Friday, June 6, 2014

Ishful Thinking: Our Marvelous Skype Visit with Peter H. Reynolds

As individuals we are powerful, but together, we are limitless. Like Captain Planet, our combined strengths create something new and incredible. We uphold this value at the college I teach at, consistently quoting the Illinois Professional Teaching Standards (Goal #8, to be more precise), but it’s one thing to stand on a soapbox and another to teach by example. And we know which one has a lasting result…

Student-created art from Education through the Arts course

This semester I had the opportunity to collaborate with my new colleague, Rena Grosser, a licensed Art Therapist, who is teaching our Education through the Arts course. Rena is all about experiential learning, finding new and innovative ways to bring the arts to life in her classroom. Rena dreams big and as we brainstormed about connecting her Education through the Arts class and my Children’s Literature class, we came up with the idea of connecting virtually with an author/illustrator who could perfectly capture the value of the arts in the classroom. It was a no-brainer; we knew we had to invite Peter H. Reynolds to join us. All future teachers (and current ones, too) should be familiar with his work.

As an author and illustrator, Peter H. Reynolds creates powerful, beautiful, authentic stories about creating art, going on journeys, expressing ourselves, taking chances, and the endless possibilities within. As an entrepreneur, he co-founded FableVision, a company that seeks to make the world a better place using storytelling, films, programs, and teaching tools that engage all learners. As an advocate for arts in education, he is a passionate and thoughtful voice for creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and compassion. As future teachers, I hoped my students would be inspired by his work and accomplishments.

However, while I was familiar with Peter Reynolds’ famous ode to self-expression, The Dot, I didn’t know much about his work before this experience. In order to prepare for our author visit, we engaged in an Author Study. Think of it as Peter H. Reynolds Con minus the cosplay. (Oh, actually The Dot cosplay sounds amazing!) Author visits are only as successful as the effort put into preparing for them. I put aside a collection of books by Peter Reynolds in our library so students could easily access and read his books. (Thanks, Skokie Public Library, for your extensive Peter Reynolds collection!) Working in pairs or individually, my students chose from a selection of topics to research and present to the class. Topics included:

Personal Biography and his work

Professional Biography and his work

Inspiring the Creative Spirit: The Dot and Ish

Peter’s Art and Creative process

Following your Dreams: The North Star and Rose's Garden

Peter’s Illustrations for Other Writers (Megan McDonald, Judy Blume, Alison McGhee)

International Dot Day and Dot Activity

Innovation and Creation: Going Places (co-written by Paul Reynolds) & Sydney’s Star

Connected and Disconnected: I’m Here + So Few of Me

For each topic, the students provided the essential background information to familiarize us with the topic. They shared suggestions for how to bring each topic into the classroom and how to help readers make text-to-self and text-to-world connections. And they prepared questions for Peter in anticipation of our author visit.

During our Author Study, I was not the holder of knowledge, the arbiter of understanding, the queen of content; my students were. While I provided resources and support, my students became experts in their topics and were given a forum to share this knowledge and passion. It was a joy to behold as my students took the reins in my classroom and became the teachers. This kind of authentic learning gave them ownership of the information and helped them feel prepared to engage in critical analysis of Peter’s work and connect with him over Skype.

When we were done with the Author Study, it was time to switch classrooms and join Rena to Skype with Peter Reynolds. We knew that his work was beautiful and inspiring, that he was an passionate advocate for literacy and the arts, but we had no idea just how generous and supportive he would be. Across the hundreds of miles that separated us, we connected in incredibly meaningful ways. He asked us to be brave – and help our students become brave. He issued a challenge to us to “create a culture that supports creativity and sharing ideas” by not putting down our own abilities, but instead, engage in creating art along with our students. Just like The Dot, he emphasized the importance of displaying student-created work in our classrooms and supporting their artistic endeavors. We were captivated by his behind-the-scenes stories about the publication of his books. I felt gratified when he touched upon ideas that my students had mentioned during our Author Study; I could see the gears in their minds click together as we listened. We were particular moved by his story about his math teacher who noticed Peter’s drawing skills and realized that Peter could use his gifts and talents to teach. He asked Peter to create a comic to teach math concepts. This led Peter to create his first animated film and showed him a new world of possibilities. This teacher planted the seeds for all that came afterwards. As teachers, what could be more powerful?

While our Skype visit had to come to an end, Peter urged us to think of him as a friend and stay connected. It’s hard to put into words, but just by connecting with him for a brief time, I felt more hopeful about the world and my place in it. I don’t think I was the only one. Peter’s message about the impact that teachers can have has planted seeds now that are sure to bear fruit in my students’ future classrooms. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are some of my students’ responses to this experience.

“It was so helpful that we had done all that background information.”

“I want to write!”

“[I love his idea of] doing the unexpected.”

“He’s amazing – and I really think he’s changing the world. I hadn’t heard of Peter Reynolds before this class, but he really touched me, and I’m inspired!”

“I really like how he said you can be creative in lots of [different] ways.”

“I felt so prepared and knowledgeable when it came to ... our Skype visit with Peter Reynolds. Meeting him was a really cool, especially because we spent so much time studying his work.”

In the end, all the time and effort we put into collaborating on our Peter Reynolds Author Study and Skype visit is small compared to the impact that this experience has had – and will continue to have for our students. This experience will be a touchstone for our community of future teachers who will draw inspiration from it and light the way for their students.

Peter H. Reynolds Resources 

Collaboration is not limited to our classrooms. It is my hope that the work we have done can be useful for other teachers and communities. I truly believe in the value of creating work - and sending it out into the world. Feel free to share other resources in the comments, too - and continue the conversation.


Peter Reynolds' Biography by Faygie C. and Batsheva N. 

Creative Space: Peter H. Reynolds Art and Creative Process by Ariella W. and Anna S.

Connected and Disconnected: I’m Here + So Few of Me by Eti Berland (Feel free to use, reuse, remix.)

Peter Reynolds' Illustrations for Other Authors by Sarah M. 

Creation and Innovation: Going Places and Sydney's Star By Chava S. 

Resources for Author Study

Peter Reynolds’ Website

Peter Reynolds’ blog 


Peter's Store: Bluebunny Books

The Reynolds Center for Teaching, Learning and Creativity

Fable Library


Children's Book Author Peter Reynolds Author and illustrator ("The Dot", "Ish") Peter H. Reynolds talks about why he does what he does.

I'm Here


He was Me
"A quiet story about the inner child in all of us, and the eternal struggle to retain our sense of self in a busy world."

Above and Beyond
"A story about what is possible when communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity take center stage in schools and transform learning opportunities for all kids."


The Educator's Guide for The Museum, by Susan Verde, Art by Peter H. Reynolds

The Dot/Dot Day

The Educator's Handbook for International Dot Day 

A Guide for Classrooms using The Dot and Ish

Brain Burps about Books Podcast: Interview with Terry Shay 

The Dot Club 


Bildungsroman Blog: Interview about Sky Color 

EdTech Digest: The Fabulous Peter and Paul Reynolds

General Author Study Resources 

How to Get your Child to Love Reading by Esme Raji Codell 

Something about the Author

Reading Rockets Author Study Toolkit 

Scholastic's BookFlix 

Author Visit Resources

Youth Services Librarianship Wiki: Author Visits

Scholastic’s Author Visit Kits

Skype an Author Network 

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