Serendipity, I believe, led me to Kate Narita’s workshop last month at #nErDcampLI, an amazing local “unconference” focused on literacy and inspired by the Nerdy Book Club and Ed Camp movements. Kate’s workshop focused on “10 Steps to Revision”, and I soon learned that Kate is a current 4th grade classroom teacher as well as the published author of 100 Bugs! A Counting Book. Her presentation was so authentic and moving that I knew I wanted to share more of Kate’s story with our TWT community. She graciously agreed to be interviewed here and is donating a generous giveaway for one lucky reader.
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski (KNS): What is your background in education? How did you come to be a teacher and a writer?
Kate: I wasn’t ready to leave Madison, Wisconsin after earning my undergraduate degree in Spanish and Sociology, and I knew I wanted to work with kids. After working for a year at a Montessori preschool, I enrolled in a fifteen-month M.S. in Education program called Teach for Diversity at UW.
Upon graduating, my husband and I moved to Massachusetts. I taught bilingual Spanish first grade in Chelsea for more than three years. During that time, I started writing for kids in Spanish because I needed materials for my classroom and I couldn’t find them. You can view one of the poems I wrote, Los Oviparos, here. It’s ironic that this poem features dragonflies just like 100 Bugs! does.
My dad was an educator. He started off as a middle school English Language Arts teacher and ended up as superintendent. Before he became an administrator, he was also a girls’ varsity basketball coach. Every Saturday, I went to practice with him, and I absolutely loved it.
In addition, I also loved school. My kindergarten through second grade teacher, Ms. Young, was so kind. The fact that so many of my favorite adults taught, made me want to teach, too.
I mentioned above that I started writing as an adult when I couldn’t find materials for my bilingual Spanish first grade classroom. During that time, I also attended a workshop with authors Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy.
When my older son was three and my younger son was one, I once again wanted to read books that didn’t exist. So, I started to write. Needless to say that since my first book, 100 Bugs!, didn’t publish until they were fifteen and seventeen-years-old, they didn’t snuggle next to me on the couch while I read it to them. My younger son did humor me and pull up a chair next to me so that I could read it to him! He has a big heart.
KNS: How has being a teacher inspired you as a writer?
Kate: Teaching has inspired me as a writer in countless ways. I already mentioned that a lack of materials in my Spanish bilingual first grade classroom inspired me to write my first poem–but that was over twenty years ago!
More recently, the idea for 100 Bugs! came about as a result of sitting on a math specialist interview committee and listening to my colleague who said, “In order to be successful in math, kids have to understand the combinations of ten.” My mind started to race as I realized that no one had written a picture book about the combinations of ten.
Then, there’s the fact that as a teacher I get to witness the magic of reading and writing every day. Yes, I know I used the words fact and magic in the same sentence–I did that intentionally. When students participate in a book walk and become super excited about a book, it makes me want to write something that will bring excitement into other people’s lives. When my students share their writing and their classmates’ bodies vibrate because they’re shaking their shaka hand signs so fervently, it makes me want to write something that connects with people’s hearts. So, everyday my students inspire me to become a better writer.
KNS: Do you have regular habits of writing? (Like do you get up every day and write before you teach?) How do you balance that with the demands of teaching?
Kate: Yes, I do write in the mornings before I teach, but not every day. Here’s the history of that journey and how I’ve come to accept it.
As you know, teaching is a very demanding job. So, it’s hard to balance writing with my day job. I began writing every day when I stayed at home with my boys until they were in school full time. Thankfully, I continued writing full time as I worked my way back into the educational field. I worked as an aide, a long-term substitute teacher, as an English Language Learners teacher K-8 (and earned my MFA while teaching ELL).
But since I snagged my dream teaching job at The Center School, I no longer write every day before work. Sometimes I am too tired, sometimes I have to use that time to prepare for conferences or report cards and sometimes I have to exercise.
