Island Readers & Writers Blog

Inter-Island event with Steve Costanza on Isle Au Haut

Students, teachers and parents from Isle Au Haut, Frenchboro, Monhegan Island, Cliff Island and Cranberry Isles converged on Isle Au Haut September 20-22 for their annual Inter-Island event.

IRW participated with guest author, illustrator and musician Steve Costanza who hosted three workshops based on his picture book, “Vivaldi and the Invisible Orchestra,” about a young orphan girl, Candida, who cleans up behind the scenes, and secretly writes notes for the players in Vivaldi’s orchestra.

In the morning, older students listened to some Scott Joplin ragtime to get warmed up and then segued over to Vivaldi and shared what they heard as the “Four Seasons” played, including butterflies, rain, thunder, lightening and a river. Steve spoke about the sonnets upon which the music was based and then analyzed the music further with students noticing: the shepherd snoring, branches rubbing together in the wind, goats prancing on the hill, and the bark of a dog.

Steve reminded them that “Everyone has a head and a heart,” but that writing a book also takes research and a lot of work!

Audrey Noether, left, and Lauren Gray, teachers from Longfellow School on Islesford, look on during Steve Costanza’s workshop with the older students.

Later on, middle grade students enjoyed hearing about the history of Vivaldi’s “invisible orchestra,” which was an orchestra made up of orphan girls who traditionally played unseen behind a curtain. They listened to “Four Seasons” and were inspired to create their own drawings based on the music. Steve tested the students’ knowledge of music history and they were delighted to hear some Beethoven and ragtime by Scott Joplin, who is the subject of Steve’s next book.

One fourth grader said she learned a lot by listening to “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and listening to Steve talk about the meaning behind each note. “At first, I thought it was just music. But then [after talking about it], I could really picture the birds in my mind!”

Author, illustrator and musician Steve Costanza reads aloud from his picture book, “Vivaldi and the Invisible Orchestra.”

After lunch, it was the youngest students’ turn. Steve read from “Vivaldi and the Invisible Orchestra” and then they went outside for some movement inspired by “Spring” and “Winter.” The kids enjoyed acting out the symphony and their movement was made all the more colorful by the scarves and ribbons that Isle Au Haut teacher Rita MacWilliam had in her classroom! Blue scarves symbolized rushing water, while yellow and red scarves symbolized flowers and foliage.

The students then moved inside for the art portion of the workshop, creating artwork based on what they had just heard. There were some creative minds in this group as well.

Students’ artwork from the day was hung at the Isle Au Haut community center for everyone to enjoy during dinner and contra dancing.

A nighttime program for the whole community brought the day to a close as Steve gave an overview of Vivaldi, Venice, and his own illustrations – finishing with some interactive “invisible orchestra” practice of their own. The student artwork was hung gallery-style in the community center where they decorated the room for the evening contra dance – a day filled with music from start to finish! Can’t wait till next year’s Inter-Island event!

Posted in: School Visits

Pizza lunch at Milbridge Elementary

Back in May, author Jacqueline Briggs Martin introduced IRW’s Food for Thought program at Milbridge Elementary School (MES) with her books “Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious” and “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table.” To kick off the program, which is focused on learning about growing food and creating healthy habits, students participated in a variety of projects, including planting vegetables at the town’s community Red Barn Garden.

Last Friday, MES students got to reap the benefits of their own labor with a pizza lunch featuring ingredients they helped grow in the garden! The students munched on pizza with sauce made with oregano, basil and green peppers grown in the garden and a side salad made up of spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and radishes also grown at the Red Barn Garden and whipped into a fresh and beautiful lunch by MES head cook Renee Pray.

Purple potatoes were also featured on the menu. Last spring, grades 1-6 planted seven rows of the colorful tubers in the garden. Some were apprehensive to try the unusual vegetables, while others chowed down.

Purple potatoes = purple tongues!

Trivia cards on each table accompanied flowers also picked from the garden, which helped transform the gym from a typical lunch. As one second grader put it, “This looks like a fancy restaurant!”

All were impressed by the students’ knowledge of food and health-related trivia questions including, “What ingredient causes pizza crust to rise?” and “True or false? Eating carrots can help your eyesight.” There were also questions about Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s books to jog the readers’ memories.

Pam Dyer-Stewart of the Women’s Health Resource Library (at left) and Alison Johnson of Island Readers & Writers.

