THE AUTHOR EXPERIENCE

Through a unique collaboration with schools, The Author Experience delivers a sustainable program grounded in the transformative power of story. Our goal is to build a lasting culture of literacy—one in which students, their families, and educators craft their stories and develop their voices together. The pillars of The Author Experience are author partnerships, family engagements, and targeted professional development. Participating students will demonstrate increased confidence, self-efficacy, and literacy proficiency. In addition, the students and adults in the greater school community become more connected.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness:

Today, I'm chatting with Roseanne Kurstedt, founder of The Author Experience. Based on the belief in the power of stories, The Author Experience provides sustainable literacy-based experiences that build a culture of literacy. In addition to book distribution, The Author Experience partners with schools that have at least 80% of their student population receiving free or reduced lunch, the program provides author partnerships, family-family engagement, and targeted professional development. Join me as I chat with the founder to discuss how The Author Experience works to end book deserts.

Molly Ness:

Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast featuring the innovative people in programs who work to provide book access to our nation's under-resourced areas or overlooked populations. I'm Dr. Molly Ness, lifelong reader book nerd teacher educator. I've created the End Book Deserts podcast so that all children have access to books and reading culture. The End Book Deserts podcast, a part of the education podcast network, just like the show you're listening to now shows on the network are individually owned and opinions expressed may not reflect others. Find other interesting education podcasts at edupodcastnetwork.com.

 

Molly Ness:

I'm thrilled today to be joined by Roseanne Kurstedt of The Author Experience. Roseanne and I, um, overlapped a bit in our work with teacher education in New York City. And you've gone in a different direction now, continuing your workaround literacy and promoting lifelong reading. Tell me what work you're up to and tell me the backstory and history about The Author Experience.

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

Thank you, Molly. First of all, thanks for having me on. I am so excited to be here. I think the work that this podcast is doing with getting the word out and just knowledge about book deserts and the need for book access and book equity and building book, culture and literacy culture is so important. So, before I talk about The Author Experience, I really just wanted to give you a shout-out and thank you for all the work that you've been doing.

 

Molly Ness:

Thank you.

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

You're welcome. So, like you said, we, I was, I'm an adjunct at Fordham University where I was teaching in the Graduate School of Literacy. I then moved to Hunter College where I'm currently an adjunct and also the associate director of READ East Harlem Hunter College, which is a grant-funded partnership between Hunter College and District Four in East Harlem, New York City. And that work is funded by the New York Community Trust Brooke Astro Fund. So, and I'm also a children's book writer. I write picture books. So, I sort of wear a few hats, hats. I teach educators. I work within schools, in East Harlem with teachers and students. And then I'm also a children's book author. When I was working in the schools in East Harlem, I was also working with fellow authors as part of the society of children's books, writers, and illustrators on author visits. And I was talking to a friend of mine and her son had mentioned to her something that an author had said at a visit when he was in elementary school and that it had resonated with him and stayed with him throughout his years in education he's now, or when he said it, he was a freshman in college. And so, all of those things were happening together. And I thought to myself, you know, the students with the, in the schools I work within East Harlem, they don't have opportunities really to have author visits and make those connections with authors. And even if they do, maybe only some of them can get books. So, I thought, you know what? I know a lot of authors and I have access to books. I'm going to set up some author visits with the schools and in the classrooms that I work. The principals and the teachers were so excited and they said, you should be doing this for more than just our schools. So I thought, you know what? I think that there's a seed of an idea there. And I started thinking about book access and what we know about what helps students be successful, not only in school but in life. And so, I created, I started The Author Experience and while it started kind of small and one-off- bringing an author into a school or a classroom and the kids, all of them getting a book by the author, I felt like I wanted to do something, or I thought the organization should do something that was more comprehensive and more sustainable. So in 2017, when we originally formed, um, I pulled together some people, I know some educators, some authors, some people who are in, um, sort of the nonprofit world. And we really started to brainstorm ways to make the program more comprehensive. And now we have a really sustainable comprehensive program that works with students, families, and educators, all on the transformative power of story. And we do that through author partnerships, providing professional development opportunities for teachers in the school, all on how to embed story in the curriculum, how to share stories themselves, and really the impact of story. And then also we work with families again on sharing stories and how sharing stories, whether it's through books or whether it's through oral, whether it's real or imagined sharing stories, really supports kids’ literacy and supports their connection to others. So, we've been in existence since 2017 and the program is just getting better and better every year. So, we're really, really excited.

