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Author Showcase

Spring 2008 Featured Author, Peter DeWitt

RT: Your first book, Toaster Pond, is a fantasy for pre-teens (10 and up). Doug Manion, Skip Corbin, and Pierce Butterworth are drawn into an adventure that requires them to make decisions about things "bigger" than themselves. This is fiction, but do you find this type of decision-making common for today's youth?

Peter: Great question! I do think it is common for today’s youth to have to make big decisions from time to time. They are inundated with so many “Adult-like” situations through the media and peer relationships. In education, we talk to kids so much about making good choices during tough times that I thought it was important for readers of that age to read about three kids who have to deal with those things as well.

RT: Both Toaster Pond and Isabella ... and the Room of Lost Brooms are middle-grade fantasy novels. One features boys as the main characters, the other a pre-teen girl. Do you find that the audiences break down along gender lines, too?

Peter: This is a difficult question for me to answer. The short answer is probably "yes." Boys are more likely to read books with boy characters; but I also believe girls are more willing to read a book with either a boy or a girl lead character. My editor for both books originally wanted me to have a male lead character for Isabella and the Room of Lost Brooms and I disagreed. I think it is important to have strong females as the main characters in books. Lately, what I have found when I talk with readers is that both boys and girls love Isabella. That's great to hear. I wanted a character that resonated with both boys and girls and I believe Isabella does that.

RT: Getting kids to read — and keeping them reading in middle school and beyond — is a big task. Test scores have told us for years that boys are falling behind, and last year, for the first time, we're seeing that reading scores for girls have declined, as well. Are there things we can do to help our kids with reading? Should we just conclude they are "lost" if they don't like to read by the time they reach middle school?

Peter: I’m a bit embarrassed to answer this question so honestly. I was a horrible reader when I was a kid and I hardly ever picked up a book. As I became more successful in school, I began to read more and more, but that was not until I was in college. The simple fact is that we, as educators, are competing against video games, iPods, and other forms of technology. We need to accept that and figure out how to use technology to our advantage. Many teachers at the school where I am the principal incorporate books on CD and books that can be read on the computer as a way to engage a child. In a strange way, I think movies are great for reading as well. How many of us get excited when a movie comes out based on a book we read, like Harry Potter for example?

I do have one more point. In my thirteen years in education I have met parents who tell me that they punish their child by sending them to their room to read. “No video games, no television!” That is a huge mistake because the kids equate reading with punishment. Let’s face it, if the child really loved to read, that would not be a punishment at all. The same things happens with writing. “Write 'I'm Sorry' fifty times!” That’s a mistake, too. Reading and writing should not be punishment, they should be an escape to an exciting time of life or a gateway to a better education. To get students to read, share books with them. There are children in this country who do not have access to books because their parents cannot afford to buy them. We need to find ways to get books to those children. There is no simple answer for getting kids to read. I feel fortunate to be a principal and an author because the students at Poestenkill, where I’m the principal, read a lot. Sometimes it is even my book!

RT: Your most recent story is "Cather's Mitt." It is a short story, far different you’re your fantasy novels. Can you tell us about it?

Peter: "Catcher’s Mitt" appeared in the fall edition of Grief Digest. It is a story I am proud of because it is a personal one. In 1981, I was in fifth grade and my dad was dying of cancer. He gave me a left-handed catcher’s mitt the Christmas before he passed away. I have four older siblings, and my dad would play with catch with my brother Jody and me. We were the youngest and by then, the older siblings were hanging out with friends. Back in 1981 left-handed catcher’s mitts were hard to find, and there was no Internet shopping. So he and my mom had to special order this gift.

I stopped playing baseball after he passed away (you’ll have to read the story), I still have the catcher’s mitt. Some publishers have told me that although they love the story, it is too sad to publish as a picture book. I hope to find a publisher who is willing to take the chance. It isn't too sad, it’s just a part of my life. Lots of children out there have lost a parent and I think it is a story of hope.

RT: Does "Catcher's Mitt" mark a change in your writing focus? Do you think you will change genres or audiences?