All students were asked to sign a card that IRW will send to Jacqueline Briggs Martin as a thank you for her visit last spring.

Posted in: School Visits

IRW celebrates 10 years

Illustrator Rebekah Raye works with two young artists during IRW’s recent Summer Morning in Maine annual meeting and breakfast.

As another school year draws near, Island Readers & Writers (IRW) in Southwest Harbor is celebrating its 10th year of bringing innovative, book-centered programs to predominately remote schools across coastal Maine and Washington and Hancock counties.
While the seeds of the organization were planted and cultivated beginning in 2004, today it celebrates 10 years as a thriving nonprofit.

IRW’s programs augment the quality of children’s education by sparking imaginations, developing critical and reflective thinking skills, and expanding worlds through hands-on learning in natural history, science, literature, writing and art.
The organization works closely with teachers, school administrators, community leaders, Maine authors and illustrators, scientists, historians, and volunteers to ensure that its programs meet the individual needs and interests of the communities in which it serves.

“We believe that children who learn through reading and book-related experiences will be more engaged in their own education and will achieve a broader understanding of the world and their own potential,” founder and Executive Director Jan Coates said during IRW’s annual meeting and breakfast held Aug. 10 in Seal Cove. “We also believe in the promise that lies within every child, regardless of their socioeconomic background.”

A decade ago, IRW visited four outer island schools and donated 112 author-signed books to schoolchildren. Last year, IRW donated 3,231 inscribed books to students in 24 different schools from Cliff Island to Lubec, and nearly two dozen schools in between.
IRW’s growth over the past couple of years has been exponential and there are immediate plans to expand its offerings.

This year, two more schools — Ella Lewis School in Steuben and Woodland Elementary School in Baileyville — will become IRW partners for a total of 26 schools served and in the 2018-2019 school year, two more schools will be added to the program.

In addition to the author and/or illustrator school visits, IRW hosts a number of special literature-based programs throughout the year for the young readers of Mount Desert Island.

Starting this fall, students at Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor will have a chance to participate in selecting their own winners for the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious prize in children’s literature.
The Mock Newbery program will allow children to read at least five prize contenders outside of the classroom, become involved in lunchtime discussion groups and ultimately select their own Newbery award winner.

This fall, seventh graders in each of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) schools will all read the acclaimed “Wolf Hollow” by Lauren Wolk and come together on Oct. 20 for the annual Seventh Grade Read.
Students will have the opportunity to collaborate with peers from different MDIRSS schools as well as community volunteer facilitators.

IRW relies on the time and generosity of volunteers, who help make its programs run smoothly.
For more information on IRW or how to get involved as a volunteer, visit or call 244-5111.

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Food for Thought with Jacqueline Briggs Martin at Lubec and Charlotte

And now for the final two visits of the Food For Thought program, first to Lubec and then to Charlotte!

In preparation for author Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s trip to Lubec, the first and second grade made lots of “Trips to Delicious” by cooking and eating meals from the book and doing some planting activities. These youngsters were eager with questions and developed food riddles with Jackie.

The Pre-K/K worked on learning all about worms and how worms help the soil, planted beans, and learned about the tongue and taste. No – don’t worry – they didn’t eat the worms!

Grades 7/8 are working to revive the old greenhouse which got destroyed by a hurricane several years ago. This is a long process with fundraising to be done, but a core group of students are determined to resurrect the hothouse and get planting! They created an accordion journal and shared their stories about food, written for a 4 or 5 yr. old audience.

Plastic bags with sprouting seeds hung outside the 5th and 6th-grade classroom. Always keen on technology, Mrs. Morse introduced them to a virtual simulation of seed starting through Many of the students shared that they have family gardens and/or farm animals.

Ms. Basquet’s group of 3rd and 4th graders were exhibiting great imagination as they developed stories based on vegetables. They were drawing on their experience with “powerful starters” and the format of using panels similar to graphic novels.

Jackie’s visit to the Charlotte school rounded out her three-day tour. During her whole school presentation, she shared her experience of growing up on a dairy farm in Turner, Maine; the seasonal foods that became celebrations; the demanding schedule and responsibility of owning a herd of cows; and what fears she had as a child (runaway bulls!). Students were then willing to freely share their passions, fears, and favorite foods during workshops.

