September 20, 2014

Elyria
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Reading group goes beyond the page to talk with authors

ELYRIA — They’re already talking about an appearance on “Oprah,” and they’re dead serious.

Most of ’em, anyway.

“Not me,” said Devin Johnson, 13, a Northwood Junior High seventh-grader. “I want to go on ‘Dr. Phil’ — I’ve got some problems.”
Devin had no problems on Thursday, however, as his deadpan comment drew an intended bout of laughter from seven other boys in his reading group at Northwood.

“No, no,” said the group’s teacher, Stacie Starr, chuckling. “Our new goal is to go on ‘Oprah.’ ” 

Don’t doubt it: Stacie Starr and her band of readers can probably pull it off, as they seem to accomplish everything else they set out to do.

The group’s most recent feat: They’ve landed a daylong speaking engagement with Sharon Draper, the author of  “Copper Sun,” a historic, fictional account of the slave trade between early America and Africa.

“This book links directly into our curriculum,” Starr said. “If you ask most kids today what the Middle Passage was, they wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

But Starr’s students aren’t “most kids,” and their junior-high curriculum is anything but junior.

Consider this: Late last year, Starr managed to open up a dialogue with three men who co-authored a nationally renowned book that her Northwood group was reading, “We Beat the Street.” 

The book hit home with the nine boys in Starr’s reading group, most of whom said they could easily relate to the three co-authors, since the book talked about growing up in troubled neighborhoods, overcoming the odds and a litany of struggles too familiar among urban youth.

While “We Beat the Street” was a true story of the three men’s lives, most of the boys in Starr’s group questioned the veracity of the story. 

To nip the nay-saying in the bud, Starr e-mailed the “We Beat the Street” authors. She quickly received responses from two of the men, and even managed to take a few of her reading students to meet the men during a local book signing.

But that was 2007. This is 2008.

Starr’s students asked her late last year — whey they finished reading “We Beat the Street” — if they could meet Sharon Draper, contributor to “We Beat the Street” and author of their next book, “Copper Sun.”

At the time, Starr just shrugged and smiled. But she was thinking.

Weeks ago, she e-mailed Draper — a Cleveland native and a former recipient of the National Teacher of the Year Award — and asked her if her book “Copper Sun” was appropriate for junior-high students.

Draper responded to the e-mail, and said the book contained vivid writing but was quite suitable for junior-high students.

A dialogue opened between Starr and Draper, and it was eventually agreed that Draper — despite having her schedule booked a year in advance — would be able to visit Northwood Junior High on Tuesday.

The boys in Starr’s reading group can only shrug their shoulders and assume that having an author show up after you’ve read the book is par for the course if you’re a Northwood student.

“I didn’t think (Draper) would have the time to come here,” said Cecil Shelton, one of Starr’s readers.

In addition to the visit from Draper, Starr’s group is also planning to visit Hale Farm near Akron, which offers the students a walk-through and role-playing scenario of the Underground Railroad. And on Feb. 7, Starr’s group is visiting Lorain County Community College, where the three authors of “We Beat the Street” will be speaking.

“These kids will definitely remember all of this,” Starr said.

But they’d probably remember more if they tell it to Oprah.

Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.