Molly Ness:

Well, we think around book access and our shared interest of encouraging kids to be lifelong readers, why are stories and author experiences and interaction with authors, such a pivotal part of your focus?

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

So, story is a really powerful thing. Um, story supports, imagination, stories, supports critical thinking when, um, someone is telling a story or reading a story, lots of places in the brain are being activated. Stories can teach about places and people and things and help kids and people develop empathy. So, story in and of itself has a really, really rich and vibrant or has really, really rich and vibrant benefits. Um, the one that I love the most is sort of your brain on story. If you look at any brain imaging, which they've done, when somebody is listening to, or reading a story, all different parts of the brain are lit up. And in particular- oxytocin is released, which is really the connecting um, neurotransmitter so it's not only making connections in your brain. It's also sharing stories helps you connect with other people. And I'm sure, you know, this Molly, but oral language development and oral language proficiency is really a precursor to reading. And as children develop their oral language, their reading also usually develops. So, there's the connection between story and reading in that way.

Molly Ness:

Sure. And you're reminding me about so much of the fabulous research from, um, Meghan Cox Gurdon's book, um, and, uh, podcast followers may remember that I had the pleasure of interviewing her. Um, and you're also reminding me of the umbrella term of literacy when we talk about literacy. So often I think we focus on the reading and writing component and we overlook the speaking and the listening. Um, and I think that's really encouraging for parents in particular, who may not always have the energy to do that bedtime story as they've had a long day at work. Um, but as they are speaking and listening with their children and creating stories and telling stories, we are engaging in the entire umbrella coverage of literacy.

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

That's exactly right. And I'm so glad you picked up on that because that's really one of the main messages of The Author Experience is, is that sharing stories and we all sharing stories, supports literacy development because literacy development is, like you said, is not only about reading and writing. It's also about listening and speaking and that all of those things support each other. As you read more your oral language proficiencies develop, and as you speak more, your reading proficiencies develop. So, it's, they all support each other in development. And we all, we work with families. We often mentioned that many of the families we work with, um, English is not their first language, and they might not feel so comfortable reading in English. So, we explain that the benefits of sharing story do not necessarily have to be in English. Use the language that you are most comfortable with, um, and even read stories in that language also with your students, with your child, because that will support his or her English language development too, because in the sharing of stories, in whatever language kids are developing, um, background knowledge and vocabulary and word, understanding that is transferable to any other way.

 

Molly Ness:

And what an empowering message for parents to hear, um, who may not consider themselves, um, particularly proficient or strong in reading and writing, um, that they still can contribute to their children's literacy just with storytelling language. So, let's talk a little bit more about the logistics of The Author Experience. And I'm going to ask you to talk about your life and your, the work, um, sort of pre the current COVID pandemic, what the program initially was and how you've had to adapt and modify as we've moved into this world where all of our interactions seem to be virtual, and the future of schooling is sort of uncertain.

