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The PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program brings resources both routine and unusual into D.C. classrooms. Copies of books for students to read are followed by a visit from the author who wrote the work. We talk with D.C.-based authors George Pelecanos and Dolen Perkins-Valdez about what keeps them going back to classrooms again and again.
- Frazier O'Leary English teacher, Cardozo High School; board member, PEN/Faulkner Foundation
- Dolen Perkins-Valdez author, "Wench: A Novel"; board member, PEN/Faulkner Foundation
- George Pelecanos author of "The Double"; board member, PEN/Faulkner Foundation; independent film producer
MR. MARK MCDONALDWelcome back. I'm Mark McDonald, WAMU's programming director sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" today. The idea of an author taught in a high school classroom, walking into that classroom, both simple and revolutionary at the same time. The PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which aims to celebrate the spirit of Nobel Laureate William Faulkner from its home in the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C., has made a push to get writers in schools since the late 1980s.
MR. MARK MCDONALDThis year they're on track for more than 200 visits to public and charter schools in the district and Baltimore during which writers talk about and sign their books and shed light on what often seems, especially to a room of 16-year-olds, a mysterious profession. Here to give us the teacher and author perspective on the program are three guests in the studio with me. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, an author whose first novel is a work of historical fiction titled "Wench: A Novel." George Pelecanos, the author of numerous novels, the latest of which is "The Double." He was also a producer and writer for "The Wire" and currently works on "Treme" on HBO.
MR. MARK MCDONALDAnd Frazier O'Leary, an English teacher at Cardozo High School is also the president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation board of directors. And all three guests, active participants in the organization's Writers in Schools Program. Feel free to jump in everybody. What is the atmosphere like in the classroom when you read these extracts?
MR. GEORGE PELECANOSIt's great. I mean, my experience has been -- always been positive. The students are very attentive and respectful and, in many way, grateful that somebody would come in an give them a book and talk about it.
MCDONALDDo they then ask personal questions about your background, about where you got the ideas and that kind of thing or...
MS. DOLEN PERKINS-VALDEZThey do. The questions aren't limited to just the book. They ask questions about your life. They ask you if you have kids, et cetera. But the whole visit is really about connecting with them through the literature. And they're giving them an experience of meeting an author in person, so it's all great.
MCDONALDHow many of these visits have you done, Dolen, so far?
PERKINS-VALDEZOh, gosh. I've done dozens. I've done a lot of them, though.
MCDONALDHow do you choose which extracts you're going to read? What's the kind of choice process for the students?
PERKINS-VALDEZA lot of times I make that decision once I get there. If the students are just back from lunch, for example, and they're chatty I'll read something to really quiet them down and get their attention. If the students are already sort of quiet, they've been in class for a while, I might read something that's a little more animated to wake them up. So I make that choice when I get there. It just depends on the -- all students are different.
MCDONALDGeorge, do you have that same process or do you have a different sort of decision-making process?
PELECANOSI just try to pick something that I think they'll like and that they will relate to. And it's sort of easy for me because all my books are set in D.C. and they're crime novels too. So it's not -- it wouldn't be a very dense selection or anything like that. It would be something that I just think that they would enjoy.
MCDONALDFrazier, describe to us what, you know, what this has brought to Cardozo and the other schools in general. What are the benefits here?
MR. FRAZIER O'LEARYI think it's a fabulously unique experience for the students to be able to meet a living author and hear the author read from his or her book and to also be able to be on a level playing field with the author. It's always a great experience for our students. A lot of our students don't have large libraries at home, maybe a bookshelf. And they get the books -- the foundation gives them the books and they get to get the books signed by the authors. And they also get to meet the authors and find out that authors are real people.
O'LEARYIt's an experience that those of us of a certain age never read living authors when we were in school. And the students in D.C., both public and charter schools, are able to meet living authors who share their lives with them and give them hope that they could also be -- those students who feel like being writers or authors, you know, someone like them can do that.
MCDONALDTake us back through the process with PEN/Faulkner and how did this all come about?
O'LEARYIt began over 20 years ago as a really relatively small program. Some of the members of the board who are writers started to go into classrooms. And really in the last 15 years it's grown to where it's now just become huge where there are several author visits in all of the public high schools in the city and many of the charter schools. And we have authors who come through as readers at the PEN/Faulkner author series during the year and also local authors who share their time with the different classrooms.
MCDONALDSo take us through the process a little bit. Do the schools come to you or do you approach the schools to be involved?
O'LEARYThe foundation approaches all of the schools. Now we have more than a nucleus of teachers who have authors come in. We try to make sure that all of the high schools -- the public high schools and any of the charter school high schools that would like to be involved are involved. We do reach out to all of those schools. So that's how we populate the classrooms.