Younger students worked on food riddles, developed accordion books based on Stone Soup or The Gingerbread Man and recreated Jack and the Bean Stalk in some of the writing exercises they did together. They told Jackie about the seeds they had planted both at school and at their home gardens.

The Charlotte school visited Tide Mill Farms Tuesday, May 16, the first warm sunny day in a long time, and the first out-in-the-field day for the cows since last fall! We could almost see them smiling as they ate the fresh green grass which the kids learned becomes the “cud” they chew.

They toured the milking facility and learned about the difference between raw and pasteurized milk, what it means to be certified organic and how they sell both from the farm and to local and southern Maine markets.

They toured the chicken raising and processing center and heard about how farmers need to be multi-talented, including: engineering skills, veterinary and carpentry skills, some electrical knowledge, being physically fit, being a food safety specialist, and having butchering skills – along with gardening skills and soil knowledge, composting, and environmental law knowledge! What a tall order!

They also visited the pigs, who – of course – were happily wallowing in the mud.

In the greenhouse, upon seeing the hundreds of seedlings reaching towards the bright sun, one young fella was convinced that this was the growing table from Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table.

We couldn’t have asked for a better way to wrap up our spring semester, and our 40th school visit of the 2016-2017 academic year!

Click here for more photos of our school visit to Lubec, here for photos from our school visit to Charlotte, and here for more photos of Charlotte students’ visit to Tide Mill Farm.

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Food for Thought with Jacqueline Briggs Martin at Milbridge Elementary

It was a very special day at Milbridge Elementary School to kick off IRW’s Food for Thought program with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin. The hallways lined with growing plants, worm projects vegetable decahedrons. There was even a mural with Alice Waters in her little car on her “Trip to Delicious!”

Mrs. Doucette paid tribute to IRW by hand replicating our logo and creating a mural of all the books over the years that her middle-grade students have read and received through IRW.

Nancy Bailey and her minions took the visit and the value of a community meal to a whole new level by creating the first ever, “Milbridge Elementary Café.” From printed menu and Maître d, to dinner music and bouquets, the kids were treated to a full-course, sit-down, waited-on experience. Teachers filled the roles of wait staff, some really hamming it up, and even received pretend tips from the student patrons.

The kitchen staff cooked up a delicious roast pork with mashed potatoes and carrots for the main course followed by a blueberry crisp for dessert. Even farmer Mike joined the list of invitees invoking cheers from the MES student body.

Of course, many out-to-dinner experiences include a bit of theater, so the first and second grade wrote and performed a puppet show about a farmer and his garden troubles.

Jacqueline had great messages for middle school students who struggle with the idea of pre-writing: “Pass your writing around with trusted friends. Be willing to change your writing. Take the time to surprise yourself with some of the stuff in your brain you didn’t know was there. It’s your unconscious, the place where we dream from. When you are pre-writing these ideas might pop up.”

We were thrilled by the efforts put forth in welcoming us. Our hearts grew several sizes that day, especially, when a young student declared during a journal making workshop, “I made two books and I’m going to make more at home. I love Island Readers & Writers. Stay forever!” She followed this declaration with a huge hug.

We have many more photos from that wonderful visit; check them out on our Facebook photo album!

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Ferry over to Islesboro with Cynthia Lord!

Excitement was palpable from the moment Ruth from IRW and Cynthia Lord got off the ferry and approached Islesboro Central School. Gr K-1 had made some race cars, a la Hot Rod Hamster, using a 3D printer! They test drove them for us; one powered by air from a balloon, and the other by a mouse trap design.

Grades 2-3 were familiar with her Shelter Pet Squad series and had built Ferret habitats based on her most recent book in the series, Merlin. They were eager for the special treat of hearing a Hot Rod Hamster reading as well!

Two of Cindy’s books were chosen to read at the 4/5th grade level, Touch Blue and Half a Chance. Students had conducted some impressive research related to both books. Touch Blue, and the idea of school closures due to low populations, inspired oral history interviews and a visual mapping of the many schools that once existed on Islesboro. Half a Chance and its photo contest theme led the students to capture some of their own photography images according to some of the themes, such as “Holding on,” or “At the Shore.”

They were full of ideas and questions for Cindy during workshops: when she started writing, where she gets her ideas, how many pets she’d fostered, how long does it take to write a book, and more.

