this video, author of Stuck with the Blooz, Caron Levis, leads a kindergarten class on how to help a friend in need. This is juxtaposed with Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays, leading a class of seventh-graders in a writing project about perception (and self-perception.)

Meet the Authors: Budhos and Ortiz

In this next video, author Raquel M. Ortiz, author of Sofi and the Magical, Musical Mural leads first-graders in a musical exercise with a handheld drum and author of Watched, Marina Budhos, leads a discussion with high school seniors about the book’s theme of identity and growing up in an age of surveillance.

And a special thank you to Brian Bonilla for filming and editing!

Start Your Day Right: Group Volunteering

Volunteers are a vital part of Behind the Book programs. Joining our Program Coordinators in the classroom, volunteers give kids the extra attention they need as they work on complex research and writing projects. This school year, we expanded our relationships with corporations seeking group volunteer opportunities during the workday. They provide us with much-needed assistance, while their team members have the opportunity to get out of the office and work with kids.

Elsevier recently sponsored their first corporate volunteer day with Behind the Book, working with first and second graders at PS 154 in Harlem. Heather Luciano, a Publisher at Elsevier and her office’s corporate social responsibility “Champion,” helped to coordinate this event. She is currently Behind the Book’s Young Executive Board co-chair, and wanted to share her experience volunteering in a classroom with her colleagues. Heather sees the two organizations as “the perfect marriage” and hopes to develop the relationship between Behind the Book and Elsevier through long-term volunteer commitments and funding opportunities.

Heather and the rest of the volunteer team from Elsevier helped Ms. Jay’s first and second grade class work on their writing, as they transferred research notes into full sentences. The program was centered around We Dig Worms! by Kevin McCloskey, a book that provides kids with information on how worms are important to gardens. Each student had chosen a “garden helper” (bee, worm, butterfly) to research, and then wrote informative essays. The class was thrilled to meet the new volunteers and a buzz of excitement filled the room as they wrote their ideas into full sentences.

Unza, one of Heather’s coworkers, is actually a PS 154 alum. From the moment she walked through the doors of the school, she was brought back to her childhood. After working with her student, she reflected on the experience of serving as a writing coach in her alma mater, noting a feeling of pride associated with the students’ enthusiasm. To Unza, the experience was a great opportunity to engage with students that sat where she once did, “I appreciate the values that the children are learning, not just the education but the complete experience of learning at this age.”  She was overwhelmed by how politely and appreciatively the students in the class were—a product of both the learning experience and our amazing Program Coordinator Myra’s ability to engage every student on a personal level.

Although our volunteers mostly focus on the development of the students’ writing ability, they can also learn from the experience of working with children.  As Unza reflected, it is exciting and infectious to see the enthusiasm of the students. Behind the Book’s own investment in the next generation would not be the same without the dedication and time of our volunteers.  We look forward to cultivating relationships with corporations and more group volunteer days to come.  As Heather noted: “the impact of this type of relationship is significant, both for us and for Behind the Book; we are both getting something great out of it if we leverage the relationship optimally.”

This guest blog post was written by Charlie Stephenson. Charlie just completed his Development Internship with Behind the Book.  He also recently graduated from Fordham University with a BA in English with a double minor in French and Sustainable Business.

This class and volunteer group was beautifully photographed by Karen Smul.


The Door To The Neighborhood – Bab El Hara

It was not just another Monday.  This Monday was special.  I volunteered for an organization called Behind The Book to translate from Arabic to English for an eight year old  boy from Syria. Disclaimer, I’m a busy mom and comedian so I rarely volunteer. In fact I always complain that I don’t get paid for housework, childcare, or comedy and I refuse to take on one more thing that does NOT pay. I only volunteered because I am obsessed with getting my kid to speak Arabic. As my friend Mariam says, I am held emotionally hostage to the task of transferring my language, and I’m failing. I wake up every day and tell myself that I will only speak to him in Arabic.  I think about this all the time but all my thinking is in English!