At first, I was super rigid and thought I would have to quit writing because I couldn’t do it every day. Plus, I was discouraged that I had been writing for over ten years, earned an MFA and still hadn’t published anything. Then, I realized how ridiculous it was that I was considering not pursuing my dream anymore because I couldn’t pursue it every day or because it hadn’t come true yet. Luckily, I called my dear friend and writing mentor, April Jones Prince. She said five powerful words that changed my life, “Whatever you do, don’t quit.”
Learning and joy comes from process and product, not one or the other. Now, I write when I can. Realistically, it probably averages to three or four mornings a week. I’m working on researching some nights as well. Now that my one son is a freshman in college and the other is a junior in high school, I have more time in the evenings after work to devote to my writing.
KNS: Are you a writer who keeps a notebook? Has that influenced how you teach students about writer’s notebooks?
Kate: Honestly, not an idea notebook. How I wish I could say I did keep an idea notebook! There’s a notebook next to me at this moment and it does have research notes in it for the nonfiction STEM manuscript I’m currently working on, but I don’t have an idea notebook or a notebook where I keep all my writing.
I get my ideas all different places such as when I wake up in the morning, in the shower, driving. When one comes, I’m super excited and I draft it as soon as I can get in front of my computer. Sometimes I record the idea on my phone. I’m not a super organized person, so it’s easier to keep track of my work electronically than on paper.
In terms of my teaching, I stress the idea that every writer’s process is different and not every writer does everything in the same way. Ironically, in my classroom we use notebooks more than electronics. This is because we are not a one-to-one school and because many kids often become more distracted using electronic devices than when they’re using a notebook.
KNS: Did you share your book with your students before it was published? After? How do students respond to you as a writing teacher knowing you are also a published author?
Kate: When 100 Bugs! sold in the spring of 2016, I shared my joy with my class. My 2016-2017 class helped me create the trailer for the book. They did a fantastic job if I don’t say so myself. In addition, to acting in the trailer, they also created the artwork for it, inspired by Suzanne Kaufman’s amazing illustrations.Students created all the bug posters during art class. After the book was published, I presented a thirty-minute talk to the whole student body about my writing process.
Needless to say they were a friendly and supportive audience.
Some students are really excited about the fact that I’m a published author while others don’t seem to care. Having said that, my experience sometimes leads to powerful lessons. Just the other day I had to teach about how after you have knowledge on a topic, you take notes in a different way. Instead of focusing on writing down new information, you’re focusing on amending the information you already have. The funny thing was that I had just gone through that exact same process that morning. I had found a piece of information that said cuvier beaked whales dove around 5,000 meters but then I found this National Geographic article that state cuvier beaked whales dive to nearly 10,000 meters. When I was looking for the link for the National Geographic article to share with my students, I came across this New York Times article, that made me amend my notes yet again! Whether my students realize it or not, my writing directly impacts their learning.
KNS: What’s your best advice for other teachers who are interested in becoming authors as well?
- Read as much as you can, wherever you can, whenever you can.
- Write as much as you can, wherever you can, whenever you can.
- Revise as much as you can, wherever you can, whenever you can.
- Join SCBWI, become a member of one or more critique groups and attend their conferences.
- Attend Rutgers One-On-One Plus Conference.
- Participate in nErDcamps and attend the sessions offered by authors. Check out Jarrett Lerner’s list of nErDcamps.
- Join Inked Voices and participate in the workshops offered by editors, agents and authors.
- Become active on Twitter and participate in the picture book chat #pbchat and middle grade book chat #mgchat.
- Remember becoming a published author takes years, just like becoming a master teacher takes years.
- As April Jones Prince said, “Whatever you do, don’t quit.”
Children’s author Tara Lazar wrote a great post called “How to Become a Children’s Author,” and she links to other helpful posts on this topic as well.
KNS: Has becoming a published author influenced how you approach teaching writing? In what way?
