Interview with iOBookUpDetroit instructor, Shawntai brown
Shawntai Brown is a poet, playwright, and teaching artist with a Bachelor’s of Arts in creative writing from Western Michigan University. A Cass Tech-bred Detroit native, Shawntai’s comedic plays and narrative works have focused on faith, gender, race, sexuality and community. She is the author and co-director of eLLe Kalamazoo play project series, and former editor/organizer of the Voices theater project. Currently, she is enjoying her residency with Inside Out Literary Arts Project, but mostly she spends her days dreaming up interpersonal games, chopping vegetables and discouraging her rabbits from eating her sofa.
Courtney Gillette: What was your relationship to reading like when you were young?
I realized I needed to read books about people I might find in my life rather than whatever books my teachers handed me.
Shawntai Brown: My mom was dedicated to making sure her kids were readers at a young age. I remember listening to Hooked On Phonics tapes while riding in the car to the grocery store, and reading along with my Teddy Ruxpin. I was really eager to read and would memorize the books my mom read to me so I could pretend like I was reading, which eventually turned into actually knowing how to read. My mom died when I was nine, and my dad wasn't much of a reader, so the weekly bookstore visits my mother had taken me on now stopped. Over the summers, my grandmother would assign me book reports on mini versions of classical books because she had a huge set. Of course, I read Babysitter's Club a lot, mostly because my older sister read them, and I wanted to seem as cool as she did.
The next time I remember being glued to a book outside of school was when all of my friends were reading The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. I was captivated. I hadn't read any books with black characters who lived in current times. I definitely hadn't had an uncensored conversation about a book with people my age before. We would gather around our lockers between classes, directing each other to particularly juicy chapters and discussing all of the ways we cringed, laughed, cried and dislocated our dropping jaws as we moved through the book. I realized I needed to read books about people I might find in my life rather than whatever books my teachers handed me.
CG: A unique part of BookUp is making reading interactive. You’re a playwright as well as a theater teacher. How has theater influenced your BookUp lessons?
SB: I've focused much of our activities around poetry, but I don't find it to be too different from playwriting. Thinking about voice, tone, imagery in poetry really made me into a playwright. We talk a lot about the characters of the book: how they look, what they think of themselves, how they speak, their motivations, their history, how they fit in the world, and how the world of the book perceives them.
We also talk a lot about setting. For me, it's important to keep visualizing the set. Most of my readers haven't spent much time in rural areas, so while we were reading Bone Gap, I invited students to paint scenes from the book of gardens, farmlands, golden landscapes, etc.
Connecting theater to Nimona, a graphic novel, was a great chance to do staging. We thought about how an artist might stage an action scene by pulling abstract nouns from a hat and working in groups to freeze in action-suggesting positions that implied the pulled word.
Students said they want to stage a scene from one of the books for their end of the year celebration. I couldn't hide my enthusiasm when they said that.
Diversity plays a huge role in how BookUp can reach students. Can you talk about any diverse titles that BookUp iO Detroit students have responded to?
SB: Students have really appreciated seeing more women in powerful positions like the shape-shifting Nimona or beekeeping Petey. They are sick of the damsel in distress trope or books solely focused on romance, which they tend to not read much of outside of BookUp as well. Having gay or suggestively gay characters was unusual for my readers, but created a great opportunity for dialogue. The kids did not want to talk about gay sexuality, so they actually became silent in discussion when we came to the suggestive section of one book. I assured them it was ok to talk about the love between two male superheroes/villains. The group had varying comfort levels, language or experience with LGBTQA people in their real lives, and were able to talk about how relatable or "not a big deal" the characters are. There also were some students who were completely weirded out by any mention of sexuality other than heterosexuality. They felt their own sexuality was being challenged if they liked a gay character. Books should challenge us, and it opened a discussion between students about how, for them, the character's sexuality didn't matter to the rest of the story. One student said that it's cool for gay kids to have characters that are like them. Everyone could agree that was a positive, and something they all enjoyed.
I definitely think students need more exposure to diverse characters that both reflect their experiences and challenge them to see the world in a new way.
Still, many of the characters in the books we read were white. When we did have a character with brown skin, students didn't notice. They glossed over the description as someone with a tan and didn't equate the character's name, Miguel, with being Latino. Being as Detroit is very segregated, my southeast readers had no idea of the diverse southwest Latino community just minutes away from their school. Their afrocentric school is nearly 100% black in students and staff. While most of my students' neighbors and relatives are black, and they rarely ever are in situations where most of the people in the room look or are culturally different from them, they were able to imagine how Miguel's family might feel or stand out in Bone Gap.
As a Detroiter who left the city for college and experienced a debilitating shock of racism and unfamiliar cultures, I definitely think students need more exposure to diverse characters that both reflect their experiences and challenge them to see the world in a new way.
