Impact Matt de la Peña Writer-in-Residence

By Julie Stivers ~ @BespokeLib

First published on Middle School Monday: #MdlPwriters by Julie Stivers

As librarians, we often deal in stories.  Not surprising based on the contents of our shelves, the size of our To-Be-Read piles, and our understanding of the power of literature. When I reflect on our Matt de la Peña Writer-in-Residence, however, numbers are what first come to mind—and are what seem necessary to truly demonstrate the impact of such an incredible experience.

14.  The 14 students—two groups of 7—who engaged with Matt in a series of writer workshops displayed their powerful, creative, and brave voices over the course of an exciting and intense week.  Our students have been given many false labels at other schools:  low-performing, at-risk, failing.  They’ve shed those untruths and become writers—a powerful label to wear while moving through school.  And the world.

2.  Matt’s first exercise involved tasking our writers to use just 2 words to describe their life.  The words our students chose were indelible.  Unforgettable.  Picket Fence.  From a student who misses her mother and remembers sitting beside a fence with her eating ice cream.  Flashing Lights.  From a student who lives in a home where things change in an instant, as quick as a light turning off.  Fun Life.  From a student who reflected on what he had done so far and felt happy about what he had experienced.  Never Fixed.  From a student who feels that as soon as one part of him is fixed—a physical injury or a family problem—something else gets broken.

205.  The School of Information and Library Science at UNC made Matt’s visit possible (Thank you!) and also provided 205 books to our school so that all of our students had one of Matt’s titles to keep.  “To keep?  Like, as my own?”   “Can I write in it?”  Yes.  “Can I bring it home?”  Yes. YES can be a profound word to say to students, especially to students who have typically not heard the word YES often enough in their school careers.

308.  In August, one of our 8th graders had told me that “he does not read.  Ever.”  In February, he handed me his copy of Matt’s novel The Living—all 308 pages of it—and told me he had read “it all.”  At 15, it was the first book he had ever finished. “Well, you kept reading it in class and I knew Matt was coming and I wanted to find out what happened. And, now, I need to read the sequel!”  I’ll never forget his satisfied dismay at finding out that reading a good book does not always end with the last page.

1.  The success of the entire program was illustrated in 1 student who has experienced more in her 13 years than most of us will in our lives.  She is tough.  Sweet.  Stoic.  And chock full of writing talent.  After reading one of her pieces, Matt told her that if she finished it, he would publish it on his blog.  She sobbed.    And, then picked up her pencil and started writing.  She is still writing.

100.  I created a writing and reading self-efficacy instrument to administer to our writers both before and after their reading elective and Writer-in-Residence experiences to attempt to measure any changes in their confidence and comfort level related to a variety of literacy factors.  100% of our writers chose a higher value to describe their writing ability after Matt’s visit.

From 1 to 308, Matt impacted us in incredibly meaningful ways, generated excitement for reading throughout the entire school, and inspired both creativity and ownership in our writing.

The gorgeous power of the Writer-in-Residence is that its effects remain even though our writer is no longer in residence.  We are in such a post-Matt creative swoon, that we are literally drawing on the library walls.  Remembering.  Discussing.  And writing.  Writing.