So when I heard about this opportunity to use my native language with a kid my son’s age, I jumped on it.  I took the subway from the Upper West Side to Harlem, about fifty blocks, and entered a different world.  At the entrance of the public elementary school, I met Myra, a beautiful woman of Mexican origin who works for Behind the Book. She took me along with the author Jake Perez to the second grade classroom. She introduced us to our boy, Tarek, a skinny little man with brown hair and eyes the color of good olive oil. As soon as I met him, I understood why Myra launched a social media campaign to find him a translator. Before he uttered a word, I could tell he was curious and hungry to learn. I sat next to him on the floor, and we got to know each other.  I was so happy to hear a kid answer me back in Arabic.  As Jake read, I translated every word.

Jake’s book is about a little girl named Coco who learns how to make a treasured family recipe, flan. In the process, Coco also learns about her Cuban heritage. When I explained to Tarek that the reason Jake decided to write this book is because he wanted to learn more about his culture, he asked the simplest of questions and I didn’t have an answer.  “Well, if he misses his culture, and there is NO war there, why doesn’t he just go back to his home in Cuba?” Then when Jake showed us on the map where Cuba is, Tarek noticed the proximity to the United States and he asked me: “Why doesn’t he establish a home there and go back and forth?” Such a grown up question from a kid.  My own eight year old  would never ask that.

I visited Tarek in his classroom four or five times. After every visit, he remained in my thoughts.  I got to know some of the other kids.  Out of twenty four kids, seven are refugees from Yemen, about a third.  As a mom, I could not help but compare this school which is supposed to be an “underprivileged school” to my son’s school which is a “private public school”.  Other than the fact that all the kids in Tarek’s classroom are brown and all the kids in my son’s school are white, there is no difference.  This school might have lower test scores but in my opinion, it scores higher on love, immigrant hunger, and other things you can’t quantify.  I immediately wanted to put my son with Tarek.  I was envious that my own kid was not that curious and didn’t have the empathy and maturity that Tarek had. I insisted on meeting his mother. I gave him my number. She called the same day. She invited us to lunch.

Zidane and I went to Tarek’s house in Harlem one Sunday afternoon. They had a huge spread. A biryani type dish, a salad, and a specific roux type regional dish S-houq which I had never had before, followed by two types of dessert. I brought them some donuts from Dough and as soon as I saw her spread I felt silly and pretentious.  I immediately remembered my childhood, how my mom’s distant cousins would come to visit from America.  We would go all out and slaughter a lamb and they would bring us something silly like a tiny box of cookies from Trader Joe’s.  The lamb would side eye the cookies on the dining table.

As soon as I met his mom and sister, I noticed their accents were unlike Tarek’s, they sounded like they were from Yemen.  I asked:  it may be that you guys are not from Syria?  The sister moved Tarek in front of her, put her arms on his shoulders and asked him:  “did you tell them we are Syrian?”.  The cutest most mischievous smile gave his lie away.  Apparently, while they were waiting in Yemen to get their entry documents to America, he had spent an entire school year watching a very popular Syrian show Bab El Hara. He perfected the accent.  He was immediately worried that I would stop working with him.  I reassured him by letting him know how amused I was.  I thought to myself:  this kid is really smart, at such an early age, he learned to take advantage of the oppression olympics.  He realized that being Syrian got you way more attention than being Yemeni.  

While we were there, an accident happened. Tarek was so excited that he fell and hurt his eye lid. Blood was gushing. It left a deep wound. I could see the bone. I knew the mother and sister did not speak any English. I quickly looked up an Urgent Care nearby. I naively thought they would take their insurance. That’s where I took my son when he hurt his eye in the same place last summer, so I figured it would be ok. I was wrong. When we got there and they saw their insurance, they promptly sent us to to the ER. It was such a long ordeal. I stayed as long as possible. Luckily, we found a nurse who spoke Arabic and so after that, I left her in charge.