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

Sure. Um, okay. So, like I said, previously, we've created a program that's comprehensive and hopefully sustainable. So we partner with schools for six years and we start working with students in their classrooms second grade. And in second grade, all classrooms receive a face-to-face author visit in their classrooms, not in a big assembly, big assemblies definitely have their benefits, but part of our mission is connections. So, we feel like the intimacy of a classroom is really important for The Author Experience visit. So, the authors do a little presentation talking about their experiences as an author and about sharing stories and how that impacts their life and their experiences. And then after the presentation, kids go back to their desks and there is an The Author Experience bag with a bag, with a bunch of books and a writer's notebook and a pen. And the books in the bag are there is at least one from the visiting author. And then there are other books as well, because we want kids to have get more than one book, because we do know that the amount of books in people's homes does increase the opportunities- it looks like for kids to be successful. So, and then we have books that differ in topic or in difficulty level, just so there's a range so that different kids will have more opportunities to access the books that are in the bag. So, while the kids are looking through their, um, bags, the author goes to each of the student's desks and signs the books and has an interaction with the students. So again, talking with each other, sharing stories, making connections, and then there's The Author Experience writer's notebook where kids, where the, the author has brought up his or her writing notebooks. So when the kids then get their own writing notebooks, it is so empowering for them to be like, Oh my gosh, I can be an author. I have the tools and I have what's needed to be an author. So that's the first face-to-face visit. And then the author continues to interact with the students through virtual visits throughout second grade, and then third, fourth, fifth grade. So, throughout the elementary career of the students. So, by fifth grade, the students and the author have a real connection because they have interacted eight or nine, maybe 10 times. And so, there's this back-and-forth interaction that we find is really, really exciting for kids and also for schools. So that's the, the student piece or the, really the student only piece. Then we have an educator piece where we provide professional learning sessions with educators, and that looks, um, that takes on three different lenses or perspectives. The first is helping teachers find their story, find their voice, craft their stories and how that can be very empowering for them. And then we talk about how they can embed story into all aspects of the curriculum. And then finally we work with how they can use story to support parent engagement and bring parents or families into the classroom and into the school. And then finally we work with families, and we work with families during whole school or whole classroom events. So, it's adults and students. And then we also work with families only. So, adults-only, um, some of the things we've done with adults only is a four-week session on writing our way to wellness, crafting our own stories as a way to support students literacy, a parent engagement that we did with, um, or a family engagement that we conducted with adults and children was, um, one of the schools we work in has Saturday school. And during the Saturday school, we had two and a half hours. And we work with all the second-grade students and their families on named stories and the power of names and the kids and the adults wrote their names, stories. And then they each created a little quilt square and we put the about their name. And we put all of the quilt squares together because like The Author Experience, mission states, sharing stories connects us. So, the quilt was sort of a metaphor for the connections that are made through sharing stories. So that's, that's the programming outside of virtual learning. And as you might have noted, we do have a virtual component, or we did have a virtual component already embedded in our program. Since COVID, we have been working with the schools and the classrooms and the educators, and the families virtually. So, we have had, um, two author visits. We had a face-to-face author visits scheduled for one of the schools and she, the author, and the kids, we just did it online. So it was virtual. Um, we have done author read-alouds with individual classrooms, and I know a lot of authors are providing read-alouds, um, on the online right now, what we think is so special about the work that the authors are doing with these students is that number one, the students often know the author already. And number two, they have the opportunity to really interact and ask questions. Where did you get the idea from that story? I don't understand that page. Why did the illustrator draw the picture that way? And that kind of connection, um, really is so powerful for students believing for it. Students’ engagement with texts, but also an understanding that their stories are important. We've also done some programming, which is more like emotions can lead to story because there are a lot of emotions during this time that kids might be having difficulty understanding. So, authors have facilitated conversations and sessions on emotions and how the emotions behind their stories and how they develop the stories based on those emotions. So those are the kinds of things we're doing going forward. We are going to host one of the actually we're planning that right now with one of the schools to continue the work of writing our way to wellness with families. And we are talking with, um, the schools with whom we work and trying to figure out what works best for them. So, another piece of The Author Experience is that we don't have, it's not a drop and go. It's not like this is what you have to do. We work with each school so that the work we're doing is most impactful in their context and in their school. And we think that that will be a real impetus to continue the work after our six-year partnership, if it's embedded in their culture, then it's more apt to be sustainable. Um, one thing we were all we're considering, which I love this idea. I don't even know if I should say it cause somebody might take it because it's so great. Um, we're going to start developing author hours where classrooms and students, um, who work with The Author Experience, um, students who have an interest can talk and meet with an author one-on-one and we might do, um, topics or themes, but we might not, but that's something that we thought of to develop that will continue the connection virtually if schools are not in session. And finally, which is so important for The Author Experience is the books. How do we get the books in kids' hands? So, we're also working with schools on figuring out for next year. Maybe we can give the books out in August and that they're all at the schools. So, if schools have to distribute materials, they will already have all of those materials. So, we are trying to work that out because we, again, sharing stories is important, making the connections is important, but so is the actual book access because while all of the individual pieces that The Author Experience implements and works with students and educators and families with it's really the conjunction of all of those three things, the confluence of all of benefits that really gives the most bang for your buck.