MCDONALDAnd right now this is an initiative in this area. Is it national or...
O'LEARYWe're also in -- we started in Baltimore two years ago, so now we're working in Baltimore. And if that works then we will start to spread somewhere else.
MCDONALDOkay. George, from your perspective, were you approached by PEN/Faulkner or were you aware of this or how did you get involved?
PELECANOSI think I was approached by Frazier. I think he just called me up about ten years ago and asked me to come into his class. And, you know, Frazier's a guy who's not afraid to ask somebody to do something if it's on behalf of his kids. And I say that with admiration, you know. So I went down there and it was a good experience. And then he roped me into being on the board. You know, one of the reasons I wanted to get on the board was just because I was doing stuff out at the Old Oak Hill, which became New Beginnings, the juvenile facility.
MCDONALDThe detention center.
PELECANOS...the detention center, yeah. And they've got a high school there too. It's not a GED program. It's an actual school that these boys attend every day. So I wanted to make sure that we did that as well. And we have gone out there now and it's part of the curriculum, yep.
MCDONALDWhat was it like in there in particular?
PELECANOSIt's -- if you've never been in a prison before or lock up it's different. And it can be unruly at times depending on what situation you walk into. But it shouldn't dissuade you from doing it because the fact of the matter is, you don't know who you're reaching. Even if it seems as if you're not reaching somebody, you know, one of those kids might take a book -- one of the books you brought out into their cell at night and get into it. And after all, reading is all about going someplace else. And if you can escape that cell through a book, then you've done something.
MCDONALDHad you been in a prison before?
PELECANOSI hadn't been as an inmate. But, you know, I've done this actually all over the world. I've done it in England. I've done it in France.
PELECANOSIt's just a good thing to do. And, plus, you know, look, I don't want to sound like a philanthropist, I mean, it's good for me, too. I'm always working as a writer. The experience is always valuable to me. And, plus, my books are popular in prisons, you know. So it's another fan base for me.
MCDONALDSort of literary Johnny Cash almost. Just stay with me for this for a second. was the experience with the students different in there to say a regular classroom?
PELECANOSWell, yeah, because they're locked up. And it's not a natural thing for an adolescent to be behind bars or in a cell. So you have to be aware of that. And I'll tell you, I mean, it would sound like it's a negative experience, but actually the best experience I've ever had was at the D.C. jail, where I went and spoke to boys who were incarcerated and convicted as adults and were waiting to transition into the adult populations in our nation's prisons. And that was the most respectful group of boys I've ever spoken to, ever.
MCDONALDDolan, what was your experience of first getting involved with this?
PERKINS-VALDEZWell, you know, it's interesting. Recently my friend, the writer Terry McMillan was here. And she did a visit that was through PEN/Faulkner that was wonderful for her. And I was telling her that I had done dozens. And she said why do you do so many visits? And I thought about it for a minute and I said, you know, every now and then when I'm in there, I'll be talking for 45 minutes about the book, about, you know, my life as a writer. And 45 minutes into the visit a student will turn my book over, look at the picture on the back, point at me and say, wait a minute, you're the author.
PERKINS-VALDEZAnd I say, yeah, that's me. And then they proceed to stare at me for the rest of the time. And it's that moment of revelation that I live for, that I love, where they make that connection. And that connection is not as easy to make as one might think, for those of us who have perhaps been exposed to literature or authors or whoever we've been exposed to. So when the students really make that connection, that the person up there in the jeans and sweatshirt, who's talking to them about her regular life in the same city they live in, is actually the same person on the back of that book, that is transformative for them. And so it's wonderful.
MCDONALDDoes that also make the book come more alive for them, seeing you?
PERKINS-VALDEZIt does. I mean, sometimes, even after I've read an excerpt, they'll say, wow, hearing you read it really makes me want to go back and read it again.
MCDONALDWe're talking with Dolen Perkins-Valdez, an author whose first novel is a work of historic fiction titled, "Wench: A Novel." George Pelecanos, the author of many novels, the latest of which is "The Double." He was also producer and writer for "The Wire," and currently works on "Trim," on HBO. And Frazier O'Leary, an English teacher at Cardozo High School who is president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors. You can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's take a call from Steve, in Gaithersburg. Steve, you're on the air.
STEVEHi, thank you for taking my call. I was looking at this and the problem I have with it is pen and pad. Writing a book with pen and pad instead of using a computer. You know, go back to the older days. What I discovered is -- you know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? That's not true. It takes a family to raise a child. And discovered that, I guess it's Aimco Corporation, the owner of Hunt Club Apartments. We were there and the kids, you know, could not concentrate. My wife and I could not concentrate because of the atmosphere. I'm a writer of three books and I’m wondering why aren't these kids responding.