CG: Our partner InsideOut Literary Arts has brought mentorship and writing workshops to youth in the Detroit area for more than 20 years. What has your experience as an iO Writer in Residence been like?
SB: The residency has been amazing. I was involved in iO as a teenager, writing and performing all over the city and traveling to youth poetry slams. It was my competitive sport. I loved meeting published authors, like Edwidge Danticat and Terry McMillan, working one-on-one with poets and having real feedback for my work from someone in the field. Mostly, I loved having any adults—very cool, say-what-they-mean, rebellious, social-justice centered adults—who wanted to spend time with me. That did wonders for how I felt about myself as an individual, as a student and as a writer.
As a Writer in Residence, I not only get to live out a part of my dream to make a career as a writer and educator, I also have an opportunity to model for students how to use their collective skills to be entrepreneurial, make change in their communities, and exercise their leadership as knowledgeable writers and public figures. When I’m in the classroom, it’s not just a lesson on the dynamics of poetry. In interpreting the meter, figurative language and line breaks, students simultaneously receive a lesson in history, culture, and critical thinking, and diversity. Beyond the "lesson," students are invited to talk freely (as freely as I can convince their teachers to encourage) about the world around them, their experiences, their reactions, and emotions.
This has been especially evident in the partnerships iO has with BookUp at Marcus Garvey Academy. In BookUp, we have a ritual of honesty and respect between the readers. Students share and often guide the discussions, comparing their lives to those of the characters, sharing without fear, offering support and lessening their fear of being real, fearless, and a part of tough conversations some adults have left or pushed them out of.
CG: What sort of field trips have the BookUp Detroit students gone on this semester?
SB: So far, we have done two field trips and one in-house visit by authors. We traveled to the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum to the 30 Americans show, displaying art by African-American artists. I guided students through the exhibit, using visual learning strategies, helping them draw comparisons of the work to the world they live in now, the history they know, and the poems or books we have read. We talked about what it means to be an artist, how some of the artists came to be recognized worldwide, and students began to recognized the style and technique of many artists.
Our second trip was to Pages Bookshop on another side of town many students had never been to. We rode the bus from east to west and spent the afternoon untucking books from the shelves, adding up prices, and each student walked away with a couple of new gems for their shelves. We then walked to the coffee shop for lunch, hot chocolate and lemonade as students cracked open their new finds or talked about the day. Students enjoyed having money to spend on books, and honestly, many of them wanted so many books that they could hardly make a decision. Our next trip is to a book fair, which students are bubbling to attend.
CG: Is there a BookUp experience that stands out to you?
SB: The most memorable experience was when authors Kristin Lenz and Patrick Flores came to visit. Students had just received Flores’ newest book Jumped In. I knew they were excited to meet an author, but I didn't realize how excited they were! Two of the students called themselves "fangirling" to the point of blushed faces, tears and endless giggles, barely even able to voice their questions about the book they had just devoured. Students Candace and Diamond hit the authors with questions about self-publishing, plot decisions, character building, and living as a writer. Diamond, who is writing her own book of magical realism, especially wanted advice from fiction writers about how to shape stories and build a career.
As a published poet and playwright, students get to speak with me as a professional weekly. To have published novelists was an entirely different experience, especially because students were able to read one of the authors’ works. Now they want to meet the author of every book they read. I've encouraged them to tweet at their favorite authors and patiently wait for a response.
CG: How has working with BookUp affected you?
SB: In addition to my residency with iO and partnership with BookUp, I also am a graduate student in Education and Spanish. I've struggled to fit leisure novel reading in between lesson planning, studying and translating texts into English. While I dive into poems, essays and articles all the time, BookUp (and audible.com) has really saved my book reading life as I juggle life as a teaching artists.
I used to cringe at students so enveloped in a book that they couldn't get their work in class done. I was looking through authoritative eyes instead of recognizing how much more they might be getting from those pages than a lesson. It's reminded me to redirect students through reading.
BookUp as an after school program has given me an opportunity to really get to know my students in ways the classroom doesn't afford. I've been uplifted by my students who dedicate their last educational hour of the day to reading, recommending books to one another, strengthening their friendships through reading and being fearless, out book lovers. In schools, so many of the students are struggling as readers, but within BookUp, the students who have trouble reading have no trouble trying to read. They are eager to take in more words. It's a great reminder of all the promise and potential in seventh graders when they have listening ears and the resources to chase their desires.
CG: Any advice for teachers or grown ups who want to inspire kids to read?
SB: If you want to inspire your kids, read. What motivated me the most to read as a child was seeing other people reading, especially people I looked up to. Talking about what's being read in a book and cross referencing that book with other accessible media (art, poetry, music, theater) really helps readers take the story off the pages.
Books shouldn't be treated like work or punishment, or scholarship necessarily. They are conversations between readers, and the world (fictional or real) and the authors. The key to getting kids to read is in making them a part of conversations they don't usually get to have.