Molly Ness:

And what's so amazing about your work is that there are so many different players who are involved. You're getting the authors and the kids and the parents and the teachers. So, I'm wondering if you can talk briefly about the impact that you're noticing on all of these different groups and, um, the larger school community.

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

Sure. Um, well the student and the author impact is tremendous. I mean, authors love meeting with, uh, young children and readers and writers. The authors who have worked with The Author Experience have really just been blown away by the continued connection they have with the students. And I'll give you one example. One author, Liza Hernandez came to a school in East Harlem, and I worked in that school and the following year after her initial vision visit, um, there was one boy who every time he saw me would ask me, how's Lisa, let her know I'm writing. I'm also illustrating, cause she's an illustrator. I'm also drawing pictures, I would say, okay, I will. And then Liza was coming back. He didn't know that Liza was going to come back to visit his classroom virtually, but she was also coming back to do a visit and a face-to-face visit in the second-grade classroom. So, when she was there, the teacher went down and got this boy, uh, Jonathan is his name and from the lunchroom and he came up and when he saw leaves his face, it was brightened and he held her hand, looked her in the eyes and said, I've missed you. I'm writing lots of stories. I mean, it was so cute. He could really melt. And for her, that was such a powerful experience because usually in her author visits, she doesn't get to have that connection over and over again. So, in that sense, it's really been amazing for the authors. For the teachers., they are just amazed at how much they are learning about stories and reading and writing and the habits of being an author and how they themselves can start integrating some of those behaviors into their own lives and also how they can integrate it into the curriculum. And the families, I mean, the feedback we've gotten from families is that, Oh my gosh, I'm motivated and inspired because now I feel like I have what I need. It's not like I'm didn't have enough. I have enough, I can work with my child and you know, what, the things that I've been doing, maybe I wasn't doing as much as I would have liked, I can just continue doing. So that's really, really exciting for us. One, we did one event with a family, with, um, families, adults only. And I had all of our, um, experiences with families and educators and students, people, the kids are writing, the participants are writing. So in one of our adults engagements with the family, we started with some prompts, like ask what if or I remember when, and then people went off and wrote. And one gentleman wrote about the first time he went back to Mexico after he had lived in the States for many, many, many years and the apprehension and all the emotions he was feeling. And he said, you know, I haven't thought about that in a long time. And I would have never thought to share that with my kids, but you know what, I think that would be really beneficial for them. So it's really just bringing up with parents, the opportunities and the things that they're already doing, that they already have with inside of them, that they can support their kids literacy. And then finally the kids, it's just the way they can pull out from their lives stories or things that have happened that are important to them is really just exciting. And how through talking about it and through writing about it and then sharing it, they begin to find an identity and find a confidence that maybe wasn't there before, or wasn't there yet before. And in addition, their excitement to read the books that the author has written is just off the charts. They're reading it whenever the classroom also gets a set of the books that are in the bag, the bags for the kids. And, um, those are like the go-to books in the library. Um, in one year we were giving out the bag, the first book in the Bad Guy series and the kids were so excited about that book, that the teacher wound up getting the rest of the series and the kids all were just engaged in this very authentic, um, book club from the Bad Guy series. So, the kids' motivations to read and read more and write and write more and share and talk to each other about the stories is really, really amazing. And teachers have continued to, um, provide us with that kind of feedback. I did want to mention something else. Another thing we like to do with the books that we're providing in the book bags. Um in second grade is provide books that are first in a series so that if kids connect with that book, there's a natural and really easy way to choose another book. Um, so that's just some of the thinking and some of the impact that we're having. So it's really exciting.

