Words Bring Us Together – A Recap of A Literacy Night Event Aimed at Healing

Save the Date I love quotes.  One of my favorites has been: “The more you do the more you can do.”  Lucille Ball said that.  At least, that’s what her longtime assistant told me she said a hundred years ago when I was just starting out in Hollywood.  Lucille Ball had always been one of my idols.  A beautiful woman who never let beauty be her calling card.  A woman who loved and lost, but who kept going and wasn’t ashamed of her success.  A fearless comedian.  An innovator.  A trail blazer.  Hollywood is a tough town; but compared to teaching during Covid19?  Even Lucy might have revised her famous quote.

Throughout both my first career as a screenwriter and second career as a teacher, the more you can do mantra empowered me to try new things and say yes to committees when I should have said no.  The “more you can do” is how I found myself writing progress reports, attending union negotiations, finishing a recertification course, dispersing hundreds of American Heart Association chatskis, and making a team basket for my son’s baseball fundraiser all the same week I hosted our Elementary School Literacy Night. For the first time ever, I am counting down the days until summer break because I need a long nap.  I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say, we all do.

Our district has had a rough go of it since the Covid19 pandemic shut down our schools in March of 2019.  Our community, thankfully, has not suffered any deaths or serious illness among our staff or students, but the fights over when and how we should reopen left many teachers discouraged and many parents pissed off.  The theme of our Literacy Night, “Words Bring Us Together,” was chosen to hopefully mend some fences.

Our school hadn’t had a literacy event for the families in over ten years.  I had no comparable event to “guestimate” the potential attendance.  I had many ideas for gift bags and activities, but how do you plan an event not knowing how many would  arrive?  I turned to the PTA and asked how many families had attended an art class they had recently organized.  Turns out from a school of just under a 1000 students, only about 75 families attended. 

I decided to advertise a book bag and prizes for rsvping for the event.  I would raffle off other prizes for people who came to the event in person.  I advertised that the first 100 families to RSVP would get a book bag and literacy activity.  In reality, I planned to get 150 bags so that even if over 100 attended I would have enough for everyone.  If the turn out wasn’t so great, any left over supplies would be turned into raffle prizes.  

I reached out to a friend from college, poet, Susan Schaefer Bernardo, who had become quite successful as a children’s book author and publisher.  I asked if she would do a book reading and a book talk at the event.  She introduced me to her publishing partner and illustrator, Courtenay Fletcher, and we were off to the races.  They would do two readings.  The first was their most famous book, The Rhino that Swallowed a Storm (co-authored by Lemar Burton of Reading Rainbow and Roots fame).  The second was a bilingual book, Sunshine Kisses, Moon Hugs.  Both books deal with social-emotional issues and feature beautiful turns of phrase and illustrations.  Since they waved their normal fee for events, I decided to spend my Panda grant money on purchasing a case of their books to give out as raffle prizes.  Fifty attendees would win a copy of their bilingual book Sunshine Kisses, Moon Hugs, which helps kids through grief and loss.Special Guests

Well, now I had the main entertainment locked down and I had spent all my money.  I still needed book bags and an activity to put writing front and center, not just reading.  This is where I shopped, borrowed, and morphed a good friend, and fellow San Marcos Writing Project fellow’s lesson on blackout poetry.  I repurposed some old books that were headed for the dustbin from my classroom library, raided my supply closet for colorful card stock, and ordered 150 sharpies. 

I returned to the PTA and asked if they would like to co-host the event with me.  I also asked if they had any book bags from the book fair event they do each year with Scholastic. Having spent all my money on Books and supplies, all additional costs would be coming out of my pocket.  Thank goodness for the PTA.  They came through in a big way, not only gifting the event 150 book bags (enough for the rsvp and the raffle prizes).  They also picked up the theme of the event and created social emotional wheels for each participant.  I enlisted my family to cut bookmarks and stuff supplies.  I also hunted down freebies from our sponsor Panda Express.  Each RSVP bag and raffle prize bag had a BOGO Free code and four free kids meal coupons.  I printed the codes on Avery labels and stuck them on envelopes, placing the free kids meals inside.  For the price of one meal a family of 6 could eat for practically free!  Considering the need in our district for food support, I felt great about that.Interactive Reading

