By Chuck Steinbower, Librarian, Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility
When I start out a school year, I have a general plan of what I would like to achieve, but during the 2008-2009 school year at William K. Willis High School in the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility, the plan took on a life of its own. Looking back, I wonder how I was able to handle the whirlwind of activity. But despite how busy I was, I had a great time! We had visits and facilitated conference calls and conversations from young adult authors and performers Angela Johnson, Chris Crutcher, Patrick Jones, Nicole Bromley, Jaime Adoff and Erin Lynn. We were able, through the coordination efforts of the Greater Columbus Arts Council Artists in Schools Program, to host artist visits from performers Annette Jefferson portraying Sojourner Truth and Anthony Gibbs portraying a Black Civil War Soldier. It was a fun learning time for both me and the students of Scioto.
Starting off the school year in the summer of 2008, author Angela Johnson, winner of several award-winning novels, graced our presence. Johnson has written titles that have been awarded the prestigious Coretta Scott King Award, which recognizes teen novels particularly written for African-American teens. One of her more noted titles includes “The First Part Last, and Heaven”. Johnson sent copies of her book, “The First Part Last”, to each girl so that each could have her individual copy. Several girls asked the author how they could publish their own books.
Kirk Cameron, Starr Reading Grant Administrator, said, “Ms. Johnson did an excellent job of encouraging the girls to write. Many times our students are discounted because of their age, but she was supportive of their abilities and experiences and challenged them to become active writers.”
Author Chris Crutcher came to Scioto and spoke to the boys’ population. Chris is a writer of novels for teens including such titles as “The Sledding Hill”, “Deadline”, and “Whaletalk”. Crutcher spoke about how he took stories that he encountered as a family therapist and used them in his stories. Several boys said that they were inspired by the author and had several interesting questions. Pre and post-visit collaborative writing activities and the reading aloud of some of Crutcher’s short stories were coordinated between Janine Bourdo, an English teacher in the school, and myself. Of the experience, Bourdo said, “I think it is good to have real authors come to meet the boys because it makes it clear that real people write books. His presentation was impressive in every way.”
Ashley Elder, a Social Studies teacher, commented on Crutcher’s visit saying, “The stories told by Mr. Crutcher gave me a glimpse of the student with whom I work. We often times get desensitized…and need to keep in mind the backgrounds from which many of our students came.”
A final comment by Jason Wyant, English teacher, put it all into perspective, “Thank you for your hard work setting up the presentation by Mr. Crutcher. I found it very interesting and I believe that our young men did as well.”
Boys and girls at Scioto were treated to a visit by the very popular young adult author Patrick Jones in February of 2009. Patrick’s visit was a collaborative effort between the Scioto Juvenile Correctional facility and The Delaware Area Career Center.
The girls and boys were prepared for Jones’ visit by receiving personal paperback copies of his first novel, “Things Change”, to give them background on the author’s work for the presentation. Jones said that he has gone to presentations where no one in the audience has read his books and thought that giving each person a personal copy of the book was a great preparation for his talk.
We had many aspiring authors in the audience and Jones did not mince words in describing the difficulties one must face when getting a book published. He equated it to submitting yourself to a “kicking machine.” He said that you have to be prepared to deal with rejection. In the beginning of his career, he said that he wanted to “write where most kids are” rather than writing only for kids in the affluent suburbs. In the book “Things Change”, Patrick describes a girl who slowly slowly loses her identity to her boyfriend and then submits to being hit by him. He said it was a gradual process for the main girl character in the book and he wants to show things from both the girls’ and boys’ point of view. “This does not excuse behavior, but rather helps us understand it,” Jones said.
For Black History Month, Dr. Annette Jefferson visited Scioto playing the role of Sojourner Truth. Opening with a beautiful spiritual to an assembly full of students, she told her story—how she was separated from her family on the auction block, sold to five different masters, was promised her freedom by “Masta Dumant,” who betrayed her trust, and how she fled her master and was bought by the Van Wysons who then purchased her freedom. She told how she searched for and found her son and then sued to win his freedom. And she told of her work among the abolitionists trying to abolish slavery. Jefferson afterwards led a “book extravaganza” workshop, where the girls were polled about which two books they got to take home.
