Expanding the Steinfirst Vision: Residency program connects acclaimed author with local students for exceptional learning collaboration

December 12, 2016

“Let ’em know you’re here.”

That’s what author Matt de la Peña wrote on the wall of the Mt. Vernon Middle School Library on the last day of his residency there. It’s the distillation of a message he strove to impart to the 14 student-writers selected to work with him for the week – that your voice matters and you should amplify it.

Author Matt de la Peña works with students
at Mount Vernon Middle School. 
Photos by Julie Stivers. 

“He connected with the students in such an authentic and touching way,” said SILS Professor Sandra Hughes-Hassell. “You could see them grow in their comfort with him, but also with their own voices. They went from writing very tentatively to being absorbed and trusting what they had to say. They became willing to share with him, with each other, and with us. It was just amazing to see the things they produced, and to watch them begin to see themselves as writers and see that they had ideas that mattered.”

De la Peña’s time at the Wake County middle school marked the inaugural implementation of the Steinfirst Artist-in-Residency Program, an expansion of the Susan Steinfirst Memorial Lecture in Children’s Literature series, which SILS has hosted since 1998. The lecture and residency honor the late Susan Steinfirst, a SILS professor from 1976 to 1996, who dedicated her life to the promotion of children’s literature by teaching future librarians and publishing scholarly works.

Professor Steinfirst’s niece, Julia Steinfirst Howard, approached Hughes-Hassell and Associate Professor Brian Sturm about ways to further develop the lecture in 2014. Howard and her husband, John, made a gift that partly funded the expansion.

“I really admired Brian and Sandra’s vision to take this from behind the podium and into the classroom,” Julia Howard said. “It’s especially important these days when children and young adults have so much screen time. By giving students this opportunity, to have an author or illustrator come into their school, sit side-by-side with them, talk directly to them, write with them or draw with them, that hands-on work, it just gives them that tangible aspect of learning that otherwise might not be possible. I’m pleased that you can put a real human being with their talent and craft together with the people who are the stakeholders in that endeavor.”

Hughes-Hassell and Sturm said the first artist-in-residency program was a tremendous success, in part because they found the right author to pair with the right students. Today, de la Peña is a New York Times bestselling author of six critically-acclaimed young adult novels and the 2016 Newbery Award winner for the picture book Last Stop on Market Street. But growing up, he was the son of two working-class parents and was more interested in basketball than books. De la Peña was able to share stories about his own life that resonated with the students and helped them develop an authentic connection with him, Sturm said.

The students were well-prepared for de la Peña’s visit thanks to preliminary work done by Mt. Vernon school librarian and SILS alumna Julie Stivers (MSLS ’15).
Stivers had the 14 students, who had committed to working directly with de la Peña, read some of his works before his arrival, and made sure the entire student body had some familiarity with the author in anticipation of meeting him on the school’s career day.

Another key contributor to the program’s success was current MSLS student Glenna Matteson, who is working under the guidance of Hughes-Hassell and Sturm thanks to the support of the Drs. Barbara and Robert S. Martin Research Assistant program. Hughes-Hassell said Matteson’s support was invaluable in the planning of the residency and lecture, and the execution of both endeavors. For Matteson, the projects provided ideal preparation for the career she wants to have as a public librarian.

“The best thing this work has shown me is how to communicate and coordinate effectively, that it’s not difficult or intimidating to go out into the ‘real world’ and say ‘we have this idea, what can we do to make it a reality?’,” she said. “I feel very lucky to be afforded this chance to work with students, authors, librarians, and members of the community. I wasn’t expecting to get a position that encompassed so much of what I wanted to do. It is a unique opportunity that I don’t think I would have been afforded anywhere else.”

The impact of de la Peña’s residency was immediately apparent, and has the potential to be long lasting. Within a few days of working with the author, students were standing taller and smiling more. Challenging exercises provoked powerful responses. One student proclaimed he wanted to be an author; another usually stoic student burst into tears after a de la Peña gave her a well-deserved compliment. Beyond the observable, Stivers had the participants complete a writing and reading self-efficacy evaluation before and after the experience, and 100% of them chose a higher value to describe their writing ability after working with de la Peña.

“Matt pumped them up,” Stivers said. “In addition to the amazing strategies and tools he used, he just pumped them up as people.”

Sharing the Steinfirst success beyond the Triangle

Not only will the Steinfirst Artist-in-Residency Program benefit students in the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill areas, but it will also serve as a model for how school and public libraries across the country can coordinate similar experiences. During the week of the residency, Mt. Vernon librarian Julie Stivers (MSLS ’15) and others shared highlights on Twitter using the hashtag #MdlPWriters. Stivers also wrote about the experience in her column for School Library Journal’s “Teen Librarian Toolbox” (bit.ly/mdlpwriters).

The planning and execution of the residency has been documented and shared at steinfirstartistinresidency.web.unc.edu. Future residencies will also be chronicled on the site, and organizers are promoting the program to librarians across the country. Sandra Hughes-Hassell gave the keynote address focusing on the project at the Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in Library and Information Science in October. SILS post-doctoral researcher Casey Rawson (MSLS ’11, PhD ’16) edited a video about the residency, which is available on the SILS YouTube and Vimeo channels.

Lecture moves off campus and into the community

For the first time since its introduction, the Steinfirst Memorial Lecture moved off campus to the main branch of the Durham County Public Library. Author Matt de la Peña delivered a talk titled “Reading (and Writing) from the Wrong Side of the Tracks,” on Sunday, March 13. The location and date were chosen to attract a larger and more diverse audience, and to introduce more members of the community to SILS. Durham County Library Teen Librarian and SILS alumna Faith Burns (MSLS ’15) helped make the event possible. She and current SILS student Glenna Matteson also worked with teens at the library to introduce them to de la Peña’s writing before the talk, helping to create an audience that was engaged and eager to hear more about his experiences.

2017 Residency

The Steinfirst Artist-in-Residency Program will bring children’s book author, poet, and photographer Charles R. Smith to work with students at Chapel Hill’s Northside Elementary School, where SILS alumna Kathryn Cole (MSLS ’07) is the school librarian. Learn more about Smith at charlesrsmithjr.com. Follow the 2017 residency’s progress at steinfirstartistinresidency.web.unc.edu. No public lecture is planned for 2017.

This story was originally published in the Fall 2016 SILS newsletter.