Zidane and I got on the subway home from Harlem. He started complaining that it was the worst playdate ever. I patiently tried to explain to him that everything would have gone smoothly if the Urgent Care had accepted their insurance. Try explaining America’s healthcare system to an eight year old. My husband is an artist and Creative Director in advertising and so we are blessed to have great insurance.  Tarek’s dad works for a grocery store seven days a week. Not only does Tarek barely see his dad, he has to go the Emergency room if he needs a doctor at odd hours. How do you teach kids that with their advantage comes a responsibility? There is no system in America to teach that. Community service here is something you have to do when you get in trouble with the law.

I got an idea to create an afterschool peer to peer homework and play space for new immigrants and first generation kids to integrate and learn from each other. Tarek and Zidane would not just learn languages from each other, they would get different perspectives.

This volunteer experience was not only extremely gratifying but it taught me a lot.  I went back recently for Tarek’s publishing party and met some of the moms.  One mom said to me:  “I want to write my story”.  I encouraged her to take a workshop, gave her my number and promised to take her to a Moth story slam.  Behind The Book inspired not only the kids but the moms as well.  As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi , author of Americanah says “there is danger of the single story”.  Behind The Book is inspiring kids to write their own multiple stories.

We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have Suzie Afridi as a volunteer in our classroom workshops, and are honored to have her guest blog about her experience! 

May Reading at KGB

The different faces of war, loss, love, and art across geographies and generations: join us to hear the masterful works of Elliot Ackerman, Alia Malek, and Ellen Umansky. We’ll be at KGB Bar in the East Village on Thursday, May 11.

Elliot Ackerman’s 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.  The novel follows the crossed paths of an Iraqi-born interpreter for a Special Forces unit who travels to the Turkish border with Syria in hopes of joining the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime and two Syrian refugees who fled their homeland, but with hope their daughter remains alive in Syria.  Both a former White House Fellow and Marine, Elliot is the 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

Alia Malek’s acclaimed narrative nonfiction book, The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria, is a profound personal journey from when the author returns to her family home to Damascus at the Arab Spring’s hopeful start.  Restoring her family’s home as the country comes apart, she learns how to speak the coded language of oppression that exists in a dictatorship, while privately confronting her own fears about Syria’s future and ultimately delivering an unforgettable portrait of the Syria that is being erased.  A journalist and civil rights lawyer, she is the author of A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives and editor of Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 Injustices and EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees.  Her reportage has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, The Nation, McSweeney’s, Guernica, and other publications.  Her reporting from Syria earned her the Marie Colvin Award in November 2013.  She was a Senior Writer at Al Jazeera America, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute, and in residence at the MacDowell Colony.  In November 2016, she was honored with the 12th annual Hiett Prize in the Humanities.

“In THE HOME THAT WAS OUR COUNTRY, Alia Malek masterfully weaves together the personal and the political, and in so doing creates an unforgettable portrait of modern Syria in all its complexities and tragedies. Malek renders multiple generations of family, friends and neighbors vividly but unsentimentally, and what emerges is a portrait of a great people held back by tyranny. As Syria suffers through its darkest days, she reminds us of the humans behind the statistics. Completely engrossing and lucid, the book explains Syria’s devolution better than anything I’ve read.” — Dave Eggers

Ellen Umansky’s deeply humane and engrossing debut novel, The Fortunate Ones, travels from World War II Vienna to contemporary Los Angeles.  Tracing the fate of a missing painting by famed expressionist Chaim Soutine, the novel connects the lives of Rose, a refugee who escaped the Holocaust as a young girl on the Kindertransport to England, and Lizzie, a lawyer whose father just died, and their mutual search for meaning in tragedy.  Ellen has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp.  She has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker, The Forward, and Tablet.  She grew up in Los Angeles, and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.

“Umansky’s richly textured and peopled novel tells an emotionally and historically complicated story with so much skill and confidence it’s hard to believe it’s her first.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Adversity Meets Diversity

How Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar helped students write about conflict and become their own hero.

When I first met the 5th grade students at PS 98, they were eagerly engaged in a conversation with the visiting author, Yangsook Choi. The writer asked the students why their favorite book was their favorite. Their answers were not too different than my own would have been: themes of friendship, family, mystery and humor were among the most popular choices. The author then asked for student volunteers to read their own original stories aloud to the class. The children were very excited to share their works and when they had finished, they accepted feedback from their classmates as well as Choi. Some students were told to add more detail, while others were asked to hold back some. The author encouraged the students to make sure their conflicts were pronounced enough so that it would make the story more exciting and relatable.