STEVEAnd the apartments that Aimco Corporation was using was substandard material. And this really had an effect on everyone because when my wife and I moved there we were okay. You know and I’m on my computer and I can understand it. But then we started getting into these arguments because of the structure, you know. And kids will only pay attention to what's in front of them. They don't know how to see mold in a building and how it affects the brain and the heart.
MCDONALDOkay. So let's take one of your early points there, which was about the difference between writing on paper and writing on computer. Is there a challenge there, Frazier, as a teacher?
O'LEARYNo. We write every day.
O'LEARYAnd we read every day. We have some computers in our new Cardozo, but basically, I want my students to learn how to put their thoughts down on paper, just as the writers do.
MCDONALDGuys, how do you write?
PERKINS-VALDEZI go back and forth. For my first novel, "Wench," I wrote it all the computer, but for my new novel that I've been working on, I wrote out the draft longhand. But every writer -- there's no real right way to write. Every writer has their own methods. As long as you get it done.
PELECANOSYeah, the process is different for everybody.
MCDONALDLet's take another call. Let's go to Jerry, in Fairfax. Gerry, you're on the air.
GERRYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was really interested about the comments about reading in prisons. I'm working on a book right now that's fascinating. It's called, "Shakespeare Saved My Life." And the author is Bates. And she's a PhD in Shakespearian studies. And she talks about going in and actually reading Shakespeare with these maximum security inmates and how fascinating their insights are and how much she gets out of it as a writer and a literature person and how much they're getting out of it. So I just wanted to put a plug in for the book and I think your conversation's really interesting because I love books.
PELECANOSYou know, that's great. The experiences -- look, there's this guy, Dwayne Betts, who we've used and PEN/Faulkner. And Dwayne was -- he won't mind me talking about him. He was in prison in Virginia when he was younger. The Virginia prison officials did not allow books. They said there was contraband in the books and so on. It was really a power play. And so the inmates started giving books to each other via lines, ropes and pulleys. They called it fishing. And one day a book called "Black Poets" landed in his cell and he got turned on.
PELECANOSAnd long story short, Dwayne is a published author. He's written a couple books. He just began law school at Yale. He's a husband and father. I mean it's a great illustration of how reading a book can change your life.
MCDONALDFrazier, there's a sort of common wisdom that kids these days spend too long on computers, they have a shorter attention span, there are fewer and fewer of them reading, is it true?
O'LEARYI don't think so. As I said, my students are reading all the time. The students who meet the authors in their classroom, it's not just the students who gain from that, the authors, invariably are -- the questions that they ask are not questions that the authors get at book readings. They're not the kind of questions where somebody is trying to tell about themselves. They are questions that are very dear to the students' hearts when they ask the questions. And I think that I've found over -- it's been over 20 years of Writers in Schools, that the students are really reading the things closely and asking questions that pertain to the reading.
O'LEARYSo it's not just -- and we don't go over practice questions or anything like that. They're their own questions.
MCDONALDOkay. We're talking about authors in the classrooms with two authors who go into our classrooms in D.C. and in Baltimore, Dolen Perkins-Valdez and George Pelecanos. And Frazier O'Leary is also with us, the president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors and a teacher. We're going to carry on this conversation. You can join it by calling 800-433-8850, or email us at email@example.com, after this little break.
MCDONALDWelcome back. I'm Mark McDonald, WAMU's program director. I'm sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" today. Kojo is out for a few days. And we're talking about Writers in Schools with two such writers, George Pelecanos and Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Frazier O'Leary, from the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors, that's the organization that holds the initiative for bringing the authors into the classrooms. Let's take a call from Dara, in Washington. Dara, you're on the air. Dora's been waiting a long time. Are you still there? Perhaps she's not. Perhaps she's gone to make the coffee. Let's try Conrad in Gaithersburg. Conrad, you're on the air.
DARAThey didn't get me.
MCDONALDAh, who is this?
DARAHello, this is Dara. Can you hear me?
MCDONALDOh, you are there. Yes, you're through to us. Good afternoon.
DARACan you hear me?
MCDONALDYes, we can.
DARAHello. Can you hear me?
MCDONALDYeah, she's not hearing us.
PELECANOSTurn your radio down.
MCDONALDOkay. Let me ask George, we've talked a lot about the student experience and how they benefit from it. What is it like for you going through it? Is it a benefit to the author, as well, to read to the students?
PELECANOSYeah, I mean, I think -- look, again, I just like talking to people and interacting with people. So I always get something out of that type of exchange. And, you know, that's why I keep doing it. I mean, it's a good experience for me and, you know, maybe you can help a kid now and then along the line, too. So it's mutually beneficial, definitely.
MCDONALDYou strongly bonded with D.C. Is that an advantage in terms of being able to connect with the kids?
