The African American Read-In Celebration at the University of Northern Iowa Marks Its 15th Anniversary

This post was written by NCTE members Tiffany A. Flowers and Gloria Kirkland-Holmes.

Each year, the African American Read-In is held during February, Black History month. During this program, there are many African American books read and shared with children. However, as seasoned organizers, we contend that it is just as important to promote the authors who research, write, and craft these brilliant books. It often takes years to put historical fiction picture books together. Ensuring the illustrations are authentic and well matched to a text is of great importance as well. After many years of coordinating African American Read-in programs, we have concluded that when you read a book, you are not just sharing the story; you are relating culture, experience, history, and comprehension of the author’s lived experiences.
The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) African American Read-In promotes African American authors and illustrators every year at their event.  The aim of the African American Read-In program is to do culturally specific programming for first graders in the Waterloo Community schools. This can include workshops on hair braiding, Black inventor STEM workshops, drawing workshops, math workshops, and of course workshops that host authors.
UNI aims to bring authors with unique perspectives who can inspire children to greater heights. One example is Jan Spivey Gilchrist, a researcher and cultural historian of African American children’s literature. Jan can create stories that children love. Her talent comes from years of practice, writing, rewriting, and researching how to relate African American experiences to all children. Another example is Crystal Swain-Bates,  a best-selling author who engages students through everyday stories about their worlds. Ty Allan Jackson is known for his work with Black boys. He has an uncanny ability to empower Black boys to love reading through representation. Children delight in his beautiful books focusing on self-awareness and adventure. Teacher-scholar and author Ryan Joiner  brings his books to life by promoting all the reasons that children should learn to read. Ryan believes that reading can take you anywhere.
Promoting brilliant Black authors during the African American Read-In is just as important as reading the books. This is why the African American Read-In is a success every year, and this year’s Read-In, celebrated and hosted during the 10th annual African American Children and Families Conference, sponsored by the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, was no exception.
In fact, this year we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Read-In at the University of Northern Iowa! Although we initially expected to hold it in person, we switched to an online model with major modifications. It is important to note that COVID-19 did not stop the university faculty, staff, students, librarians, media specialists, public school teachers, and first graders in Waterloo, Iowa, from celebrating and attending the Read-In. February 11, 2021, saw authors, entrepreneurs, and volunteers from across the United States using Zoom to read to over 1,000 first graders from Waterloo Community schools, who listened from their homes or (socially distanced) from classrooms.

Shown reading at the AARI event (l. to r.) are Jim Bray, assistant professor, Theater, and Whitney Hanley, assistant professor, Special Education. (Photos: Chris Wiebe)

The Read-In committee stayed committed to the mission of the conference to ensure that children were able to participate in this event. We want to give special thanks and acknowledge the African American Children’s and Families African American Read-In Committee, the University of Northern Iowa technology team, and the countless volunteers who tirelessly served to connect children to an experience they will cherish long into adulthood.
As we embark on our journey as literacy professionals to deliver and promote literacy instruction to children in digital environments, sharing our strategies is key to closing the digital divide and helping all students. As program planners across the United States begin their plans for the Read-In next February, our hope is that you will make time in your program for authors to focus on writing workshops, discussions surrounding their work, and the formation of book clubs to read African American children’s books.

Chicago native Tiffany A. Flowers is a children’s author, literacy advocate, and assistant professor of education in the department of cultural and behavioral sciences at Georgia State University Perimeter College. Her research interests include African American literacy development, children’s and young adult literature, urban education, family literacy, field placement, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. You can contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @Prof_Flowers.
Gloria Kirkland-Holmes is an Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood/Elementary Education at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the conference coordinator and founder of the Annual Conference on African American Children and Families and the University of Northern Iowa Annual African American Read-In. You can contact her at [email protected]

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Connecting through Writing: A Collaborative Writing Project Inspired by the National Day on Writing

This post was written by NCTE member Carrie Conners and guest author Bethany Holmstrom.

Over the last two years at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY, we have embarked upon campus-wide collaborative writing projects to emphasize our shared connection as writers, no matter our discipline, major, or position at the college. We wanted to celebrate the ways that writing is vital to all of our lives through collective efforts.
In the fall of 2019, LaGuardia Community College celebrated the National Day on Writing for the first time. As part of the celebration, students, faculty and staff at the college were asked to respond to the prompt #WhyIWrite on posters across campus, the Library’s “Question of the Week” board, Twitter, or emails sent to Carrie Conners, the event organizer. Conners took the 365 responses and composed, “Why LaGuardia Writes,” a collaborative list poem divided into 33 sections of 11 responses each, in honor of the 11th annual National Day on Writing.
Sections of the poem were read aloud by students at a Writing Open House—students could choose from stations of writing activities, including six-word short stories and surrealist language games—on the day of the celebration and shared with the rest of the college community afterwards.
The responses range from pragmatic (“If I write, I remember more”) to romantic (“To say, ‘I love you,’ to my girlfriend”) to therapeutic (“To heal our scars”) to funny (“For a cramped hand”) to profound (“To remind myself that I have a purpose”). On the posters, people began commenting on other’s comments; those comments and the collaborative poem as a whole demonstrate how writing connects people and has the power to build community.
In October of 2020, LaGuardia had its second annual National Day on Writing celebration. Bethany Holmstrom organized the celebration, and the theme of the collaborative poem was “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to reflect distance learning and the power of writing to sustain relationships while physically separated. After gathering responses from over 100 students, faculty, and staff using GoogleForms, Holmstrom stitched together lines and phrases to create five stanzas, loosely clustered around themes.
Even in the midst of a public health crisis, the contributors found solace in writing, saying that it kept them “Sane, whole, and connected to humanity: / grounded, reminding me to breathe / at times when I am not able to.” The actual celebration occurred—like so much else during the pandemic—virtually. At the Zoom celebration readers shared the first five stanzas of the collaborative poem. Celebration attendees were then asked to contribute more thoughts on how writing kept them connected, in the group chat or verbally. A sixth celebration-stanza was created from these contributions, with a final reminder to our community that:

words are my eternal power
though there are many languages
feelings and ideas connect everyone—
a reminder that history is vast
and my griefs and joys join me
to a universe that continues to unfold.

Holmstrom also created a website which features both the 2019 and 2020 poems, as well as readings from LaGuardia’s Creative Writing faculty and alums, video writing workshops led by Creative Writing faculty, and writing prompts to provide students and faculty a toolbox of inspiring writing resources whenever they want to access them. This page features both collaborative poems. 
Although these collaborative poems were college-wide projects, faculty at the college have also used them on a smaller scale in their classrooms. As a beginning-of-the-semester ice-breaker, one faculty member shared “Why LaGuardia Writes” with students and had them write and share their own reasons for writing. Another shared “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to energize a composition class at the midterm and to encourage them to think about the importance of writing beyond the classroom.
After the college moved to remote learning in March of 2020, Conners used the collaborative writing technique with her Introduction to Creative Writing class to help sustain a sense of class community by creating a poem together. The course emphasizes observational writing, but since the city was the epicenter of the pandemic at the time, most New Yorkers were staying home as much as possible. So the students were asked to write a line about something that they observed from their window to compose the collaborative list poem, “Out the Window I’ve Seen.”
Here are its closing lines:

People trying to live normal lives in abnormal times
A spring that never sprung; the leaden sky wrapped around the Sun like an N95 mask
An empty street filled with the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels scurrying about
A mural with the words Love and Hope graffitied onto it
My Earth, looking back at me.

To read the poem in its entirety, see The LaGuardia Community College Library “COVID-19 Story Project” in its Institutional Archives.
Collaborative writing can build community, across campus, in a traditional classroom setting, or when physically distanced and learning asynchronously. The practice emphasizes that writing is not a solitary, isolated endeavor, and that one of its highest purposes is to help people connect with one another.

Carrie Conners is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY where she teaches composition, creative writing, and literature. Her research focuses on contemporary American poetry, and she is also a poet. Her poetry collection, Luscious Struggle (BrickHouse Books, 2019), was selected as a 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist.  
Bethany Holmstrom is an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Read more about her scholarship, writing, and teaching at bethanyholmstrom.com 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Get Ready for #AARI21 with #NCTEchat!

Join us on Sunday, January 17, at 8:00 p.m. ET for an #NCTEchat about preparing for the 2021 National African American Read-In. Your host will be Michelle Rankins (@MichelleRankins). Michelle is an NCTE Ambassador and the organizer of Cuyahoga Community College’s seventh annual AARI event, My Sister’s Keeper: Celebrating Black Women and Womxn Poets.
We will share the following questions during the Twitter chat:
Warm-up: During #BlackHistoryMonth, we celebrate the African American Read-In, which aims to bring Black authors into the canons of our communities. Share your favorite quote from an African American author. #NCTEchat #AARI21 [8:04 p.m.]
Q1: How can you help students engage with writings by Black authors in ways that honor the Black community? #AARI21 #NCTEchat [8:10 p.m.]
Q2: What types of interactive reading or writing activities do you have planned for your students during #BlackHistoryMonth? #AARI21 #NCTEchat [8:18 p.m.]
Q3: Have you hosted an African American Read-In event before? If so, what tips can you offer? If not, what questions do you have about hosting a Read-In event? #AARI21 #NCTEchat [8:26 p.m.]
Q4: How are you planning to move your #AARI21 celebration online and to be virtual? Let’s crowdsource ideas for our colleagues who need help! #NCTEchat [8:34 p.m.]
Q5: Representation matters. How do you select texts written by Black authors to ensure that many voices are represented in your classroom? #AARI21 #NCTEchat [8:42 p.m.]
Q6: To understand the current political climate in the US, what Black authors are you reading? Please share titles and links. #AARI21 #NCTEchat [8:50 p.m.]
We hope to see you there! Be sure to join us by using #NCTEchat.
Never participated in a Twitter chat before? Check out this guide to help you get started.

An Invitation to Participate in Our 2021 NCTE Annual Convention

The 2021 NCTE Annual Convention will take place November 18–21, 2021. In this post, NCTE President-Elect and 2021 Program Chair Valerie Kinloch shares more about the Convention theme and proposal review process. Our Theme and Why It Matters What a joyous time I had at our most recent NCTE Convention, where I witnessed how our … Read more