Choi herself is no newcomer to storytelling, as she has written and published over 10 children’s books. One of the most influential, The Name Jar, features a girl named Unhei who is leaving her home in Korea to come to America for the first time. She is anxious about starting school. Unhei wants the children to like and accept her so she decides not to tell them her name, thinking that they won’t be able to pronounce it. Throughout the week she tries out more “Americanized” names such as Suzy or Amanda, suggested by the other students. However, by the end of the story Unhei realizes that although different, her name is special and unique to her and her culture. She tells her class her real name and helps them to pronounce it.

Working it Out
Choi also talked about her own process of writing and how it took her many, many times to rewrite and publish The Name Jar. She discussed the importance of story boards and how to use them to organize their stories and future works. Choi emphasized the need to create a conflict with many levels so that it is not easily solved. When the problem reaches a peak, the character must decide to solve the problem and then come up with the solution.

After reading The Name Jar, students created their own short story about a character who goes through their own adversity, as Unhei did. Many children decided to draw on their own life experiences as inspiration for their stories. Others created works dreamed up by their imaginations. While one student’s story was about a surgery that she had undergone, another’s was about a group of friends that get sucked into a video game.

Putting it All Together
Once they completed the first draft of their stories, the students participated in an art workshop. Each student received three blank puzzle pieces to use to illustrate their work. On the first puzzle piece, they drew a portrait of their main character and were therefore forced to think about what their protagonist is like: their looks, attitude, mood and hobbies. For example, one student drew her character sleeping because as she said, it’s their favorite activity to do (can’t argue with that). Another student informed me, “My character isn’t smiling because she’s happy. She’s being sarcastic.” On the second puzzle piece, the students were to draw a symbol of the conflict in their story.

The students picked up on the idea of symbols quite quickly. Soon they were drawing pictures of bad report cards, hospital signs, and pregnant bellies to signify the conflict in their stories. For their final puzzle piece, the children drew the resolution to their works. One girl’s story was about someone being bullied by another student. She ended the story with (and drew a picture of) the student tutoring the bully and the two of them becoming friends. When the students were finished with their puzzle pieces, they were put together with everyone else’s in the class to form one giant mural that was hung up outside their classroom. The buzz amongst the children who were so excited to see their completed mural hung up was contagious.

Importance of Diversity
I was very happy to see that The Name Jar was chosen for the 5th grade class to read because I believe that it is extremely important for students to read diverse books. Even more important for children this young is for them to understand that they can be the heroes of their own stories.

One small moment that really struck me: when the students were coloring in their puzzle pieces, several kids told me that they couldn’t find a marker that matched their skin color exactly. It doesn’t seem like a very important moment but it stuck with me long after I left the classroom for a few reasons. For one, I was very excited to see that the children were featuring themselves as the protagonists of their own stories. However, the moment as a whole seemed symbolic of the world around us. As I looked across the room for different colors and found only a pale whitish pink colored marker, I, maybe dramatically, felt the weight of the under-representation of minorities in the world – in media like books and movies, as well in government and executive positions.

The work that Behind the Book does goes way beyond improving literacy skills in low-income school districts. They allow children to see themselves in the world that they are so frequently erased from. When Behind the Book brings diverse authors and books to schools that discuss different cultures, languages, and ways of life, it allows students to feel that their own identification is valid – just as Unhei does at the end of The Name Jar. In addition, it creates an open discussion for topics that students are not familiar with but grow to learn about and appreciate. When students, especially at a young age, are taught to accept rather than reject people who are different them, the world becomes a much more peaceful place.

This guest blog was written by Kelly Schmaeling, a rising junior at Hunter College majoring in Media Studies. Kelly visited a number of workshops to get a truly substantial understanding of this Behind the Book program. 

