A Summer Gathering of Teachers and Authors

By Mary K. Tedrow

In the third grade, Matt de la Pena, the 2016 Newbery Award winner for his book Last Stop on Market Street, decided that he just wasn’t going to be very good at school. From age eight onward, basketball would be his focus.

His negative self-image was prompted by being held back to repeat the grade. True to his self-assessment, de la Pena became that kid at the back of the room, both mentally and physically checked out. But he flourished on the basketball court.

He made this confession to an auditorium full of teachers attending the annual Children’s Literature Conference (CLC), held on the campus of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia every June. The aim of the week-long conference is to bring together writers, teachers, and students to model and practice great literate behaviors. Mindful of the audience, many authors describe their own literacy journeys through and their relationship to both school and reading.

Last summer, Jewell Parker Rhodes (Ninth Ward) outlined her history. She powerfully stated how her childhood reading was an escape into story, a pleasure modeled by her grandmother. At the age of eight, she read one of her own stories aloud to her class and felt the power of her own literary voice.

It wasn’t until her junior year in college that Rhodes encountered a novel by a black American woman. This was the first time she realized that people like her could be writers too. She changed her major the next day.

A 32-year summer tradition

Rhodes and de la Pena are just two of the over 400 authors who have arrived in this small city at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley each glorious June for the past 32 years. The week-long, multi-tiered conference is a staple for many returning teachers and is a chance to see and learn from the best writers of children’s fiction and non-fiction.

For one week, educators learn from authors and each other about teaching, writing, reading, and employing authentic, literate texts. Participants walk away with scores of ideas, autographed books, enthusiasm for the coming year, and up to three graduate credits after wallowing in the words and pictures of the visitors.

It isn’t often that teachers get to see the fruits of their labor. Teachers can lose track of the effect they are having on students as they pass them on from one grade to the next. The authors connect their early literacy experiences to their later success. That kind of insight can inspire and energize educators to share great books and a love of words with the newest generation.

In 2017, Jewell Parker Rhodes didn’t just talk the talk. She walked it too by demonstrating story starters with the young writers also gathered for a week-long workshop on the same campus during the conference week. Parker Rhodes remains mindful of modeling a literate possibility to girls of color and made herself available to the group for a morning workshop.

The talks by Matt de la Pena and Jewell Parker Rhodes and others become fodder for a lunchtime discussion attended by the teachers enrolled in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project Leadership Institute. These teachers listen to successful authors describe and reveal their process while they develop their own writing.

The stories by authors are a powerful reminder that early experiences shape student self-image in both positive and negative ways. The gathered teachers discussed how to build a learning community that fosters growth and confidence – and the importance of introducing books to students that will serve as both mirrors of their own lives and windows into other lives.

Our 2018 summer event

This year the Children’s Literature Conference will take place June 25-29 at Shenandoah University. These authors have already agreed to share their knowledge and artistry: Lois Lowry (The Giver Quartet), Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak), Angela Dominguez (Knit Together, Lola Levine), Loren Long (Otis books ), Meg Medina (Burn Baby Burn, Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass), Linda Sue Park (A Long Walk to Water), Katherine Applegate (The One and Only Ivan), illustrator Matthew Holm (Baby Mouse) and Jason Reynolds (All American Boys, Long Way Down).

The 2018 guest authors list includes Lois Lowry.

Hosted by the School of Education and Human Development (SEHD) and the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project (SVWP), teachers will find a synergistic environment that welcomes the best authors of children’s literature, an opportunity to kindle latent writing abilities, and a community of enthusiastic adult learners focused on improving literacy for all children.

For the past two years, CLC has overlapped with the first week of the four-week Invitational Leadership Institute of the SVWP. And for over a decade the Teacher Consultants of the SVWP – graduates of the Institute – have run a Young Writers Workshop where part of the students’ week is spent in workshops led by the authors of books the young writers will find on the shelves of their school or classroom libraries.

What happens at the Children’s Literature Conference?

Teachers who are enrolled in one of the courses offered in literature or writing spend their mornings in plenary sessions led by authors reviewing their histories as a writer/learner or explaining their writing process.

Afternoons are spent in breakout sessions led by practicing teachers and visiting authors, or in panel discussions. Teachers who enroll in the entire week for graduate credit work in small groups led by instructors.

The week immerses teachers in every aspect of learning: watching strong models, listening to experts, and working on their own creative skills.

The days are full but so are the nights. Dr. Karen Huff, coordinator and developer of the conference, keeps out-of-towners busy with a raft of optional evening activities, some of which include the children of the town of Winchester.

More information and registration for the 2018 Children’s Literature Conference will be mailed to those who express interest.


Teachers who have interest in joining an Invitational Leadership Institute closer to home can find links to National Writing Project sites. The four-week SVWP is unique in offering the overlap with the literature conference.

Not every teacher in Matt de la Pena’s history confirmed his self-image as an inferior student. After learning about college from the mother of a friend, he decided to use his basketball skills to get into a school. After he successfully completed his undergraduate degree, his professors amassed his writings and applied on his behalf to an MFA program. These educators launched his career as a writer for young people.

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Mary Tedrow is Director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and a recently retired National Board Certified teacher at John Handley HS in Winchester VA, where she held the Porterfield Endowed English Chair and served as department chairperson. She is currently an adjunct at Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College and is the co-founder of Project Write, a non-profit corporation dedicated to developing young writers. Visit her website.

Tedrow’s book Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Areas (2017), is published by Routledge/Eye on Education in partnership with MiddleWeb. Receive a 20% discount with coupon code MWEB1.

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