Midwestern Investigative Report: NerdCampMI 2016 – Day One
There are advantages to living in New York City. Good museums. Lots of books and readers. The sweet morning aroma of hot garbage on the street to greet you at the break of day. Consumed in such a heady aroma it can be easy to forget that there are disadvantages to the city as well. Living in the center of the universe is all well and good but one has a tendency to forget that there is a UNIVERSE outside of that center. Pull yourself away from the gravity and you discover all sorts of interesting things.
This brings us to NerdCampMI.
Unfamiliar? Here’s a quick description of the conference from its website:
“Day 1 is much like a traditional education conference. We have scheduled speakers to get you all fired up about teaching reading and writing in the classroom. For more specifics on day 1, please visit the page by clicking the link to your left.
Day 2 of nErDcamp is designed differently than your typical conference. It’s an (un)conference with a focus on literacy in learning.”
What they don’t mention is that this is very much a school-based event. Which is to say, school librarians (a few) and school teachers (the bulk) attend this event en masse. This makes a great deal of sense, of course. Prior to the creation of NerdCampMI and the corresponding Nerdy Book Club, there was a need for a large scale site dedicated to people working within the educational system.
Now like a lot of folks in NYC I’d heard about this phenomena. Phenomenon? Phenomeniacal? At any rate, it was like pulling teeth finding people who’d been. In spite of the fact that the con tends to pull in 1500 attendees, the majority appear to come from the Midwest.
Now I’m a public, rather than a school, librarian. That means that my contact with teachers is entirely reliant on this blog. Yet I’d never met a teacher who had attended, though I had met the occasional author.
It was time to rectify the situation. Oh ye folks around the country who hear about NerdCamp from time to time and think, “You mean Nerdcon? No? Camp? Wait, is that the huge thing in Parma, MI?” I am here to report and tell all.
Once, long ago, oh best beloved, I ran a conference. It was the Kidlitosphere Conference and I led it out of the main branch of New York Public Library. It was, insofar as I can recall, a success. With the exception of one Skype session, all the tech worked. It was free, like NerdCamp. There was a lot of swag, like NerdCamp. But there were significantly less people. If we’re looking at the number of children’s literature bloggers in the country vs. the number of teachers in the country, that’s par for the course, but my point is that my con was pretty small and relatively easy. It was also not an unconference, an element that I feel ups the difficulty factor tenfold. So when I walked in yesterday morning for Day One (Day Two is the unconference part and that’s actually happening right now) I didn’t quite know what to expect. I expected registration. I did not expect the epic-ly long swag line.
Nor did I expect that my favorite children’s bookstore BookBug would be the one selling titles. Hooray, Bookbug! Hooray too to the fact that they were carrying my picture book. I was not expecting that.
We all filed into a large gym where bleachers served as the seats for the massive group in attendance.
Once we were all seated we were ready for a series of small talks from a variety of different speakers. Each one spoke no longer than about 5 minutes apiece. And each one had a very specific topic they wanted to address.
Colby Sharp was the one who officially started off the day, but not with a long history of Nerdy Book Club and its accomplishments, as you might expect. Instead, he started in almost immediately with the story of Heidi, a small girl who lost all her books in a fire. After she thanked the audience members for replacing her library it was time for the first speaker.
Educator Kathy Burnett came up to the music of “My Shot” from Hamilton. Knowing her audience, she began her talk with a shout-out to Gilmore Girls. And let that be a lesson to you, oh future speakers. Mention GG at the top of any speech to librarians or teachers and the response is instantaneous.
Proving that my generation is now the one in charge of the universe, Kathy also made statements like “I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and I DID those chest exercises” (which got a lot of appreciation) followed up with knowledge that by reading V.C. Andrews you learn to avoid powdered donuts. But for the most part she spoke on a personal level about how books were a way to escape from the world when she was a child and her teachers became her surrogate parents. The speech ended with “I Rise” by Maya Angelou. It got a standing ovation.
By the way, I’m soliciting guesses on the background behind the speakers. I’m going to say that the high school was doing a production of The Wizard of Oz.