Before I could start publicizing the event, I had to make the choice whether to gamble and make it in person or keep it on Zoom.  The District encouraged me to do it in person to temper the unrest among our vocal minority of parents who were picketing the school only being open in a Hybrid model since October.  (We were the first and the only in our area to have kids on campus, but somehow the teachers were vilified for following the health mandates of our state and county.) In order to put the “save the date” out in March for a May 6 event, I had to make a choice of venue and stick to it.  Things were getting better quickly.  We would be returning to full time in person learning as soon as the health guidelines would reduce the recommended spacing requirements, but in March the vaccines were just being made available to certain segments of the population and we weren’t there yet.  The author and illustrator were more comfortable doing the event on Zoom.   I decided to stay virtual and do the event on Zoom.  I was sure the picketers who greeted me when I pulled in to teach in person every morning would not be pleased, but another quote that has guided me through my life is:  “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time,” John Lydgate.

The next issue was if we had over 50 families attend, my Zoom account couldn’t handle it.  I met with the DO and asked if I could use their account.  Their account, it turned out, couldn’t hold a Zoom meeting for over 50 either, only a webinar.  I wanted the event to be inclusive, where the audience could interact with the guests.  I volunteered to pay for a one month upgrade for our district.  (Side note: I still owe them $50.  Waiting for payday to pay them…  #teachersneedtobepaidmore).

Also, I realized that the author and illustrator were not native Spanish speakers and would not be able to answer any questions in Spanish.  I reached out to the head of our ELD department who volunteered her mother to be a special guest and read the Spanish version of the text and field any questions in Spanish.  This is how we had the privilege of having the President of the California Association of Bilingual Education, Olivia Yahya, at our event. 

The front office at my school site helped me send out multiple notices about the event on Peachjar.  I drafted emails to push out through the teachers with links for the parents to RSVP.  We had 121 families RSVP.

On the Monday before the event, all participants (both on screen and behind the screen volunteers) gathered via Zoom for a quick run through.  I showed the volunteer teachers and our librarian when they  would jot down questions asked in the text to feed to the authors later.  We practiced how the author and Mrs. Yahya’s reading would shift between Spanish and English.  Other volunteers were on hand to keep track of the names pulled from the big dramatic wheel for raffle prizes.  We had a great run through and we were ready to go.RSVP Book Bag & Activities

The night of the event we had around 120 families attend.  Some dropped off before the end, others joined late, but for most of the event we had 108 participants.  At the very end, 68 families were still on well after the posted end time still asking questions of the author and illustrator.  

A colorful slide and blaring pop songs (loaded with figurative language) recruited attendees to post in the chat their favorite books and register for the prize raffle drawing through a Google Form.  The event kicked off on schedule with a greeting from our principal, Mrs. Fortney, who introduced our author and illustrator.  Susan and Courtney read the first book.  We had interactive movements during the reading and it was phenomenal to see so many families sharing this great book with their kids.  We gave away fifty raffle prizes over the course of the evening, including a special grand prize which included copies of all the books published by Susan and Courtenay.  After the first book, it was time for our activity.  I jumped on and provided a mini-lesson about making blackout poetry.  A volunteer demonstrated making the bookmarks under her doc cam, while I narrated.  Then it was everyone’s turn to try it online. I dropped a link in the chat where all participants could create a blackout poem on line.  Their supplies to make the bookmarks would be in their rsvp and raffle bags. I reminded the participants they could pick up their prizes the next day at school.

Next, it was time for another story by our authors.  This time they were joined by Olivia Yahya for their story told in Spanish and English.  During the story, the kids learned how to do a special stretch which turns into a hug whenever they are missing someone who isn’t with them anymore.  Having lost my Dad early in the year, after all the loss we all suffered this year, it was a great moment to live and share.

We wrapped up with a question and answer session.  The kids were so excited to ask the author and illustrator questions about their work and process.  We concluded with our principal thanking everyone for coming out.  I received so many emails from parents I had never met, thanking me for the event.  One parent said, “It was just what we needed.”  That was the happiest quote of all.  Words really did bring us together. 

Addendum: This event would not have been possible if I hadn’t had the support of my administration, the staff, fellow teachers, the students and parents who attended, the PTA, our District Office, our ELD department, and our special guests.  Words really do bring us together.  And as I head off to my next assignment, high school English, I will leave you with an original quote from yours truly, “Reading can take you anywhere, but writing puts you in the driver’s seat.”