Cheer for a Volunteer—It’s National Volunteer Week

National Volunteer Week, established in 1974 by President Richard Nixon, is a time to acknowledge and celebrate people who donate their time, skills, and energy in service to their communities. From April 23rd through 29th, you can share why you volunteer and what it means to you, while encouraging your friends, co-workers, and family to find a cause they want to give their time and talents to.

Behind the Book is giving a spirited shout-out to its own incredible volunteers, as well as everyone else who lends a hand all over the country. Our team of more than 1,000 people—three times the number from just a few years ago—play an active, vital role in our classroom literacy workshops.  We count on each of them to make each program a success.

As research, writing, and art coaches, our volunteers provide Pre-K to 12th grade students with individualized support, encouragement, and guidance that makes a huge difference in the outcome of their projects. In fact, we’re able to design more complex projects because we can count on volunteer support.

The impact they have was described perfectly by one of our Brooklyn third-graders: “I knew I was talented, but now I know how much!” She’s not alone. Students of all ages love working with their adult mentors, often asking them to come back another day, and distributing  generous hugs of happiness. As a result, we’ve yet to see a volunteer leave a classroom without a wide smile.

Working with volunteers is also an opportunity for students to get to know new people. Journalists, attorneys, finance professionals, tech experts, and people who work in fashion, theater, and the visual arts have all participated in our classroom workshops.

That’s not all they do to help make Behind the Book flourish. Volunteers regularly lend us their professional skills and experience by designing student books, photographing and videotaping workshops and events, copyediting, and helping to plan events. Their enthusiasm for our mission shows in the tremendous quality of work they do.

Want to share your love of serving your community? During National Volunteer Week, join the #ivolunteer campaign mounted by Points of Light, an organization that helps millions of volunteers make a difference. Simply download their signboard (or design your own!), and write in why you love being a volunteer.  Take a photo of yourself with your sign to share on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter with the hashtags #ivolunteer, #NVW, and #behindthebook. We’ll be looking for you!

On any week, you can find current dates to be a coach on our volunteer opportunities page. To join our team and receive notice of new dates as they’re posted, please complete our brief questionnaire.

Happy National Volunteer Week!

This guest blog was written by our Volunteer Coordinator Emily Rosenberg, who loves working with all of you amazing volunteers!

Meet the Supporter: Pat Levenson

We thought you’d all like to learn about a supporter who has been with us from the start – not only as a donor, but initially as a teacher at one of our partner schools. Claire Strickland, an English major at NYU, profiles our long-time friend Pat Levenson:

The gift of inspired readers comes from experiencing the difference between simply getting through books, and allowing books to get through to the reader. Behind the Book donor Pat Levenson has seen the power of this gift for herself.

For more than 30 years, Levenson worked in a “high-poverty, funding-strangled” NYC public school where she witnessed the daily hardships wrought by under-resourced reading programs. Struggling with writing and reading comprehension, students would often grow discouraged by books and set them down before getting halfway through.

When Behind the Book launched a partnership with her school, Levenson was overjoyed by the transformation under Behind the Book’s “vision, creativity, and resources. The partnership with authors and illustrators was unexpectedly and wonderfully inspiring to the entire staff and empowering to all the students.”

“Reading is vital to our ability as human beings to understand other places and people,” Levenson said. “It gives us insight into our own nature as we silence all the outside noise and let another’s language become our own.”

Now retired, Levenson continues to nurture her passions for social reform and education as an active member of her local Democratic club and a part-time course instructor at an adult education program. In her free time, she volunteers in her residential development’s tenant organization. She loves to travel whenever possible.

If Levenson were to write a book about herself, she jokes that with her packed agenda, she would title it, “So, Do You Think She’ll Ever Learn the Meaning of the Word ‘No’?” Despite having a full schedule, Levenson enjoys keeping herself busy and finds it rewarding to further causes for which she feels strongly.

Her favorite book is Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” which a “brilliant JHS teacher” guided her through one semester. She discovered how to “reflect on the setting and development as sign-posts of relationships and plot, and not be seduced or misdirected by the words characters are speaking. And it has one of the greatest opening lines ever!”