In the Educator Spotlight today – middle grade author and 5th grade teacher Brooks Benjamin!
Please tell us about yourself!
My name is Brooks Benjamin. I’m the author of My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights and I teach 5th grade in a tiny Tennessee town you’ve probably never heard of. I’ve been at that school for 15 years and have taught everything from first to fifth. My sweet spot, however, seems to be 4th and fifth. I love interacting, teaching, learning with, and writing for kids that age. They’re beginning to explore their independence with this wonderfully innocent curiosity and that allows for so many amazing learning opportunities.
What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?
My favorite MG book is and will always be Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. The struggle Jess deals with in creating the relationship he needs with his dad is something I always connected to. Some of my more recent favorites, though, are anything by Natalie Lloyd, anything by Dan Gemeinhart, the Track series by Jason Reynolds, The Last Kids on Earth series by Max Brallier, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier, Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, Alan Cole is Not a Coward by Eric Bell, Death and Douglas by J.W. Ocker, The Last Monster by Ginger Garrett, The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta, and so many more that I’d be able to fill up this entire interview with a massive list of books everyone should check out.
Tell us about your classroom library!
Oh, this I’m quite proud of. I’ve spent the last several years collecting books from different conventions I was invited to, being first in line at my local indie on release day, and going on shopping sprees after spending months begging for bookstore giftcards from friends and family during the holidays. I don’t know exactly how many books I have in my classroom library, but it’s near 1,000. To some teachers out there, that number may seem a bit paltry, but for our tiny little rural school it’s quite something. My room has become a second library to other students in the school. Even our librarian comes to me sometimes asking if I have a particular book a kid can check out. And, of course, I let them. They simply write their name down with the title of the book and it’s theirs for as long as they need it. I’ve got my books divided into every genre and nothing is leveled. They range from picture books all the way to a few select, totally-appropriate YA books, but the majority of my library is MG. And, yes, before I ever shelve a book, I make sure to read it first. I can’t recommend a title if I don’t know why a student might love it.
How do you make sure that the books your students have access to reflect the diversity of our world?
I stay connected to other educators, authors, and industry professionals who are promoting the underrepresented voices of authors everywhere. Adding one or two books to a classroom library doesn’t do the job. It takes a concerted effort on my part to make sure that when I come back from a bookstore, I’m not only about to add quality titles to my library, but I’m also about to further diversify my current list. In order to do that, we have to keep our eyes and ears on what’s being said about the books coming out. Listening is key. There are some problematic books or authors we don’t need to spend time promoting when there are others out there with authentic voices that need our support.
Are you connected with authors online? How do you incorporate authors in your classroom?
I am! Being an author myself definitely makes it easier to reach out to fellow writers. One thing I love doing (which I plan on doing even more next year) is Skyping with authors. Twitter has been instrumental in helping me connect with and stay connected to authors. I haven’t met a single author yet who wasn’t more than happy to coordinate a Skype visit with a classroom. Last year we were lucky enough to visit with Hena Khan and Tracey Baptiste and my class had the best time asking questions and learning all about the authors’ lives.
How do you encourage less-than-enthusiastic readers?
Patience. It takes loads of patience. You can’t keep shoving a book into a kid’s hands and expect them to eventually love it. There are so many reasons a child might be unwilling to read. Just like getting them to try anything new, you have to help them start small and work their way up. What I do is read a lot to my students. Letting them hear me enjoy the book, allowing them to see me get into the story, providing them an opportunity to experience the character’s journey at a safe distance helps build that bridge from listener to reader. In my class, I’ll read them anything from comic strips to picture books to novels. They need to see that nothing is off limits when it comes to reading. It doesn’t matter how wordy or wordless it is, the joy comes from living the story through the characters, no matter how it’s told. That combined with a well-stocked library, I believe, is the key to giving reluctant readers the encouragement and support they need to pick up a book on their own.
How do you share your own love of reading with your students?
What advice would you give new teachers?
My biggest piece of advice is one I have to remind myself of from time to time. With all the testing and curriculum and meetings and conferences that get thrown at us and pushed into our schedules during the year, we have to remember why we’re there. We’re there for the kids. To make their lives better. We’re there to teach them academic, behavioral, social, and emotional skills that will allow them to be better human beings. The problem is, we can’t do every bit of that ourselves. As much as we want to, we’re just not equipped to handle it alone. And that’s why we have to have the stories that can fill in the missing pieces so every kid’s education is as complete as possible. That’s why we have the inservices to become better educators and to learn more ways to connect with our class. Every book we select, every professional development session we attend, every lesson we teach, it has to be for the kids. Hands down, full stop, no questions asked. They are, after all, precious cargo. They’re our future. Handle with care.
Want more inspiration? Check out the other #MGEducators interviews and guests posts!