Project LIT Battle: A Day with Tiffany Jackson
Our V.I.P. Party with author Tiffany Jackson was coming to an end. Empty lemonade cups, red paper plates littered with cookie crumbs, and crumpled polka dot napkins lay forgotten on the bright blue, green, yellow and red table cloths. The room had settled into a quiet hum as Tiffany talked and laughed with small groups of kids, signed copies of Allegedly and Monday's Not Coming, and posed for photos.
One of my freshmen boys sauntered over, flipping back his carefully-combed brown hair. "I didn't actually know book parties could be fun," he said.
The day had exceeded my expectations. After some behavior problems in an assembly earlier in the week and a last minute change of students announcers, I held my breath as Tiffany took the stage in our Performing Arts Center. But two sentences in, Tiffany Jackson had the whole audience under her spell. She introduced herself and went on to describe the research she did for Allegedly, all the interviews, and the eighteen drafts the book went through.
The kids listened, intrigued by this seemingly-quiet woman from Brooklyn, New York. By the time she got to the Q & A, when kids were allowed to raise their hands, the auditorium was enchanted, unsure whether they could actually talk to this real, live celebrity in front of them.
But when students saw that Tiffany would listen carefully and respond honestly to each question, hand after hand shot up across the rows, waving to be called on next. They wanted to know about everything: how she became a writer, her television career and the celebrities she met, her dog, her favorite color, her dance moves, her favorite book and movie, and back again to why she crafted Allegedly the way she did.
Our Project LIT leaders then had Tiffany all to themselves for about 45 minutes. They gave her a piece of art work and an annotated copy of Allegedly, filled with photos, their questions and their thoughts about the book.
"I was so mad when I finished the book. I needed to talk but no one else was done yet," Koby told Tiffany.
"Why did Ted make money as a prostitute and not a drug dealer?" Daniela wanted to know.
And on and on. Through all their emotional questions, theories and wonderings, Tiffany gave each student her full attention, considered their questions carefully and then answered honestly. Not "you're just a kid" answers, but real, gritty, truthful answers about writing and being true to the girls whose stories she had woven into the book.
Too soon this conversation ended. It was time for the V.I.P. Party. Students across the school had applied to come and spend thirty minutes meeting and talking with Tiffany. These students walked in with wide eyes and uncertain steps. They saw Tiffany. And they saw cookies, which seemed a safer route. Soon, however, Tiffany was circulating among tables, putting everyone at ease, as she signed books and posed for photos.
We also had a group of middle school girls and their Project LIT site leader attend the V.I.P. Party. These small, nervous girls walked in carrying copies of Monday's Not Coming. Gasps and nervous giggles erupted when they saw Tiffany, but by the end of the party, they were asking questions, sharing stories and hugging like they were old friends.
Our day came to a close with a Project LIT Community Book Club in the media center. Morgan kicked us off with a welcome and tables of Battle faculty and students, college students from Westminster College and the University of Missouri, parents and community members discussed Allegedly, played trivia, and ate pizza. We wrapped up listening to Tiffany talk about Allegedly, answering questions, and signing books.
The sun was sinking as we walked Tiffany to the media center doors and said good-bye. Every part of our day had hooked in readers. In the assembly, even kids who hadn't read Allegedly got three gripping book talks by a dynamic, young, relevant author. They were eager to talk with her afterwards and to hear more.
The students who attended the V.I.P. Party, assembly and book club saw that writers are real people, just like them. Tiffany showed them that writing ideas come from paying attention to the real world around you. Writers get curious, read, interview and research to create stories that are authentic and powerful. Tiffany explained how the idea for Allegedly had began with her own curiosity about a news story, but that she then dug deeper, reading and interviewing professionals to learn more. Finally, she talked with five girls who had experienced the juvenile justice system. These real stories added depth to her characters and helped shine a light on what girls who are incarcerated actually experience, with no one there to help them, or even believe what's happening. Telling their stories became a central focus for Tiffany, and hearing this, our students got it. They too have real stories to tell, and our world will only get better if their generation is brave enough to use their voices and tell their truths.
Some adults might have been astonished to see a group of teenagers so excited to see an author. Even teens themselves claim they don't read. No time. No interest. No way.
I don't buy it.
I believe schools have the power to change these attitudes. By insisting on relevant, interesting, engaging books, teachers can help students find books that speak to them, books they want to read. When our classroom reading and discussion feel meaningful to students, when students realize that the adults around them know and care about what interests them, and when we create a classroom culture that give space for students to read, think, and discuss real-life issues, then we don't have to convince students that reading books still matters in 2018. They'll see it for themselves.
So, thank you Tiffany Jackson, for reminding us to hear the real stories of children. Thank you for connecting with our students, and for writing books that take us on a twisting, jolting ride. (May can't get here soon enough so we can read Let Me Hear a Rhyme.)
But most of all, thank you for helping teens see that real reading and real writing are 100% LIT.
Happy Sunday, Everyone!