Teri Lesesne was next and she began by referencing a Richard Peck article about censorship, which was the focus of her talk. She talked at length about “censorship in all its forms” including disinvitations of authors to schools. The Phil Bildner and Kate Messner incident was mentioned (someone clapped during it and without missing a beat Teri said, “You can’t clap. This is timed.”). She then urged everyone to read Kate Milford’s continuing dialogue with the teacher responsible in some way for her disinvitation. There was an interesting moment when Teri said something along the lines of, “Gatekeeping is an insidious form of censorship”, which I am paraphrasing and which made me wish she had a lot more time to unpack that statement. I wouldn’t make “gatekeeping” a dirty word, necessarily, but I’m open to learning more about why some people think it is. In relation to this, Teri talked about books that are simply not purchased for libraries. Of course there are differences between public librarians and school ones. I guess I’d never thought much about school librarian issues of this sort. It reminded me of that recent debate between Roger Sutton and Daniel Jose Older about the librarian’s role and when you do and don’t deny a kid access to a book. Teri ended by quoting Liberian peace activist Leyman Gbowee: “You can never leave footprints if you always walk on tiptoe”, stressing finally that every kid should see that they’re not alone.
Raina Telgemeier followed and hers was a very personal talk. Raina discussed a time when she was young and was “the artist” in class. She was quiet and had a hard time making friends, so her art was a way to stand out. Then she met a boy named Shawn who could also draw. They could both do TMNT and The Simpsons. Naturally she had a huge crush on him. And so if you read her best known book Smile, he’s the boy in it (this is where I wish that Shaun were Shaun Tan, by the way). In the intervening years lots of girls have since written and asked if she married “Shawn”, or (at the very least) if he knows he was immortalized. Raina points out to them that most 36-year-old men do not seek out her art on their own. Fast forward a little. Raina was still friends with Shawn (not his real name) on Facebook. Then, last year, he got Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Raina wanted to help out in some way, but since Shawn and his family are quiet, private people she was limited in what she could do. Then she learned he was in hospice. Near the end, he just wanted people to share memories of him. So she told him at long last about the book, his role in it, and she sent him a copy with a letter of thanks. He loved it, and his nephews were thrilled that a book they already knew had their uncle in it. Shawn passed away in April of this year and Raina attended his memorial a few weeks ago. There she learned that apparently an item on Shawn’s bucket list was to become a character in a comic book. Mission accomplished. It was a nice heartfelt speech.
Now because I don’t know my average famous teachers, the name Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) was unknown to me. No longer. A grade teacher in WI, some speculation was made later as to whether or not she has copious experience with Poetry Slams. Such was the energy of her talk. Pernille dove right in, recounting that it was exactly 4 seconds into the new school year (last fall) before a kid in her class loudly declared how much they hated reading. You know the type. “You say reading and they cannot wait to say loudly how much they hate it . . . because this is how they identify.” These students beg you, “please don’t tell me I just haven’t met the right book yet, because that’s what ALL the teachers say.” This is, to Ms. Ripp’s mind, a pernicious problem, “because when they hate reading . . . then it just doesn’t matter what kind of strategies I am trying to teach them.” Nothing matters. “When they hate reading then that is all they can think about”. Then everything in school is attached to something they hate. “And I get it. Why would you want to do something more of something they despise.” Her advice to combat this? When you get a kid who says they don’t like to read, don’t say “no you don’t”. Try asking, “Why?” “We won’t know until we ask. A question is all we need.” Asking and talking and digging is important. “Hating reading is not their end destination.” One of her more controversial statements was that if a reading program is making even one child hate reading then that program should be ended. Interesting! Another good line regarding generations of people who don’t like to read, “Along with their genetic heritage they will also pass on their hatred of school and books.” A great talk.