PELECANOSAbsolutely, yeah. And one of the reason I keep going back to Cardozo is my parents went to that high school, when it was Central. And so I have sort of a bond there, too, as well, through my family. And, you know, Frazier's one of the best teachers in the city. I know his kids are always going to be ready and respectful and it's just going to be a great experience.
MCDONALDDolen, what's the experience like for you? Do you internalize it? Does it give you ideas?
PERKINS-VALDEZWell, I'll tell you, the number one thing that I think makes for a good school visit is when you walk into that room respecting those kids. I don't go in there thinking that I'm there to help them. I go in there to meet them, to talk about books with them, to hear their thoughts, their ideas, their opinions. And I ask them their names and I look them in the eye. So I think what makes a great school visit for any author who goes in there is just knowing that they have everything to give to you and respecting them. And of course you're going to get something out of that.
MCDONALDI think we've got Dara back on the line. Dara, can you hear me?
DARAYes, I can.
DARAHi. My name is Dara La Porte. I'm the cofounder of An Open Book Foundation. We've been in existence for three years. And I have to say I have a lot of respect for what you do as authors and teachers. What we do is we're very much like what you do, but for younger children. Although, we do go into some high schools. We take authors and illustrators from all over the country -- who come when they're in the D.C. area -- take them into D.C. schools in D.C. and in the metro area, so some in P. G. County, some in northern Virginia, any school where at least 50 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch, although it's often 80 percent.
DARAThe authors and illustrators do events in the schools and then we give each kid a copy of the author's book and one of the best parts the kids like so much is the author signs the book to the child. We also put the book in the classroom. And then all of the authors books in the school library, so that the children can then go on and read all of the authors' books. It's been incredibly successful. We started out small and then last year we did about 60 events, gave away about 7,000 books. And we've just been having a wonderful time. We've had fabulous authors come and it's been great.
MCDONALDSo, you know, widening of this experience almost there, as well. Frazier, you have any experience with that sort of contact?
O'LEARYNo. But I'd like to.
DARAYeah, I'm just thinking. I would love to come into Cardozo, as well. It's just been great. We actually didn't know about the PEN/Faulkner Program when we started. I started with Heidi Powell and we were both in the children's department at Politics and Prose. And then I left in order to do this and she's still working there. So we have a lot of experience in children's books. And I was also -- before I had my 15 years in children's books, I had 12 experience as a teacher. So it was putting both of these things together and then bringing it into the schools.
MCDONALDGreat. Thank you very much for your call. Let's take a call from Conrad, in Gaithersburg. Conrad, you're on the air.
CONRADYes. Hello. I was a battered child growing up. I am attention deficit and dyslexic. I was suicidal. I was listening to WAMU, Diane Rehm. She told about a book called "Toxic Parents," and it saved my life. Thank you WAMU, thank you, Diane Rehm. And I learned to read at the age of 18, which was a big change in my life.
MCDONALDThat's astonishing that that can happen when you're an adult, right? That you have that sort of formative experience, right, from a book.
CONRADI was 46 years old when I listened to Diane Rehm.
MCDONALDWell, thank you very much for your call. Everybody's smiling here. Let me ask the authors again, you're both novelists, is there a difference if you go into a classroom and read something that's nonfiction, as opposed to reading a novel or a piece of fiction?
PERKINS-VALDEZWell, I don't write nonfiction, but when I do writing exercises with the students, sometimes they find it easier to start with writing something nonfiction. And then we'll take that and say, okay, well, let's stretch the truth a little bit and let's stretch it a little bit more and let's stretch it a little bit more until it becomes fiction. So I definitely think nonfiction is a very, very important part of connecting with these kids. I don't know. What do you think, George?
PELECANOSSure. I mean any kind of writing and reading, you know, actually we're a reading organization. And so any type of reading is beneficial. One thing I do want to say before we get off is that we are, of course, a nonprofit. And we exist on the kindness of donors. And if anybody's listening to this, you know, go to our website. You can help us out. I guarantee that this program works and that all the money we receive goes directly to books and kids.
MCDONALDFrazier, you would endorse I'm sure.
O'LEARYDefinitely. But the interesting thing about nonfiction, we just had a visit from Philip Caputo, who wrote his memoir, "Rumor of War." And most of the time we have fiction writers, but every now and then we'll have nonfiction writers in the classroom. And the students them the same way. The conversation with Philip Caputo about the Vietnam War with students who are 17 and 18 years old and know nothing about Vietnam, the conversation was fascinating.
MCDONALDRight. Thank you so much, the three of you, for joining us. Frazier O'Leary, George Pelecanos, and Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I'm Mark McDonald sitting in for Kojo this lunchtime. Standby for the news on WAMU 88.5 coming up.
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