 

Molly Ness:

Well, and I know listeners are going to want to find out more about your work, about the authors who are a part of your community, and about the impact on kids. So we will direct them to the website that is linked on the End Book Deserts’ websites. Um, as we wrap up, I wanted to just ask you, um, the question that I ask of all guests on this podcast. I'm wondering if you could share with us a book, either from your personal or professional library that has had a really profound impact on you sort of a little bit different than asking you your favorite book, but what is a book that really has changed you or continues to resonate with you?

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

I couldn't choose one. Am I allowed to do two?

Molly Ness:

All good readers try to bribe with bribe and say two. And when it comes to books, I'm willing to bend the rules. So yes, you could do two.

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

Okay, the first is the Phantom Toll Booth and that book, the notion that Milo is so bored and he just wants to get where he's going at the beginning of this story, and he doesn't enjoy the journey. And that at the end of the book, he understands that the journey is half the fun- if not the place where you can, you can learn the most or get the most out of, or be the most exciting has always resonated with me because I am very goal-oriented. So, I want to get it done. And I have to often remind myself, enjoy the journey, take time to think about what's happening now. And if you have a detour, enjoy the detour. So that- Milo and the lessons he learned really helped me in my life for many, many years, really understand the importance of savoring the journey. And the other piece is the Little Prince. It's really, I think even the first, the first text on the page where the little Prince draws a picture and it looks like a hat and, and in the text it says, all adults think it's a hat, but it's clearly a snake who's eaten an elephant. And that resonates with me in a few ways. As an educator, of course, of understanding kids' point of view and the lovely fantastical way that kids can look at things. But then it's also about how we can all look at things from so many different points of view and perspectives, and to be open to, hearing and listening and seeing things in different ways. So those are my two books.

Molly Ness:

It's such a great book. I remember having to read it in middle school, um, when I took French and I read it in French in middle school, I should probably revisit it. Um, now as an adult and in my native language where I'm not having to translate and conjugate all the words. Well, we're so excited to have, um, reached out to you and to hear the work that The Author Experience is doing. And to, to not only get hand, get books into the hands of kids today, but also to create a culture of literacy that is really impacting kids in their schools, at home, working with teachers. Um, and it's so refreshing to hear about bringing all of these players together to, to promote literacy and to show the power of stories. Thank you for your time today. We'll look forward to continuing to hear more about your work and, um, wish you all the best in these uncertain times and, um, stay safe.

 

Roseanne Kurstedt:

Thank you so much, Molly.

Molly Ness:

It's time for the portion of the podcast, where I recommend a book from my personal or professional shelf that somehow connects to today's feature per person or program today, I wanted to feature books by middle-grade author and illustrator Jarrett Lerner. I've gotten to know Jarrett a bit, and I don't think I'd be insulting him by saying that while his books are not necessarily sophisticated, literary works, they sure are fun. On his webpage. Jared explains that his books are about farting robots, superheroic taco ingredients, and other very serious matters. My third-grade daughter tore through Jarrett's Enginerd series and then passed them on to all of her friends. Not only does Jared know how to make kids fall in love with reading, he's an enormous advocate of kids, teachers, and literacy. He's created the artwork for t-shirts that fundraise for literacy, non-profits like First Book, and today's The Author Experience. And during the COVID pandemic, he created and shared out free activity pages and blank comic book pages to get kids' brains going creatively. Check out his books, his artwork, and his literacy work at jarrettlerner.com. That's J-A-R-R-E-T-T-L-E-R-N-E-R.com.

 

Molly Ness:

That wraps it up for this episode of End Book Deserts. If you know of a person or program doing innovative work to get books into the hands of readers, email me at Molly that's molly@endbookdeserts.com. For more about my work and for the program featured on this episode, check out our webpage www.endbookdeserts.com. Follow me on social media at End Book Deserts and share your stories and reactions with the hashtag #EndBookDeserts. Thanks to Dwayne Wheatcroft for graphics and copy and to Benjamin Johnson for sound editing. Until the next episode, happy reading.