Washburn hosts 25th annual Literature Festival

Reading, writing, no arithmetic:  Author Melanie Crowder meets with students and signs books at the Literature Festival. Students read either “Three Pennies” or “Audacity” by Crowder before attending the festival at WU.

Washburn hosted the 25th Annual Literature Festival Oct. 2. The event welcomed students from fifth to 12th grade from across the state.

This is the third year Washburn has hosted the event, which is sponsored by the education and English departments. Danny Wade, associate professor of English at Washburn, was one of the event organizers.

“I’m the coordinator of English education so this is kind of my area,” Wade said.

Wade said that a big part of hosting an event like this at Washburn is to get English education majors engaged with the age groups they might later be teaching.

“I work with preparing future English teachers,” Wade said. “So, I work with local schools and am always looking for avenues for my students [at Washburn] to get involved with students in the community beyond just observing and student teaching.”

Wade said that with his position he also works with people in Kansas’s education department. These connections led to Wade meeting John Bushman, leader of The Writing Conference, Inc., the organization that started this event.

The event had been hosted by the University of Kansas for many years, and Wade was excited at the opportunity to have it at Washburn starting three years ago.

“[I thought] it would be a great thing for us to host,” Wade said. “Washburn really encourages and promotes community outreach and has been gracious to allow us to use the facilities here.”

Wade also said that he feels having the event at Washburn has helped the departments that run it.

“I think that for both departments, the education and English department it just strengthened our partnerships,” Wade said. “We’re providing enrichment for them that they can take advantage of. Our mission in both the English and education departments is to promote literacy and to engage students in a way that is relevant and meaningful. It provides a platform for us to do that.”

Teachers were also excited to bring students to the event. Michelle Ernst, an English teacher at Nickerson High School, especially liked one particular aspect of the day.

“I teach a creative writing class and I knew that there was a writing component today,” Ernst said.

The Writing Conference has an annual writing contest and the Literature Festival dedicated one of the breakout sessions to brainstorming for the contest. This nationwide contest explores a single topic each year and breaks down into poetry, narrative and exposition categories with divisions in elementary, middle school and high school.

Ernst brought her students not only for the writing portion, but also so they could hear from Crowder.

“I also knew of several students who like to read and I knew that they would really enjoy coming here today and hearing from a published author, getting to hear their process and about their novels,” Ernst said.

Ernst also knows that there is a connection between reading and writing.

“I tell my students all the time, it’s kind of like sports,” Ernst said. “When you watch other people demonstrate how to do something, you can kind of pick up on the techniques and styles. I think writing is the same way. The more you’re reading, the more styles you’re seeing.”

Some of the students came from far off cities and towns in Kansas. Nickerson is about 2 hours and 45 minutes away so it takes more than a full day out of the schedules of students and teachers. Ernst, however, sees a benefit in taking this time.

“I think sometimes the kids who tend to really get into reading and enjoy reading, they’re more introverted,” Ernst said.

Ernst said that students have pretty busy schedules at school and out of school and don’t necessarily have a lot of time for books.

“[It’s good] taking a day for all of them to get to be able to get together and talk about books,” Ernst said.

Every year the festival brings authors to come speak, and this year the featured author was Melanie Crowder.

“I write books for young readers,” Crowder said. “Some of [the books] are for middle readers, which is upper elementary to middle school and some of [the books] are young adult.”

The event opened with a presentation by Crowder where she went into some of her reasons for writing and some of the processes she goes through when writing. One area she talked about was that of researching. Her book “Audacity” is a historical fiction novel about the labor movement centered around the real person Clara Lemlich. Crowder spoke about the importance of using resources, such as libraries and librarians when doing research.

“Our public libraries are this wealth that I don’t think we use as much as we could be,” Crowder said. “Librarians are such a resource in not only whatever their specialty is, but also they have this network that can connect us to libraries all across the country.”

Crowder talked about a time when she was researching for a book and looking for an obscure Bolivian document.

“The librarians were able to help me track it down at a university library across the country,” Crowder said. “I was able to get a copy to use it for research.”

Before coming to the festival, students who attended read one of Crowder’s books. Most of the younger students read “Three Pennies” while the older students read “Audacity.”

“When students come they get to interact with the authors,” Wade said. “They also have these breakout sessions where the focus is on the actual novel that they were supposed to read. [It] just gives them a different… avenue of how you engage with reading, beyond what they experience in the classroom.”

The event is also a good way to bring recognition of literature to the students, faculty and community of Washburn. Crowder said that she feels that sometimes college students get too caught up with the grown up aspect of school and reading.

“When I was an undergraduate student, I stopped reading young adult literature,” Crowder said. “I thought it was not relevant to me as an academic, as someone who was moving into important fields of work.”

She said there was a time when she was studying for an exam that she found one of her favorite books growing up in the school’s library and read it in her dorm that night.

“I had not been so happy in that entire academic year as in that moment,” Crowder said. “I would say to students, yes, you’re expanding your borders. You’re learning [and] discovering new things all the time but also take the time to take care of yourself and to come back to the things that bring you joy and honor that.”