Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Author in Residence

Last night I attended a special program at my daughters' school.  For the past 6 weeks, 3rd graders at the Marshall School  have been working with their teachers and also with the children's author Peter Catalanotto to publish their own  stories.  During a publishing party held last night, students presented their stories to parents, family members and fellow classmates.

Before the girls (twin daughters) and other students read their stories, Mr. Catalanotto shared with parents his experience working with the third grade and also talked about his journey as an artist.  Mr. Catalanotto graduated from Pratt Institute and worked as a painter and cartoonist.  At one time he was hired to illustrate for a children's book.  An editor from the publishing company was struck by Mr. Catalanotto's images for the story and expressed that the illustrations and not the text, moved the tale forward.  The editor encouraged Mr. Catalanotto to write his own children's book.  From this initial exchange, Mr. Catalanotto has gone on to write dozens of children's books.

Mr. Catalanotto shared this story because in elementary school he was diagnosed with dysgraphia.  However, in the third grade, Mr. Catalanotto had a special teacher.  His third grade teacher (I forget her name) realized his struggles with writing and instead encouraged Mr. Catalanotto to express understandings through his artwork.  His passion for drawing and talent was evident.  As other students worked to construct a narrative, Mr. Catalanotto created a visual representation.  Eventually, his third grade teacher  asked him to include text beneath his drawings.  Subtly, a bridge was formed between his love of drawing and struggles to express thoughts through writing. 

I believe Mr. Catalanotto shared the story to further highlight the work accomplished these young publishers.  For 6 weeks creativity was valued as well as the unique interests of each third grader.  Students were empowered by the opportunity to create a story that was personal.  Just as important, the Author in Residence program connected students to expertise.  This is not offered to criticize teachers.  My daughters love their teachers and are excited to attend school everyday.  Instead, third graders were allowed to interact with a professional who has deep and intimate knowledge of what it means to be an artist.  As a result of this interaction and by privileging time for students to craft what turned out to be unique and personal tales, true inspiration occurred.

My opinion stems from the author's and principal's presentation, talking to my kids through the process and ultimately listening to them read their stories.  The pride exhibited by the twins and their classmates in sharing their stories was impossible to miss.  However, I was also struck by a conversation that happened hours before the publishing party.

On the way home from work I picked up one of my daughters and two other third graders who live on our block from and after school program.  I was picking everyone up early so families could have  eat dinner before attending the publishing party.  In the car the three of them talked about their experience in the Author in Residence program. Outside of asking whether they were excited about reading their stories, they talked about their efforts until we turned onto our street.  At a point during the ride home, one boy shared how he used to hate writing, but now loves it.   As both a parent and educator I'm not sure if there is anything you would rather hear.

Last night was a great event.  I was proud of my daughters' work and grateful they had this experience.  It also served as a reminder of what education can be about if we value creativity and personal passions and support structures that allow for exploration and promote personal connections.