Cindy left them with the notion that sometimes as a writer you need to reach outside yourself to delve into other experiences. Principal Heather Knight observed that it is so valuable for students to hear directly from Cindy about the editing process, and to understand that feedback is not personal and is critical for kids to understand the importance of crafting their work to the best possible quality. Islesboro kids will definitely be doing that as they continue to record and document community elders and make connections to the themes in Touch Blue and Half a Chance. Cindy also shared info about her next two books to be published!

For more photos from the school visit to Islesboro, check out our Facebook photo album.

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Poet Guy Paul Janeczko takes word power to Whiting and Machiasport

Paul Janeczko is a poet, a poet anthologist, a writer, and a collector of poems! Last week, IRW brought Paul to Whiting Village School and Fort O’Brien School in Machiasport to share his love of words and poetry with students in Washington County.

At Whiting, Stephanie Higgins’s Grade 1-4 group had been working on poetry for a few weeks using Paul’s poetry anthology, Firefly July. Grade 5-8 worked with Scott Johnson, their teacher/principal, on “literature through the ages” to prepare for reading Paul’s collection, The Death of a Hat.

The younger grades prepared a Narrative Poetry Collection, as well as a full array of Spring Poems – short poems complemented by beautiful artwork  (fun, colorful, and festive!). They were full of questions, such as: When did you first ever write a poem? What was the first poem you ever wrote?

Paul shared that he first started writing postcards to send away for all of the free stuff companies used to offer, and just writing, sending stuff out to the world, and getting a response inspired him to keep going. He admitted that he didn’t like school but was always a reader (he couldn’t get enough of the Hardy Boys – we had to explain who those characters were!).

Paul encouraged students to hear the rhythm, patterns, and melody of poems, while also reminding them that poems don’t always have to rhyme.

Despite all of the fun and play they had with Paul and poetry – he was very honest with them in saying, “ I will show you (today) what you (all) can do; IF you want to, and IF you practice!”

A lovely sign and lineup of poetry books welcomed Paul and IRW to Fort O’Brien School on May 9th. All students were familiar with the poems in Firefly July, and came with questions about poetry, writing, and Paul’s personal life. Kids always want to know if our author and illustrators have pets, and they giggled to hear about how his dog followed him around everywhere and how he identifies with Indiana Jones.

Students in first grade had written and illustrated their own poems about spring, modeling their project on the book. Students in grades 2-6 had conducted research on Machiasport and wrote Diamantes and Acrostics from their work. One young man orally shared a poem he had written and memorized about Minnesota!

Paul took 7th and 8th graders through a “personal inventory” activity to get them warmed up for writing. “If you had to suddenly leave your home, what one item would you want to retrieve? Why is it valuable to you?”

Another wonderful tour of poetry and words with the Poet Guy – Thank you, Whiting Village School and Fort O’Brien School, and thank you, Paul, for collaborating on such a successful couple of days celebrating poetry and creativity!

For more photos from Whiting Village School, check out this Facebook photo album.

For more photos from Fort O’Brien School in Machiasport, check out this Facebook photo album.

Posted in: Uncategorized

Julia Alvarez virtually visits Narraguaguas Junior High

As part of IRW’s Food for Thought program, students at Narraguagus Junior High School enjoyed a virtual visit with author Julia Alvarez, hailed as one of the most influential Latina writers of our time. All seventh and eighth graders had read her novel, Return to Sender, that tells the story of a small New England dairy farm that must rely on the strength and contribution of a migrant Mexican family. In the story, they discover friendships and loyalty, and share their special customs.

Narraguagus students hail from five neighboring towns in Washington County. They had prepared thoughtful questions for Ms. Alvarez, and were able to ask some of them while interacting with her live via Skype.

Here are a couple examples from the Q&A session:

How long did it take to write this book? “All of my life…A story is like a pebble in my shoe.”

Why did you write about immigration? “I did not chose to write about immigration. I was more interested in the characters and their stories, not the abstraction. Things become more human.”

She also told students, “A writer is a writer all of the time. You gather information that you access later on.”

Julia introduced herself as a storyteller/medicine woman and shared how her experience of translating for local dairy farmers and their undocumented workers near her home in Vermont, and tutoring some of those kids, sprouted the idea for this story. Julia believes in the power of stories in helping us understand what is going on in our lives and the lives of those around us.

She talked about sustainable agriculture: “Take care of the land. Take care of the people. Nurture the soul.”

