I got my real teacher education in an Alt Ed classroom. The Oklahoma program, before it was watered down by politics, mandated arts education and life skills as part of the core curriculum.
A good grant writer and matching funds helped me bring workshops to my school, including a poet, a cartoonist, and a found-objects sculptor. Volunteers and friends made other experiences possible. Dan, who’d served three tours of duty as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, taught my kids to cook. Mila, who owned a quilt shop, taught them to sew.
How valuable was this hands-on education? One of my students is a professional chef with his own restaurant. Another became a math teacher. What I learned was that all students have gifts if we make the effort to uncover them, and that outside experts are invaluable in helping your students develop their gifts.
When a new superintendent farmed the Alt Ed program out to another district in the county, I moved to the high school English department. Fortunately for me, many of my friends were writers.
My students were fortunate because the board of the local education foundation was made up of readers and book lovers. That year I wrote my first author-visit grant. The board loved my idea, a visit from Anna Myers and an all-school read of her historical fiction novel Tulsa Burning.
The next author was storyteller Tim Tingle. The all-school read was his Walking the Choctaw Road.
The third year, when I asked students whom to invite, they wanted Anna back. We read Assassin. I moved to the elementary school. There we had visits from picture book author Tammi Sauer and nonfiction author Kay Jackson.
When I moved to another district, it was the principal at our school who recognized the importance of school visits. She raised funds for books and authors, including Tammi Sauer, Barbara Lowell, and members of the Doodle and Peck team, including Sandra Lawson and Una Belle Townsend.
After visits from authors and illustrators, we saw the results. Kids read more. They chose favorite authors and would read everything their favorite wrote. They started asking for particular books. They wrote more. Some students started calling themselves writers. The artists showed off their illustrations.
Getting to know writers and realizing they are real people helps students see writing as a real choice. I know, because it is what my sixth-grade teacher, an author named Healion Toaz, showed me.
The importance of outside experts can’t be overestimated, whether they are poets, authors, farmers, or cooks. They give students options they didn’t know they had. As for kidlit experts, Oklahoma has some of the best in the country, and they are available to inspire your students.