Ask any of Christine Sill and Susan Lavallee’s gifted support students what the highlight of this year has been, and they will shout, “The time I talked to an author!” Little did the students know; this memorable experience would have never occurred without a little luck and a lot of generosity.
“I was looking for teaching resources on Jen Bryant’s website,” said Sill, gifted support teacher for Canon-McMillan’s North Strabane Intermediate, Borland Manor Elementary, South Central Elementary and Wylandville Elementary schools. “Her novel ‘The Trial’ is an amazing piece of work, grounded in a very real, tragic event. I wanted to make sure this reading experience enhanced their appreciation for literature and didn’t create anxiety for my more sensitive students.”
“The Trial” is an original piece of historical fiction; a novel written in verse told from the perspective of a girl witnessing the Lindberg baby trial and the effect on her town. The book was chosen as one of the selections for this year’s intermediate-level Literature Festival, an event organized by the Washington County Gifted Consortium. Each year the WCGC selects various rigorous books for each level of gifted support students to study and celebrate: elementary, intermediate, and middle school. Each grade band holds a competitive Literature Festival at the end of the year.
Sill’s research yielded that Jen Bryant frequently conducted author visits. She took a shot in the dark and emailed the author, who responded that she would be happy to hold a virtual chat with her students. The only caveat was that she was busy due to the upcoming release of her new illustrated nonfiction children’s book, “Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball.”
“The stars must have been in alignment. Her few available times meshed with our remote learning schedule, but most unbelievably of all,” Sill gushed, “she was not charging us a fee. I’m still in awe of this. I’ve reached out to other authors, and they charge up to $500 for 30 minutes of virtual time. I completely understand everyone has value and should be compensated for their skill and time, but unfortunately, in the state of Pennsylvania, gifted support is not funded. That means we have to be extremely creative with the budget we so gratefully receive from the district.”
The depth and breadth of Jen Bryant’s talent gave Lavallee, gifted support teacher for Cecil Intermediate, Muse Elementary, and Hills-Hendersonville Elementary schools, an idea. Even though all of their gifted support students weren’t reading “The Trial,” they could all most certainly benefit from the experience of listening and talking with the author. Lavallee found and shared more of the author’s published works like “Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson,” a picture book about a Pittsburgh-born playwright, for the younger students to read. On a similar note, Sill invited students’ reading teachers to attend the virtual event.
Charlene Rinehart, sixth-grade English teacher at North Strabane Intermediate School, took advantage of the invitation, having a copy of Jen Bryant’s “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus” in her teaching library.
“The author’s visit was an excellent opportunity for students to see that writers are ordinary people just like us! I was so impressed with the questions the students asked, as well as their level of excitement. It was wonderful to see literacy being celebrated through this event.”
During the virtual author talk, Jen Bryant shared insight on the writing process and her passion for research. She fielded questions from, “Do you think Bruno Hauptmann was given a fair trial and really kidnapped the Lindbergh baby?” to “What is your favorite thing to write, fiction or nonfiction?”
Sill confessed, “This opportunity afforded students a chance to connect with the book in a completely different way; it broadened their relationships with reading and writing to a level we couldn’t do alone.” The gifted support teacher went on to praise Jen Bryant’s overall generosity, “She put no limit on the students. She humored all questions and was genuinely delighted by their interest. This experience was, hands down, a gift.”