September 22, 2017

I Wanna Be Like Keats

By Kimberly Taylor-DiLeva

A school library’s writing club turns kids into authors and artists

Last year, I received a $250 mini-grant from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation to fund a writing club for kids in grades three through five. Although this particular grant focuses on Keats, you can duplicate this program by studying the works of any author. In the end, my students at Lynnwood Elementary School in Guilderland, NY, learned much about Keats, improved their writing skills and, most importantly, had a positive learning experience in the library media center.

After distributing flyers to every classroom and promoting the program in the library, 40 students and I met twice a week for one hour after school for a total of four weeks. If a large group of students participate, it’s a good idea to recruit volunteer teachers and parents to help with the program.

On our first day, I read Keats’s biographic information, showed a videotape of his life and work, and displayed his Web site (www.ezra-jack-keats.org). Then students read some of his books to familiarize themselves with his writing style. In addition to the 15 or so books in my library, I purchased additional titles with the grant money and used interlibrary loan to borrow multiple copies. I was able to gather plenty of books at all different reading levels, from the Caldecott Medal – winning The Snowy Day (Viking, 1962) to John Henry: An American Legend(Pantheon, 1965).

For our second meeting, students were divided into groups of four so they could help each other and work more comfortably in smaller groups. Students were asked to record unique things about Keats’s writing on a large piece of chart paper. Some kids wrote that he often used animals in his stories; other students noted that he liked to use city settings, and that his characters were multicultural. A second chart was added to document the things students noticed about Keats’s illustrations, like his wonderful use of color, the absence of white space on his pages, and his use of mixed media, such as collage and paint.

The actual writing took place during our third and fourth meetings. Kids were asked to choose their own subjects but had to include one or two items from their charts into their own stories to ensure that they were writing in Keats’s style. The next two sessions were spent polishing the stories. Acting as their editors, the teachers, parents, and I helped the students fine-tune their grammar, phrasing, and content. One student with a learning disability created a really good story with some assistance; incorporating elements of Keats’s writing style made it a lot easier to complete the assignment. If a student thought a certain change didn’t make the story better, they’d delete it and choose another technique from our chart. This process didn’t end until each student was satisfied with his work and handed in a final copy.

Then it was time to create a dummy book. Each student was given a small 32-page booklet of blank white sheets of paper stapled together to resemble a picture book. Then they were asked to design their own layouts by deciding on the position of each sentence and adding quick sketches or illustrations in Keats’s style to accompany the text. The remaining sessions were spent creating the actual books. Students handwrote or glued printed text onto the pages of blank books, which were also purchased with the grant money. Then the illustrations were painted or glued to the pages, and each student designed and illustrated his own cover.

Our Ezra Jack Keats Writing Club was a huge success. It was such a pleasure to see how motivated these kids were to work on their stories until they created a “real” book that made them proud. Students asked me if we could have another session and teachers told me how students had spent their free class time working on their stories. Even parents stopped me in the hallways to thank me for providing such a wonderful library experience for their children.


Author Information
Kimberly Taylor-DiLeva is a media specialist at Tesago Elementary in Clifton Park, NY.

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