Also very good? Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) . Shared a NerdyBookClub post that she wrote last November, The House That Reading Built which you should probably read rather than allow me to summarize. Just the same, part of what I liked about it so much was its acknowledgment of socio-economic status and disparity. “I grew up clinging to the lowest middle class rung”. In the piece Donalyn explains how both she “grew up on her library card”, as did her husband. I appreciated that she acknowledged her white privilege in spite of class burdens and took time to mentions how so many children of poverty, disproportionately of color, grow up without easy access to books. As she then pointed out, diversity in publishing isn’t just about the publishing itself. Publishing more diverse authors and illustrators only takes us so far if children do not have access to these books. Book access is the gamechanger for our children. It means that all books should accurately reflect their experiences and the experiences of children with different stories to tell and give access to “the promise” that literacy provides. The division and hatred scrolling across our screens these days can fill us with impotence and despair. Literacy, therefore, is the way to help all of us write a different story.
Then there was a special guest in town. Three guesses who it was and the first two don’t count.
Yep, peeking above that podium there is special guest Kate DiCamillo. And the crowd, naturally, goes crazy. In an interesting twist Kate told a very fun story about an incident from her youth involving a wishing bone (how William Steig!), a girl next door with purple lipstick, and a pony. It had a lot of good lines too like the fact that the girl next door was named Beverly Pagoda and, “I was forever trying to impress her and I had yet to succeed.” Also, “It was summer. I was 8-years-old. My heart was a small motor humming in my chest.” I liked that she said that the art of writing is what Raymond Chandler called “being at your station”. Of course as she was talking about what you can’t find in a writing manual, one could not help but think that should she ever want to write one, she could potentially write the children’s book version of Bird by Bird.
Then it was time for my session. Did I not mention I was speaking at this event? Oh yes! And look at my cohorts:
Travis whipped that one up. Isn’t it nice?
Mind you, I’m a bit shaky on reading schedules so this is what I saw when I looked us up. Mine is the one that says “Nibling” on it:
Oh no!, thinks I. I’m speaking about 9/11? Then I looked at the top of the page.
Oh! That makes more sense.
By the way, this was in our room on the wall. I adored it.
I recap my talk but I’m absolutely terrible about that sort of thing. Fortunately my panelists were enormously talented bloggers so I’m just going to hope that one or both of them write it up themselves and I’ll be able to link to it here.
For the next session, it was a tricky choice (as you can see from the form). In the end I decided to sit in on “Author Jeopardy”, hosted by the writer Erica Perl.
It was a nice crew of authors too. There was author Melanie Conklin who’d written Counting Thyme. There was The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib author, Adam Shaughnessy. There was the writer behind Gertie’s Leap to Greatness (Kate Beasley) who is from Georgia and is damned adorable. She had cute shoes and mentioned (on an unrelated note) that her family farm has 120 miniature cows. Extra points to Adam then for jumping in to ask, “Is that where those school milks come from?” Nice. Kelly Barnhill was there to discuss The Girl Who Drank the Moon. At one point the conversation turned to Skype visits and Kelly said she would occasionally have the kids talk to her new puppy Sirius Black or her truly disgusting guinea pig Günter. Which, right there. That’s a book. Erica S. Perl herself talked about her upcoming The Capybara Conspiracy, calling it a book, a novel, and a play all in one. Author John David Anderson of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is actually the author I’m reading right now at this exact moment in time. And, if I might say so, his latest book has a KILLER first chapter. He described it as “The Holy Grail meets Stand By Me meets Mr. Hollin’s Opus meets . . . . cheesecake.” And finally there was YA author Aimee Carter who has written her first middle grade book in a series. The book was actually very interesting to me. It’s called Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den and damned if it doesn’t look a lot like those books that came out around the time Harry Potter was hot. We haven’t seen a book like this in a long time. I’ll be watching its progress with interest.
The audience was pretty big and when they asked questions they asked good practical ones, how the authors connect with kids when they Skype into a classroom.
This left the final session of the day and it was a tricky choice. Do you want to see Raina Telgemeier draw from audience suggestions or Kate DiCamillo in conversation with Mr. Schu? For me, I wanted to see the aforementionedTeri and Donalyn in action. Their topic:
Taking CARE of readers: Choice (and community), Access, Response, Engagement
And what happens? I walk in and hear them asking the audience a question: Who was the first Latino to win a Newbery? Due to the fact that like a Pavlovian dog I cannot not listen to a question about children’s literature trivia without needing to be the one to answer it RIGHT NOW, I put my hand up like a fool and declared “Paula Fox” loud and proud. Which won me a bag of goodies by accident. Oops. I just wanted to answer it SOOO MUCH!!
