Island Readers & Writers Blog

First visit at Woodland Elementary a success!

Woodland Elementary’s (in Baileyville) staff and students warmly welcomed IRW and Ellen Potter to their school for our first ever visit! They were enthusiastic, and made us feel right at home. After Ellen’s all school presentation, the first grade kids were so excited to meet her they had to practice walking by her in another room! They also took the time between the presentation and their classroom visit to think up some great questions including, “Can you tie my shoe,” which, of course, Ellen did. Another student declared, “I’m going to take my book home and read it tonight and use my bookmark.” A kindergarten student said upon receiving his copy of a signed book, “We get to keep these until we’re adults too!” Their excitement was palpable.

In second grade, students created a Poetree and tuned into their five senses to describe their chosen items. One young man said that apples, “look like a red moon with a stem.”

Fifth graders had completed a STEM project – their own “Jaws of Anguish,” based on the novel SLOB. The creative writing pieces that accompanied them were pretty spectacular! They also had two of their three white boards filled with questions for Ellen.

During the 6th grade writing session, kids were asked to create a challenge for their character. One student came up with osteoporosis, while another one’s character’s shoes kept getting stolen.

With an enthusiastic site coordinator as our host who guided us throughout the day, Woodland has proven to be a great new school partner!

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Ellen Potter visits Princeton with her “Brain Bag”

Ellen Potter never disappoints! IRW brought Ellen to Princeton Elementary School to visit students in Grades PreK – 8 last week, and gave signed copies of her books to over 130 kids.

At the school, Ellen and IRW staff were surrounded by a colorful array of student projects based on Ellen’s books, including magazines about her book SLOB, illustrated reflections on Piper Green, earmuff crafts and activities, a Nemesis model in the hallway, reproduced vintage magazines, and even 3D printed Oreos (pictured above) and boulders (two items from SLOB).

To kick off the day, Ellen showed students the mysterious (and sometimes surprising!) contents of her Brain Bag, and fielded a few questions from students about where her ideas come from, and how she came up with certain characters. All-school presentations are an energetic way to start the day, and encourages community building within the school – we’re all here to learn from the same author, AND we’ve all read her books, too!

Ellen visited students in Grades PreK and K and read aloud from her latest book, Piper Green: Pie Girl (which she dedicated to IRW and Maine SeaCoast Mission).

Students in Grades 1-2 built a Poet-tree with Ellen, using their senses to describe an object or activity of their choice. Kids wrote about Halloween, baseball, and -of course- their pets!

Ellen also led a Grades 3 – 4 workshop, during which students wrote down a line of dialogue, then wrote down a place, and added these ideas to two separate containers. They each chose a random slip from each container, and Ellen instructed them to connect the two ‘ideas’ into a short story.

Students took on the creative challenge, and were able to use their imaginations and connect ideas such as “the moon” and “My teacher is smart,” and “pizza!” and “Look at that!”

Ellen prompted the Grade 5-6 group with the same exercise. They also engaged in a lengthy Q&A session where Ellen encouraged them to write about what they want to know about because researching an idea is a great way to learn. When the question of writer’s block came up Ellen turned it back on students and asked what they did to get “unstuck.” “I think of the most faint ideas I have because they’re not strong and you have to really think about them,” was one student’s response. Another said, “When I get stuck, I have to go back and draw a picture to help me remember.” Great ideas from some inspired students!

Ellen wrapped up the day by leading a collaborative story workshop with students in Grades 7-8, and telling them about a new IRW program created just for them – WordCraft – an online learning experience that’ll connect students with Ellen for three weeks after her visit so they can learn more secrets of being a writer and receive one-on-one feedback from Ellen via Skype on their creative work and process.

Thanks for the warm welcome, Princeton! We’ll see you again next spring.

PS: After Ellen and IRW Program Director Ruth Feldman visited Woodland Elementary the next day, they stopped off at the Alexander Art Trail ( to see some of the painted rocks the younger students at Princeton had made to add to the trail.

These were done in the spirit of the Fairy Tree in Piper Green and the art trail has a whimsical, mysterious and creative feel to it, tucked into the woods of Alexander.

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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.

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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.

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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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