One of our most steadfast Twitter friends, Jessica Smith, shares her remarkable Visiting Writers Series, which she launched as a library-incubated part of the curriculum at Indian Springs School in Alabama. We’re always excited to find great school libraries to feature, and this one is exceptional! Enjoy. ~Erinn

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Douglas Ray & Jessica Smith

Curate What You Know: The Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series

by Jessica Smith, Head Librarian at Indian Springs School

Here at Indian Springs School, my colleague Douglas Ray and I founded the Indian Springs School Visiting Writers Series (ISSVWS) to bring writers to the library to share their books with our students. We’ve integrated ISSVWS with the curriculum so that students read the work of Visiting Writers before they meet them. Writers come to the classroom for a discussion and give a reading (free and open to the public) in the library in the evening. Although we started ISSVWS without funding, we’ve invited local writers and writers we know to donate their time to help our kids get a more personal understanding of literature. As ISSVWS has become more popular, the library’s circulation of Visiting Writers’s books has increased. Gaining a more personal collection with the writers seems to make the texts more interesting for the students.

When Douglas and I first came to Indian Springs in 2011, we wanted to start a poetry reading series that would draw out the poetry community in Birmingham. We had both come from active poetry communities (Oxford, MS and Buffalo, NY) but we didn’t know any poets in our new town. We proposed to start ISSVWS with no budget and were granted permission from our very supportive administration.  Both Douglas and I are writers, so most of the writers we invite to ISSVWS are people we know personally who are interested in introducing teenagers to their work.

I recently read a quote by Annie Proulx in The Paris Review: “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” Jessica Smith gets this.  As she highlights books in her VWS, she gives the students access to books, then introduces the authors of the books to the students in an intimate setting, allowing academic banter. The experience is education at its best!

~An Indian Springs School parent.

We decided to try to incorporate ISSVWS with the school curriculum in two ways: Douglas would teach the authors’ work in his classes, and I would order the authors’ books for the library and promote them through displays. When a book can easily be incorporated to the curriculum– like Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, which was part of Douglas’s unit on memoir and personal narrative– students read the whole book. Other times, students will read a few poems before the writer visits to get a feel for the work. When I started teaching classes at Springs in addition to my librarian duties, I started thinking about the texts that I used in class and how I could bring authors in for ISSVWS. My first classroom-ISSVWS integration was Nona Willis Aronowitz, a journalist and cultural critic whose book GirlDrive I used in my Feminist Literature class to illustrate the variety of issues at play in contemporary feminism. After reading the book and discussing its viewpoints over a week before Nona’s visit, the students came up with a list of (fearless) questions to ask Nona, which I gave to her before the Q&A. I think her answers enriched the way the students thought about the book– and about contemporary feminism.

One cannot underestimate the impact of meeting a “real, live” author, which takes that profession off the high shelf and puts it within the reach of aspiring writers. My campus time included visiting co-curator Douglas Ray’s class for a spirited discussion about metaphor, artistic influences, and working as both a poet and nonfiction writer.

The students at Indian Springs are mature, bright, and curious to begin with; Ms. Smith challenges them by selecting a variety of voices from all tempers and genres. She is a gracious host, sensitive to both the needs of the author and the interests of the audience, which includes not only kids but their parents, teachers, and neighbors. Seeing that crowd fill the library was a thrill.

~Visiting Writer Sandra Beasley on ISSVWS

Listen to the students’ Q&A with Nona during her ISSVWS visit on Sound Cloud:

Indian Springs School isn’t just a school for the kids who currently attend it– it’s also a cultural touchstone for its faculty, parents, and alumni. So besides asking writers we knew to visit, we asked alumni to come read from their work. This part of the Series has been our most popular: YA author John Green (ISS ‘95) read to a packed auditorium on his NerdFighter tour in 2012; political cartoonist Howard Cruse (‘62) showed illustrations from his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby and talked about the Civil Rights Movement to a standing-room-only crowd in the library; Laurel Mills (‘96) read from her children’s book Night Night Birmingham to a group of students, parents, faculty, and children while they drank milk and ate cookies.

A YouTube video of John Green at ISSVWS:

We’d like to see ISSVWS expand in a two major ways. First, with an expanded budget, we would be able to invite more writers that we don’t know personally. Right now, almost all of our authors have visited for free because they know and like us. This limits who we can ask to visit and what books we can use as tie-ins in the classroom. With an expanded budget, we would be able to get more input from the students and other faculty and make their requests happen. Second, and related to the first goal, we’d like to get more of a variety of authors whose works would be relevant to classes other than just English/Literature/Creative Writing classes. Since we don’t know those authors personally, we’d probably need to pay them.

However, these ideas for expansion should serve as a lesson for schools and libraries who want to start up a Visiting Writers Series of their own: you don’t need money to attract authors. Instead of thinking, “Who do our students like and how can we get them to come read here?” think, “Who do we know who writes, who would read for free, and how can we integrate their work into our curriculum?”

There are so many writers in the world who are interested in promoting their work, finding new readers, and teaching children. When a local bookstore or library hosts a reading or book release, go meet the author and ask her if she would be interested in reading at your school or library. When you read an article you like in the local newspaper, write to the journalist to see if he would be interested in talking to your students about journalism.  If you work at a school, find out whether any of your alumni are authors who would like to return to old haunts and talk to current students. Curate not based on what you want, but on what you already have and can share.

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All photographs by Melanie Kieve

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