Members were calling out, cheering and applauding Friday morning at TEACH, as Kwame Alexander spun a rhythmic account of trying to engage middle school students. A Newberry Award-winning children's book author, Alexander is nothing if not a storyteller: He recalled capturing the attention of a gym full of kids, then trying to calm them down again so they could hear the rest of his presentation.
"There's always some kids who can't come back down that fast," he said. Murmurs of recognition rippled through the crowd. The audience also recognized the next part of the story: The principal making his way toward the disruptive students to hush them and possibly send them away.
But Alexander intercepted him and turned the situation into an opportunity for what he calls "nurture the nature," directing the natural behavior of kids. Instead of tossing the rowdy group out of the gym, he stood beside them, made up a poem about the leader and his girlfriend (complete with a dig about a breath mint) and then invited one of the boys to "do poetry" with him up on stage.
For the rest of the event, the entire gym was rapt, including the rowdiest student who'd disrupted the event. "What if the principal had taken him out of the room?" asked Alexander. "I'm here to empower, entertain and engage the young people. If the child is not in the room, there's a 100 percent chance they're not going to be empowered, entertained and inspired."
Alexander worked his magic on the AFT TEACH audience as well, using call-and-response, inviting a teacher up on stage, telling personal stories and reading lively, fun passages from his books. He's published 24 so far, many of them written in a lyrical poetry reminiscent of hip-hop rhythm. Many are about middle school boys, grabbing readers' attention with subjects like basketball, soccer and music.
The son of an English teacher mom and a publisher dad, Alexander grew up surrounded by literature. He still remembers his first-grade teacher, who urged her students to read 100 books over summer break—which Alexander did. But he also remembers the high school teacher who gave him an F on a paper she didn't believe he'd written; she thought it was too good. His parents came to defend him, but, he asked the audience, "What about the kids who don't have the parents to come up to the school?"
At some point, the young Alexander was turned off to reading because the books he was encouraged to read were dense and dry. Poetry, however, was different—he calls it concise and palatable, digestible and rhythmic. "Poetry became my way to express myself and understand my place in the world," he said. "I believe poetry is a great way to reach all students in a community."
He demonstrated exactly what he meant with a video of a surprise visit he made to a young fan. This boy was a reluctant reader until he picked up Alexander's books. When he met the author in the hallway of his school—where Alexander recited passages from his book "Crossover"—the boy exploded with excitement.
Back to his original story, Alexander recounted how the rowdy boy in the gym participated in the Q&A that followed his presentation. He asked Alexander, "Why are you here? What do you to this for?" And Alexander answered, "I do this because I understand that it's important for a child to imagine a better world, and the imagination of an adult begins in the mind of a child."
And of course, the AFT audience understood that and, ultimately, gave Alexander a standing ovation.