Walter Dean Myers dropped out of high school twice, yet his writing has affected legions of inner-city youths. On March 19, the award-winning author told his story to nearly 2,000 educators at the sixth annual Celebration of Teaching and Learning.
The Graduate School of Education (GSE) was a major sponsor of the two-day conference that brought together thinkers, practitioners and more than 10,000 educators at the New York Hilton in Manhattan.
Meyers discussed his highly acclaimed young adult novels, such as Monster(HarperCollins, 1999), winner of the 2000 Coretta Scott King Author Award, and Lockdown(Amistad, 2010). He read an excerpt from Kick (HarperTeen, 2011), which he co-wrote with teenage author Ross Workman.
“Teachers tell me kids are reluctant to read books, yet they will read my books,” he said. “I think it’s because I’ve given them a voice. I went to Stuyvesant High School and dropped out twice. I couldn’t tell teachers what was going on in my life—that my mother was an alcoholic and my family was dysfunctional.”
Myers, who speaks frequently at youth prisons, said that his books resonate with inmates.
“A young prisoner once told me that he has felt the way my characters have felt,” he said.
Growing up in Harlem, Myers said, all he was given to read were works by British writers.
“When I began writing as a child, I’d write ‘Ode to a Fire Hydrant.’ There was something there, but it wasn’t me,” he said, adding that the lack of diversity in literature forced him to reject a lot of himself in his early years.
“I didn’t want to be black or a Harlemite anymore because those things weren’t found in the books I was given to read,” he said. “But when I read James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, it’s as if it gave me permission to write about black life. I knew I enjoyed writing, but I couldn’t write about my own life before then.”
Myers said he knew he had connected with readers when he gave a talk at a school and a young African-American girl was adamant that he wrote a character wrong.
“She kept saying [the character]wouldn’t do that and I said, ‘I’m onto something here,’” he said.
Myers was blunt about the responsibility of adults in urban areas to push education in general and literacy in particular.
“Education is real freedom,” he said. “We need people publicly addressing this, saying, ‘Not only should you do this; you must do this. This is your future.’”
The Celebration of Teaching and Learning was hosted by public television stations Thirteen/WNET and WLIW 21, among other supporters. Headline speakers included Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, Mehmet Oz, M.D., host of the “Dr. Oz Show,” and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Several members of the GSE faculty and administration presented workshops, including:
• Vincent C. Alfonso, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of GSE, on “Assessment of Young Children: Special Considerations for Diverse and Underserved Populations”;
• Carlos R. McRay, Ed.D., associate professor, on “Cultural Collision and Collusion: Reflections on Hip-Hop Culture, Values and Schools”;
• Anita Batisti, Ph.D., associate dean and director of GSE’s Center for Educational Partnerships; Marge Struk, network leader for Fordham’s Partnership Support Organization (PSO); and Joseph Porzio, project associate for PSO; on “What We Should Teach and Why: The Common Core Standards”;
• Amelio D’Onofrio, Ph.D., clinical professor and director of the Psychological Services Institute, on “Learning to Love the Bully: Breaking the Cycle of Violence”; and
• Chun Zhang, Ph.D., professor, on “Documenting the Impact of Teacher Candidates on Student Behavior and Learning.”
Though he no longer lives in Harlem, Myers said he visits the ever-evolving neighborhood at least once a month.
“People moving into the million-dollar brownstones [in Harlem]are not connecting with that kid whose father is in Green Haven [Correctional Facility] and whose mother is on welfare,” he said.
“The Kennedys gave physical fitness a shot in the arm. You’d see pictures of them throwing around a football. We need someone—an Obama, anyone—saying to the kids in these communities, ‘Put a book in your hand,’” Myers said.