Author Jacqueline Woodson‘s keynote address was one of the highlights of the 2018 NJEA Convention. Woodson was the 2014 National Book Award Winner for her New York Times best-selling memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. In addition to authoring award-winning books for young adults, Woodson was named the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017 and is currently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, an honor bestowed by the Library of Congress.
Woodson’s books are taught throughout New Jersey’s public schools, creating excitement teachers and ESPs who now had the opportunity to hear directly from her. She did not disappoint her audience.
Woodson spoke of the power of the written word. She reminded the gathering that reading changes lives, opens new worlds and can transform the human experience. She emphasized the role that reading should play in all areas of the curriculum. She encouraged educators to “deeply see” the children in the classrooms for all that they can and should be.
Woodson infused her own writing into the story she told of her journey to become an author. She discussed how educators and books transformed her life. She described her adolescent self as “struggling reader.” As she overcame her challenges as a young reader, she eventually unlocked new worlds for herself.
“I would read the same story over and over and over,” said Woodson. “I would get extra help at school. Ultimately, reading slowly is how I became a writer. I read slowly because I wanted to reach a deeper understanding of the text. I wanted to laugh and cry. I wanted to think.”
Woodson held the audience in rapt attention as she read from Brown Girl Dreaming, walking the audience through her mind as a writer. She emphasized the power of story that educators must always maintain as they work with young people. Woodson talked about the role stories have played in her own life as she sought to understand her own family’s personal history.
“We are all here because of the people who have come before us,” said Woodson. “It’s our stories that connect us across generations. It starts with letters, then sounds, and then words, sentences and stories. These stories change us.”
As she emphasized the value of children’s access books through their school libraries, Woodson lamented returning to a childhood public school to find it without a library.
Woodson insisted that educators must share their own stories with their students.
“Stories have power,” Woodson said. “They have the ability to move us. Your voice was stronger than it was before: use it.”
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