The gist of this final talk was about the nitty gritty aspects of getting kids to identify as readers. Folks talk so much about getting the skill set down but they don’t spend much time discussing how to get kids to the self-identify as reading kids.
First off, the two presenters gave us their “reading audiobiography” over the years, in brief. And somehow or other, Teri managed to find a real Fabio cover called Love’s Secret Sniper for the talk. Extra points for that.
These days, the two women are now what you might call Free-Range Readers, reading whatever interests them. In fact, they aren’t afraid to recommend the occasional adult book. For example, at one point they gave a shout out to The Unpersuadables by Will Stork, which sounded absolutely fascinating. In this book the author examines why it is that otherwise intelligent people are so willing to discount research. Donalyn has seen firsthand that you can tell people how reading is important and yet they won’t believe it even if you have the fact at your disposal. Why is that? Turns out, people will jettison beliefs to be part of a group that is important to them. Ignorance is tribalism in these cases, where the deniers of one thing or another find supportive friends. That is FASCINATING! I always love it when a person applies an adult book to the world in which we live and work. Now I have to find this book.
Going back to the reading autobiography, creating one can be a great thing to do with students. When they hand them in to you (the teacher) and you look at them, can you identify the engaged readers and the ones who aren’t engaged “yet”? And really, do books belong to me or do I belong to books or is it some kind of symbiotic relationship?
So how do we best demonstrate our love of reading to our kids (both to your students and, I’d say to your own kids). Donalyn says that passion is key. But if you don’t like reading, they won’t either.
This led to another book recommendation: Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books by Carlsen and Sherrill. The book examines the common experiences in building readers in the early grades through high school. It’s out of print (pub date 1988)but you can actually just download the entire text. The truth is that when it lists all the factors that make a reader, they sound awfully familiar. Owning books, sharing them with friends, setting time aside for it, teachers reading aloud, discussions, and receiving help from librarians all are there.
Then we got into the nitty gritty of it all. Stand back for . . .
Factors Affecting Reading Identity
They are . . .
- Role models at home and school
- Access to books
- Choice of reading materials
I won’t delve into what all was said about these points, but Teri and Donalyn have posted their SlideShare images of We Need Diverse Books, which is great.
Actually, I will latch on to one of their points, and it’s something I was thinking about a lot at this conference. As Donalyn was careful to point out, diversity is more than just a hashtag. In her talk she gave the history of #WeNeedDiverseBooks (or #WNDB) with Teri also mentioning that it includes body image and socioeconomic status (YES!). And Teri said straight out that it’s not enough to get all the Pura Belpre and CSK titles in your school or classroom library. Donalyn: “The broader our collections are the more likely we are to invite readers into the communities we are trying to build”.
Since I didn’t attend that many discussions, it’s possible that We Need Diverse Books and diversity in general was covered in other sessions too. Still, I was a bit disappointed to find that only one of the first speakers of the day (Donalyn again) mentioned it at the start of the conference.
Now let’s bring it back a bit. Let’s talk about outside perceptions of NerdCampMI. One concern that I’ve heard from others about the conference in the past is how white it is. White in terms of the speakers and the books and authors and the attendees. So let’s unpack that.
First off, it’s true that very few people of color were attending the conference as attendees. There were some, but even from my group shots you can pretty much see that it was somewhat white. I don’t know how NerdCampMI organizes or if they make tweaks each and every year. Nor do I know what goes on behind the scenes. If I were to guess, I’d say that reaching out to teachers of color is definitely slated for the old To Do list. As for the books, there were authors of color like Tracey Baptiste, Minh Le, and others, and there were speakers like Kathy Burnette. Again, efforts have been made in those areas, but there’s some room for improvement. Fortunately, as Donalyn proved, there’s clearly the inclination and the drive to be inclusive.
This is, as I say, just a recap of Day One. For the Day Two unconference you’ll need to look for someone else reporting from the scene.
Many thanks to Colby Sharp and Travis and Minh for letting me present and visit NerdCampMI for the first time. Thanks to the people I met and the sessions I attended.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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