Winter 2016

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Page 25 of 43

STUDENTS BECOME PUBLISHED AUTHORS Demacio Johnson was just 13 years old when children's book author Melissa Williams first visited his classroom and encouraged students to take their dreams seriously. "I could see the gleam in his eye," said Williams. "He was determined to become a published author." Behind that gleam, however, were more challenges than any one child deserves. Growing up, Demacio spent time in a foster facility where an educator told the children, "Eighty-five percent of you will end up in jail or on the street." Demacio said, "Not me. I'm not going to live in poverty. I'm going to make a differ- ence with my life." His commitment paid off. He entered and won (in blind judging by educators and librarians) the iWRITE publishing contest, his artwork appeared on the anthology cover, and he has been helping illustrate a book written for orphaned children in Mexico. He has also appeared with Williams on news pro- grams highlighting that literacy isn't just about reading and writing. It's about quality of life. Williams has now visited more than 200 schools and spoken to more than 100,000 students. Her experience as a writer and counselor created a solid foundation for the iWRITE Literacy Organization, but it was an iguana named Iggy that fueled her imagina- tion. "I loved reptiles as a kid, especial- ly my very own Iggy, and I loved writ- ing," Williams tells the students. "I was also obsessed with Disney characters, so I turned Iggy into a character and other critters became his sidekicks." The result was the Iggy the Iguana series. When kids started asking if they could become published au- thors, too, Williams had an "ah ha" moment and launched the annual publishing contest. "At iWRITE, we invite students in the third through twelfth grades from all over the US to submit short sto- ries, poetry, and artwork to our annual publishing con- test called I Write: Short Stories by Kids for Kids," says Williams. "Each year we select 65 winners to be published in our anthology and attend our big annual book signing celebration in Houston." Students can submit their en- tries from Jan. 1 through May 31 and have the opportunity to see their work professionally published and available at Houston bookstores and online retailers. Last year, there were 300 entries. FOCUSING ON PRESCHOOL READINESS While Williams focuses on school-aged children, Dr. Julie Baker Finck, president of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, has turned her attention to pre- school-aged children. "We have far too many children entering kindergarten who are lacking reading readiness skills," says Finck. The foundation points to data from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers' Graduate School of Education. "The State of Preschool," examines benchmarks in education for each state, and Texas has been found lacking. "We don't have a high-quality childhood education system in Texas. When you look at the indicators for a quality education, Texas meets only two." Finck views literacy as an essential investment in Texas's future. "In Houston, one in five adults is func- tionally illiterate," she says. "These adults oftentimes struggle to serve as a child's first teacher, and the cycle of illiteracy continues, putting constraints on our educa- tion system. If Ms. Smith has 22 kids at different levels of readiness, it puts a constraint on that classroom. But LITERACY ISN'T JUST ABOUT READING AND WRITING. IT'S ABOUT QUALITY OF LIFE. 26 ATPE NEWS Photos and graphics courtesy of Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation The Groomed for Literacy initiative kicked off in September 2016 at Houston barber shops.

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