Kate: My writing process has always influenced how I teach writing because I can share my creative experiences with my students. I talk about how many drafts I have of a certain project, how long I’ve been writing, how at first it was really hard to accept feedback about how to make my writing stronger and much more.
Becoming a published author further enriched my teaching. Writing isn’t a one-step process and neither is publishing. Once a book is bought, a whole team of people work together to improve the book. Writing and publishing require a never-ending growth mindset.
KNS: How have you ways to continue growing as an educator?
Kate: My growth as a writer compliments my growth as a teacher. Every time I grow as a writer, I use that knowledge to enrich my writing instruction. In addition to my M.S. in Education and an M.F.A. in Writing for Children, I’ve taken math, science and technology courses. Each course I take makes me a better teacher.
But courses aren’t the only ways I’ve continued growing as an educator. My district brought in staff developers Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan to revamp our literacy instruction. As an upper elementary teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Tammy. Two other fourth grade teachers in my district, myself and Tammy will be presenting at the Massachusetts Reading Association’s Conference in 2020. I’m very excited to attend the conference because Pernille Ripp, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst will be presenting as well.
It turns out the same week I’ll be presenting at MRA, I’ll also be presenting at the Massachusetts School Library Association’s Annual Conference and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Centennial Annual Meeting and Exposition. I’m looking forward to networking with other educators and bringing new techniques back to my class.
Finally, I am fortunate to work with a wonderful team of educators and administrators who I learn from every day.
KNS: What do you hope your students learn from you about being a writer?
Kate: I hope my students learn that their voices are just as important as anyone else’s and that they alone have the ability to say what no one else can.
KNS: Do you anticipate writing more books about math or other STEAM topics?
Kate: Yes, STEAM topics are very important and exciting for me. In December, I’m going to start my fifth draft of a novel that has an action plot that centers around land conservation. I mentioned earlier that my students inspired me to write my current nonfiction manuscript–that is also STEAM based. The other week I submitted another math concept book to the same editor who published 100 Bugs! Fingers crossed that she likes it!
You might not know that 100 Bugs! Is a 2019 Mathical Honor Book. So in the meantime while people are waiting for another book of mine about a math topic, readers who are looking for more excellent books about math should check out other Mathical Honor and Prize books. This link will take you to a web page that lists all the Mathical Honor and Prize books since 2015.
KNS: I know we shared a lot here, but what do you wish I had asked you?
Kate: I wish you would have asked me two things.
First, I wish you had asked me what are some of my favorite books that I like to use when I teach math. One of them is Which One Doesn’t Belong? by Christopher Danielson. The format shows students that there are many different answers to a problem. For me, this is a lesson that applies to life as well as math. The book also shows that each shape has something different that makes it stand out from the crowd and other attributes that help it blend in with the crowd. Once again, this is another lesson that applies to life as much as it applies to geometric shapes.
I’m also in love with Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Sophie Germain’s story teaches students that we can’t let anyone or anything stop us from pursuing our dreams. Both of these books are award-winning Mathical Books.
Second, I wish you would have asked me if that fact that I’m a teacher and a writer led me to create a standout teacher’s guide for educators. The answer is yes! Readers can go to this link to find seventeen different activities linked to Common Core standards that cover various subjects such as English Language Arts, science and math.
KNS: Thanks so much to Kate Narita for taking the time to answer my questions and share her story as a teacher-author! Please see the information below for a chance to win your own copy of 100 Bugs! A Counting Story and more….
- This giveaway is for a copy of 100 Bugs! A Counting Book, a class set of bookmarks, and a 15 minute Skype with author Kate Narita. Many thanks to Kate for donating these items for one reader.
- For a chance to win a copy of 100 Bugs! A Counting Book, a class set of bookmarks and a 15 minutes Skype with author Kate Narita, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, December 18th, at 11:59 p.m. EST. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post by Saturday, December 21st.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, I will put you in contact with Kate Narita to schedule your Skype session. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the giveaway, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KATE NARITA GIVEAWAY. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.