Alexander kicks off “The World is my Classroom” initiative

“Books can open up a world of possible for us. They can show us worlds we’ve never been to, they can allow us to travel to places that we’ve never gone to. Through the pages of a book we can discover ourselves and our world.”

The high school’s auditorium filled up the morning of Oct. 9 with seventh, eighth grade and high school students. Newbery Medal winner and bestselling author Kwame Alexander stood before the stage, holding a microphone and sporting a red sweatshirt with the words ‘Read or Else.’ He began to speak into the mic, his words flowing like so many of the poems he writes. Accompanied by a guitarist, Randy Preston, Alexander started off the presentation by telling the group how he fell in love with poetry. This event began the start of superintendent Dr. Michael Richards’ new HCPS initiative, ‘The World is my Classroom.’

This new initiative, a continuation of what he started in Loudoun County, will be implementing what Richards’ refers to as “authentic, relevant, deeper learning.”

“Education, for the longest time, was teacher driven and adult driven, and adults were in charge of what kids were learning. There’s something to say about that, that’s a good thing in some ways, but we need kids to be more engaged and interested in what they’re learning. In Harrisonburg we’re starting to turn that around and say to students, ‘What is relevant to you? What do you care about?’ Then, how can we weave those things in so that we’re getting the curriculum that we need and that the state requires, but you’re getting it in such a way that it’s engaging [for the kids],” Richards said.

Organized by Language Arts Coordinator Suzanne Miller and Secondary Literacy Specialist Cathy Soenksen, Alexander’s presentation felt like a great way to start the new initiative off strong; however, in the future, professionals from different career fields will be invited to aid in the students’ learning process all throughout the division.

“Mr. Alexander is a great example of that philosophy of education, so that’s why I invited him to kick off this initiative. This initiative will include language arts, science, mathematics and STEM fields as well. We’re in talks with NASA right now to bring them in, we have some other writers who are partnering with us, so that’s where we are right now,” Richards said.

The event was a very interactive one. Students and teachers joined in a game where they had to complete a line from one of Alexander’s poems. Additionally, the audience engaged in a call and response of some of his most famous poems, which have been or will be taught in classes that attended the event.

“I look to set the tone that education is exciting and engaging, there’s joy in teaching and in learning. I know that people already know that, but I don’t think we give enough opportunities to reinforce that. I want to bring those opportunities to Harrisonburg,” Richards said. “Partnering with Kwame Alexander and Randy Preston and some of the other writers we’re bringing in later, and partnering with NASA, and perhaps other partners, is a way of providing those opportunities to really express and feel the joy that is teaching and learning.”

Near the end of the presentation, Alexander held a Q&A with the audience. He offered advice in writing, as well as in other learning fields in general. He especially emphasized how he came into his love of poetry, as well as the importance of reading.

“Read everything you can get your hands on. Read as much as possible. Reading is what helps us become better writers, understanding what works and what doesn’t from other writers. Read everything you can get your hands on,” Alexander said.

The students and teachers involved in the presentation will be taking their experience back to class to continue their learning. This includes projects that center around Alexander’s books. The classes will also get to have a Skype call with the author later in the year.

During the presentation. the audience reacted together as Alexander told the story of asking his high school sweetheart to prom with love poems, and shouted back the rhyming phrases from excerpts of his book, “The Crossover.”

“I am so impressed with the way that our students engaged with Kwame today, it was amazing to see that. I’m not too surprised because I know what our students are capable of, I’ve been here for five months, I know what they’re capable of, but even being aware of that, that was just so overwhelming and heartwarming to see our students so engaged.”

“I think this is one of my favorite presentations ever. This school is full of energy, I love it, I had a blast,” Alexander said.