Later in the year, performer Anthony Gibbs visited Scioto playing the role of a Black Civil War Soldier. In his performance, he emphasized three words to the girls and boys in the audience: tenacity, extraordinary and exemplary. He said Black Civil War soldiers proved themselves to the rest of the nation in those three ways, and in doing so, helped turn the tide of the Civil War in the North’s favor. The “Colored Troops” needed to prove themselves, be responsible for their own actions, and look past the fact that many in the North did not want them in the U.S. Army. He stated that many in the audience may have had relatives that fought with the “Colored Troops” and that each one of the students there should honor their ancestors’ legacy and take responsibility, have great tenacity, and be extraordinary in their work—in school and in life. Mr. Gibbs provided excellent study guides that were invaluable. I then read various picture books to the youth about the Civil War. Several teachers continued with post-visit activities for the youth. It was an amazing morning!
The next author to visit was Jaime Adoff, who led an assembly with both the boys and girls in the school and a writing workshop with pre-selected girls. All were given copies of Adoff’s book, “Jimi & Me”, which was a Coretta Scott King Award winner. The students were entertained by a variety of snippets from Adoff’s works, including “The Song Shoots Out of my Mouth”, a work of poetry based on various forms of music and Adoff’s first novel, “Names Will Never Hurt Me”. Adoff shared that he had been a professional musician working in New York City, singing in a rock n’roll band, and thought that becoming an author was not in the cards for him. His parents, Arnold Adoff and Virginia Hamilton, both made significant impressions upon him and it was not long before he stated to write books.
The comments generated by the students in his workshop and at the assembly showed that his novels resonated with them. The girls stated that Adoff’s latest work, “The Death of Jason Porter”, which talks about kids in troubled situations, was one they could really relate to.
Author Nicole Bromley came to speak to the students, and moved the audience with her story “Our Little Secret.” She told of how her stepfather, who was a very well known and popular figure in her community, sexually abused her for ten years. Her stepfather would alternately threaten and be kind to her, which was very confusing for a little girl to understand, thus she did not know that what her stepfather was doing was wrong. She finally confided in her mother after ten years of abuse.
Nicole met with girls in the library to continue the dialogue; they talked and wrote reflections about their lives. The girls really connected with Nicole and she encouraged them to journal and perhaps even write their own books about their experiences, which she told them can be a form of therapy. Nicole Bromley gave the girls hope to rise above their problems and to thus have effective and good relationships after being sexually abused. Her new book that came out in May 2009, “Breathe: Finding Freedom to Thrive in Relationships after Childhood Sexual Abuse”, was discussed during the workshop and it was in that discussion that Bromley told them that there is hope to heal.
Author Erin Lynn, as part of an outreach effort from the Ohioana Library Book Festival, came to Scioto to talk with the girls about the process of writing and becoming an author. Each girl received a personal copy of one of Erin’s young adult novels, “Demon Envy” and “Speed Demon”. In writing novels for young adults, Erin goes by the name of Erin Lynn. In writing romance novels for adults, she goes by the name of Erin McCarthy. The collaborative arrangement for Lynn’s visit was worked out between Linda Hengst, Executive Director of The Ohioana Library, and me.
Connie Pottle, Youth Services Coordinator at the Delaware, Ohio County District Library co-wrote a grant with me to the American Library Association and the Oprah Winfrey Foundation for The Great Reads Book Discussion Program. As a result, author Paul Volponi, who lives in New York City and works as a writer and journalist, made a conference call to a select group of Scioto girls. Pottle and I facilitated the conversation about Volponi’s book, “Black and White”. The girls asked thought-provoking questions for the author, who for 6 years had taught writing to incarcerated kids on Rikers Island. He indicated that several of them had already formed ideas to write their own stories. Volponi also gave them tips on how to break into the publishing field.
All in all, not a bad year!