Peter: It’s funny, I don’t think I have written enough to have a set genre or audience. I follow my heart. I really hope to have the opportunity to write on a variety of topics in a variety of genres. I love YA adventure novels, but I love education as well. Right now, I’m working with a large educational publisher on a book about struggling learners; that's a big change in focus. I am really excited about the project because I give presentations at state and national education conferences on the topic and it is great that someone is giving me the opportunity to write a book about it.

RT: On your website, you describe yourself as a struggling learner. I don't imagine there is a standard definition, so how would you define a struggling learner? Is there an age that is "too young" to determine a struggling learner? For example, if a Kindergartener isn't reading yet, should a parent be concerned? If a parent suspects their child is struggling, what can they do at home and through school to help?

Peter: I was very much a struggling learner when I was younger. I was retained in fourth grade, struggled throughout my schooling and graduated fourth from the bottom of my senior class. I went to three different community colleges before I asked for help, and my grades went from a 1.7 to a 3.86. I was fortunate because I found success. There are different degrees of struggling. Around 30% of all students struggle with something. Some students struggle with one subject and have to get extra assistance to find success. Other students struggle with every subject and they need specific intervention to help them.

Unfortunately, standardized testing has put a lot of stress on teachers, parents, and students. I do think we can use the data from those tests to help a student find success ... as long as we don’t think that the student will struggle forever. We do not grow up in a controlled environment and a student who struggles may find resilience and then overcome the challenges that were holding them back. If a parent feels their child is struggling they need to begin with the school the student is attending. Schools have so many resources and intervention options parents can use, and they do not necessarily cost anything.

RT: You taught in an elementary school for eleven years before becoming a principal. You also teach in the Graduate School of Education at the College of Saint Rose (Albany, NY) and speak around the country about struggling learners. What do audiences present to you as their biggest (top three) issues for today's students?

Peter: 1. Building student engagement — Getting students involved in their own education.
2. Parental involvement — Sometimes parents who had a negative experience while they were students bring that “baggage” with them and it falls on their children. School has changed a great deal, and parents need to be involved in their child’s education.
3. Testing & accountability — We all hope that testing will be appropriate and it will give us good information about children.

RT: In addition to your daily work routine, you also have a number of promotional activities related to your books. With all that on your plate, how do you find time to write?

Peter: It’s great to be busy, but I like downtime too. You’re right. In February I spoke in Hawaii for their state conference (no complaints!) and South Carolina for the state reading conference. I was in France in early April, came back for a week and flew to Lake Tahoe for a weekend to speak at the Nevada State Mega Conference. They were all great trips, and there were also smaller speaking engagements in there as well. I did not have time to write, b ut that's Okay, because my favorite time to write is during the spring, summer, and fall. I am gearing up to write in the coming months. I write when the mood hits me, not because I think I have to write every day. I don’t want it to be a task. I want it to be an escape and a learning experience. So far it’s going alright.

RT: This Winter, you did an educational series for News Channel 13 (WNYT). Can people see those clips on the Internet?

Peter: : In the Albany, NY area, we are fortunate enough to have a newscaster on WNYT (NBC affiliate) named Elaine Houston and she is a proponent of education. She is really a fantastic person with a good heart. She loves talking about education. She and I met when she interviewed me after Toaster Pond came out in 2006. We have kept in touch and she asked me to create some segments on how to help parents help their struggling learners. We went from 7 segments to 16 and they ran from January 5th through April. It was really a great experience. Readers can go to www.wnyt.com to view the segments and also read the blogs that accompany them. One of the blogs was picked up by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and e-mail blasted out across the country. All very exciting stuff!

RT: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Peter: Yes. I am proof that following your heart can help you become successful. When I was growing up I had several people who told me that I would not be successful in life. The sad part is that I listened to them for so long and it almost prevented me from doing what I want to do. Try to ignore people who say you can’t do something. [Unless it’s your parents of course. Let’s not get grounded!] We all have ideas of what success means to us. Many people think that money or fame will make them happy. What makes me happy is having a balance between a great personal and professional life. Being a principal, author, and presenter makes me profoundly happy.

Thank you for interviewing me. The Reading Tub® is a great company doing important things for education, so I’m thankful that you thought of me.

Website: www.petermdewitt.com


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