She inspired children: “What story is missing? The one that you’re going to write.”

She advised the brave: “Write to find things out.”

In preparation for the author visit, students made posters representing their own family background. Students discovered they came from all over; Mexico, Ireland, Scotland, Lithuania, France, Native American… “We are all immigrants,” was the theme. They also did reports on farming in Washington County – from blueberries to clams to maple syrup.

They had a Day of the Dead table set up that mirrored the custom described in the book to honor and memorialize someone dear who had passed away. Everyone throughout the school was encouraged to bring in a photo or item to display. Traditional rock skulls were painted and colorful skull pages were hung along the edge.

Since Ms. Alvarez had shared a virtual greeting before the visit, students created a video for her representing their community; the coast, forests and barrens of Washington County. They also included their school, surrounding areas and the migrant farmer housing that dots the side roads nearby. They learned a lot about Ms. Alvarez, the power of story, and most importantly, themselves.

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To the islands and beyond!

In his book Faraway Friends, Russ Cox’s characters declare, “To Jupiter and beyond!”

On April 25th and 26th, IRW went to the islands and beyond.

At North Haven on the 25th, Russ pulled props out of an envelope for 5th – 8th graders to use as prompts to get creative with their newly acquired sketchbooks, by incorporating their prompt object into their drawings. The 7th & 8th grade group requested a second session with him for after lunch since they were just getting warmed up in the morning!

The PreK group at the Waterman’s Center on the island had created their own helmets and a space ship complete with a drawbridge entry door! They were also very well practiced on the space countdown.

Kids had interesting questions for Russ, such as the 5th/6th grader who asked, “Have you ever used a rock to draw on another rock?”

A great first island visit day was topped off by an adventure by water, not spaceship, as Ruth, IRW program director, and Russ crossed the thoroughfare by water taxi to Vinalhaven.

A lovely potluck dinner with Vinalhaven elementary grade teachers awaited us, thanks to the hosting by long-time teacher/IRW supporter/Vinalhaven’s school site coordinator Sue Dempster.

Russ viewed students’ projects based on his book, including PreK and kindergarteners’ paper rocket ships and “shape ships,” 3D rockets ships, rocket ship collages and accompanying stories (which first graders read to us out loud).

The highlight of the day was an epic egg drop; all elementary students were partnered across grades and given an identical kit of materials with which to build a safe container for their egg to be dropped. They had to graphically design the “harness,” describe it, and write a story about it. Amidst shrieks of excitement and disappointed “aw”s in unison, the surviving eggs – dropped from a height of 25+ feet – were celebrated and cheered on.

During an afternoon workshop with Grades 3 – 5, students asked Russ engaging questions, such as, “When did you make your first project?” “Did you go to art school?” and “How long does it take to write a book?” (Answers: About one year old, yes, four years and seventeen versions).

Thank you, North Haven and Vinalhaven, for welcoming us to your schools and being dear (and not-so-faraway) friends to our team and authors!

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Grades 7-8 students from three schools virtually visit with Gary Schmidt

During a virtual visit with Edmunds, Pembroke and Charlotte 7th and 8th graders, Gary Schmidt, author of Okay for Now, shared “the story behind the story.” He recounted how a library he was familiar with in Flint, MI, was running into financial hardships and began selling off their John J. Audubon prints (prominent in the novel).
He shared history of the prints and some history of the U.S. which contributed to the pieces of the story as it unfolded in Okay for Now. With candor and deep interest, the students, teachers, and Gary exchanged heartfelt reactions about the characters and their circumstances. They were particularly interested in knowing the outcome of characters and were pleased to hear that the same protagonists show up in Orbiting Jupiter, a recent novel, and that they show up in an upcoming book as well.
Students got a sneak peek when Gary shared some visuals and the writing/illustrating process with them regarding his picture book to be published about Sojourner Truth. Gary shared that there are two general plots in the world: a stranger comes to town, or someone leaves town. Either way, Gary says that you get to reinvent yourself.
Students had lots of questions regarding the characters, those they liked and related to, and those they hated (Doug’s mean father), and asked about how true any of the circumstances were in the story.
Ultimately, they loved comments about writing like this one: “ inspiration is just a bunch of hooey – sit your butt down and you just do it!”
We’re so glad that Gary does, and that he’s always willing to guide young writers and inspire them to write it out!

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