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A Few Thoughts on Sandy Hook, First Graders, Teachers, and Schools (and a little self promotion)

My blog posts, not to mention my Tweets and Facebook posts, have been a cavalcade of self-promotion these days. Not that I'm apologizing for it -- that's just how it is when you have a new book out. But last week, just as I was getting ready to let everyone know that I was being interviewed on the wonderful kidlit podcast Brain Burps About Books, Something Really Bad happened at an elementary school in Connecticut. Just like that,the latest news about my book seemed monumentally beside the point. 

Because I'm married to a teacher, and because I spend a lot of time in schools, what I kept coming back to was the image of the school psychologist and the principal who heard gunfire and ran towards it, putting the lives of the kids ahead of their own and losing theirs in the process. The teachers who led the children into hiding and comforted them, and helped them live. The teacher who held the door and kept the gunman out. The teacher who shielded the children with her body and was found slumped over them. The teacher who read to them as they hid and the one who told them it would be okay, because she wanted that to be the last thing they heard, if there was going to be a last thing. All of these teachers were simply doing the more extreme and visible version of what they did in small ways every day. Teachers save lives, even when there isn't a crazed gunman in the school. They save lives just by reading to children, just by telling them it will be okay, just by listening to them, just by talking with them, just by helping them figure out who they are and how to learn. They do it every day.

Every time I visit a school to do a presentation I feel amazed and thrilled to be part of that process. For one day I get to be part of the children's lives, get to hear what they have to say, to tell them a little of what I know and see the wonderful things that are happening in schools. I'm exhausted at the end of a full day of presentations and exhilarated too. Then I come back and rave about it to my husband and at some point I realize that my Big Day was his Every Day. 

One of the things I was excited to blog about last week, before the tragedy, was about the brilliance of children -- the absolute fabulousness of their minds and their responses to books. Two things had happened to make me think about that. One was that I was interviewed for the Speak Well, Read Well blog by speech pathologist Jeanette Stickel and some of her students, most of them the same age as the children who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. I love the questions Stickel's students asked, and the things they had to tell me, and even though I've never met her, I love Jeanette Stickel for her evident enjoyment of the children. I always tell debut authors that if you want to be successful doing school visits, you should go into every interaction with children expecting to get more out of the experience than they do. If you are delighted by them, they will return the favor. And her blog post makes it perfectly clear that Ms. Stickel is the kind of teacher who is delighted by her students. Here's a sample of her reporting on her student's questions:

Skylar wanted me to tell you, she planted roses in the grass and they are orange and puffy and they smell nice and she has nose flowers too. She also wanted you to know she made up a story about spinach. First she made Mr. Spinach with Play-dough and put spikey spikes on him like in your story. I told Skylar I like to write stories too and she suggested I get a can of Play-dough. I think I’ll try that! She’d probably love to hear about your writing rituals.

You can read more of what the kids had to say -- and how I answered Skylar's question -- here.

The other thing that made me want to blog about the brilliance of children was a packet I got from The Young School, where I had just done a presentation. I always give schools an evaluation form to fill out at the end so that I can learn how to improve my talks. The Young School handed out the evaluation form to the kids and had them fill it out too, and they sent the responses to me. I loved them, and not just because they were so enthusiastic about my visit. Here are some samples from their responses. 

I asked, "Overall how did you think the presentation went?"

One student wrote, "The presentation was great, it had a lot of humor so you kept all the kids laughing that's what I like. I don't really like people when their speeches are boring."

I asked, "What could be improved?"

One student said: "There is room for improvement in everything. Our teachers sometimes say nothing is perfect. I think it would be nice if you read some of the book at the end."

I asked, "How was the experience from the point of view of teachers and other school professionals? Did you feel that it was useful for the students?"

One student answered, "Our teachers were flabergasted and full of exitement. their point of view was "Shhh! i want to hear this."

Well, I was flabbergasted and full of excitement when I got the evaluations. My favorite thing was that almost all of the students said something like this:

"When it was done, a lot of children wanted to write a book."

So now let us sing the praises of all the good things that happen in schools, where kids like these will be writing books of their own, books with marvelous pictures and wonderful surprises and words like flabbergasted in them. After a horrifying couple of days, that's the part I want to dwell on.

And if you want a free download of Katie Davis's Brain Burps About Books podcast featuring me and Jim Averbeck, click here.