Co-written with Ms. Wendi Pillars

“Oh, my God!  Mr. Orphal!  They are so f*#@ing cute!”

I glared at Ashley, horror and shock on my face.  Was she far enough away from the computer we were using to Skype with the 3rd graders?  Did they hear her?

To her credit, Allison was just as horrified at her slip.  Both her hands leapt to her mouth, her eyes growing wide.  “I’m so sorry, Mr. Orphal,” she whispered.  “It just slipped out.”

At the computer in the front of the room, Analicia had Ms. Wendi’s class capitivated and engaged.  While her book was written for much younger children, being about the numbers one through ten, she had an active audience asking after each number, “I’ve drawn six flowers.  What do you have six of?”

This is the power of virtual collaboration.  Ms. Wendi’s classroom is on the other coast from my students in Oakland.

This day, my class had arrived at the penultimate experience in our Children’s Book Unit.  After weeks of researching Burkina Faso, reading professional children’s books, designing our grading rubric, story-boarding, character development, and drawing, our books were done.

I was on the phone with Wendi Pillars, my colleague and co-facilitator in the NEA/NBPTS/CTQ Teacher Leader Institute.  After talking about our cohort of nascent teacher leaders and our up-coming webinar, we got to just gabbing about shop.  I was sharing with her about the children’s books that my students were writing and about how their final drafts were due the Monday after Spring Break.  I had even sent all of my students a meme via text message…


That’s when Ms. Pillars had the idea.  “Do you think your students would like to read their books to my kids?”  It was brilliant!

So we each got to work.

Ms. Wendi’s students were excited to hear from “real authors”, and to see what real highschool students in California were like. “That’s a long way away!”, one exclaimed. Her students just so happened to be reading some poetry the week before about a boy who had moved from El Salvador to San Francisco, so their thinking was primed. Although, one of the illustrations depicted the boy flying over the city with his friends–which in turn prompted P to ask if people could fly in San Fran. Clearly some clarification was needed, and a little more context, but the motivation was high.

In Oakland, I presented the idea of reading our books to a group of 3rd graders.  Since only 4-5 students would be able to read, I made it an extra-credit assignment and asked for volunteers.  In each of my two Introduction to Education classes, we had five students who wanted to read.

For some of them, that meant even more finishing touches on their books.

For others, they felt that they needed to polish their dramatic reading skills.

For the two teachers, it meant practicing with Skype to make sure that the connection would actually work on the day of the performance.

Ms. Wendi’s kids were a little nervous about “meeting the big kids”. So, they practiced. They practiced introducing themselves, and more importantly, asking appropriate, pertinent questions that would relate to what Mr. Orphal’s students were reading. They also had graphic organizers for each story to help them focus and remember;  they wrote down the title of each book, one question they had for the author and a favorite part. Following each reading, her students asked questions of each of the authors. Sometimes demonstrating comprehension and pertinence. And…sometimes not.  “What’s your favorite sport?” one asked. “What is it like to be in highschool?” “Can you tell us about the EOC’s?”

And although slightly embarrassed by the disconnect between some of the questions and the stories the 3rd graders had just heard, it was also insightful to realize how they felt a) the desire to reach out and b) comfortable enough to do so. We could definitely tell what concerns were uppermost in their minds.

I was so thrilled with my volunteers.  Our first reader was courageous, but read too fast, and didn’t hold the pictures up to the computer’s camera long enough.  My other authors learned from her mistakes and did much better.



In reflection, I could not have asked for a better day.  My readers had a great time.  The class laughed and cheered one another.  Wendi’s third graders didn’t hear the expletive, and Ashley learned a powerful lesson about being a role model for younger children. Both groups of Ms. Wendi’s kids also learned that kids can be “real authors”, too, and recalled surprising details about some of them and their stories. Their reflections included comments about the story content, about the authors themselves, and even about their writing process, with unabashed admiration.

Collaboration definitely takes extra time and preparation, but in the end, the connections forged are what make the learning memorable, what make the learning stick. Ms.Wendi’s kids learned a tremendous lesson–that even kids can write real stories that teach real lessons from their own lives, like working hard, finding your own talent, and using your imagination. “I couldn’t have asked for more from this experience”, she said with excitement. “My students really got it.”

At the end of each period, I asked for a show of hands from students who wished that they also had the opportunity to read their books.  As every had shot up, I thought, “This is why I’m a teacher.”

Ms. Wendi teaches 3rd Grade at Virgina Cross Elemetary in Siler City, NC.  She and David co facilitated on of the NEA/NBPTS/CTQ Teacher Leader Initative Cohorts this past year.  She is also a finalist to represent her favorite team (The Cleveland Indians) at the All Star Game next month.  Go to MLB’s All Star Teacher contest for vote for her!

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