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Teachers hear from children's authors

Dorothy Grants Hennings made sweeping motions with her hands and spoke in rhythmic tones that were alternately strong and hushed. Her audience joined in, chanting the words of Langston Hughes' poem, "City," and gesturing in unison.

Hennings, a children's author and educator from Kean College, N.J., was demonstrating to schoolteachers and librarians how to involve children in literature.

She was a speaker at the first Connecticut Book Fair Teachers' Conference on children's literature, held at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center November 14. Other speakers were authors Christopher Collier, Jean Fritz and Tomie De Paola, and Thomas Wilsted, director of the Dodd Center. The conference, cosponsored by the School of Education and the Dodd Center, drew about 90 participants from all over the state, despite the first snowstorm of the season.

Hennings urged the teachers to draw children into a story or poem through gestures or acting out the narrative. "Children should be involved in doing stories and doing poems," she said.

Understanding the structure of a piece of literature will help children to enjoy it. "A literary response enhances any aesthetic response," she said.

"Writing is not by chance, it's by design. We need to help children see the design."

But in order for children to look at literature from a literary angle, "we as teachers must first read aesthetically and enjoy it," she said.

Christopher Collier, a professor of history and the state historian, discussed the use of historical novels in class. Collier, who writes historical novels for fifth and eighth graders, also uses the novels to teach sophomore classes at UConn. "All novels are pedagogical," he said, "and the better the novel is, the more useful the learning."

Collier said he began to write historical novels at the age of 25 when he was teaching at a school in Greenwich. "I realized I wanted something to happen in my classroom that would turn kids around," he said.

He said it is important to select novels for classroom use with care. A good historical novel is one that deals with a significant topic, is appropriate to the age of the students, and is historiographically sophisticated, he said. A writer of historical novels must keep up with the latest research.

A good novel must also be literarily sound, added Collier, who collaborates with his brother, novelist James Lincoln Collier. "I want kids to learn from reading these books. If it's not a good story, they won't read it and they won't learn."

Collier also addressed the issue of censorship in schools. He said his novel My Brother Sam is Dead sells 100,000 copies a year, but in 1996 it was one of the top 10 most censored books in the United States because of some of the language it uses. He said the language was carefully selected to make a point, and he advised teachers to have a written policy for selecting books to prevent censorship that is ill conceived. Many people who want to censor books have not even read them, he said.

Collier said that although students find historical novels interesting to read, "none of these books teach themselves. Students have to be guided through them by a knowledgeable sensitive teacher," he said. "The teacher is central to all this. The books are just tools."

Judy Thayer, a first grade teacher at Willington Center School, said she learned some useful lessons from the conference that she will share with the children in her class. After hearing how Tomie De Paola bases his writing on his own life, she said, she will teach them to write about what they know. She also will tell them "that writing is hard and even though the stories look like they were easy, (the authors) often took many tries, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting before they got it just right."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu and Sherry Fisher