Literacy Symposium teaches parents, teachers, students the importance of reading

By Alicia Adams
Staff Writer

Teachers and parents had the opportunity to hear words of wisdom from the 2016 Newbery Award winner and New York Times best-selling author Matt de la Peña at the Pensacola Literacy Symposium on April 29.

The symposium, themed “See the Beauty in Books,” featured de la Peña as the keynote speaker and was held at the University of West Florida Conference Center. Parents of young children, teachers from area schools and students and faculty of the UWF College of Education and Professional Studies could attend the event for $20.

CEPS teamed up with the Northwest Florida Association for the Education of Young Children, Institute for Innovative Community Learning and Early Learning Coalition of Escambia County to host the event.

Director of the UWF National Writing Project, Susan James, an assistant professor at UWF’s School of Teacher Education and Educational Leadership, coordinated the event.

The theme for the Pensacola Literacy Symposium was “See the Beauty in Books”

“One of the best aspects of my job as a researcher and professor is building a strong, inspiring community for our amazing educators,” James said. “In my previous career as a middle and high school teacher, I know what great professional development can do to re-energize educators.”

The event began with a welcome from the dean of the CEPS, William Crawley, before the introduction of the keynote speaker.

De la Peña spoke about his life as a child, growing up mixed race in California and his parents’ influence on his literacy. He said he grew up as a “major reluctant reader,” not because he didn’t like books, but because he wasn’t exposed to them.

He attributes this to the message within his community that hard work and loyalty were most important, while in other communities, education was the top priority.

When de la Peña was in second grade, he was held back because of his illiteracy, which he said made him feel dumb and gave him a “self-definition”: the hardest definition to break free from, de la Peña said.

He ended up becoming interested in attending college, mostly because of the opportunity to meet new people from around the world. He attended the University of the Pacific on a full basketball scholarship and earned his bachelor’s degree.

“When I went to college, I no longer made any decisions with others in mind,” he said. “I didn’t try to impress people with my decisions in terms of what I was going to study. I studied what I wanted to study, because I had already impressed them.”

While in school, a librarian recommended “The Color Purple” to de la Peña to read, which he said had an impact on his life.

“When I read this book, it started to fill that space that was kind of a hole in me that I had created,” de la Peña said. “It felt good; it felt whole.

“That single book made me a reader because I went in search for that feeling in other books… Books became my secret place to feel.”

De la Peña said he realized one of the only things he enjoyed doing was writing, so he decided to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing from San Diego State University, to be closer to his family.

His love for reading and writing inspired his father, who had dropped out of high school at 17 years old, to return to school, get his GED and eventually receive a bachelor’s degree in literature and become a third-grade teacher.

The moral of de la Peña’s speech was to prove the impact reading and writing has on every age and that education is a lifelong process.

Matt de la Peña, 2016 Newbery Award winner and New York Times best-selling author, came to the Pensacola Literacy Symposium: See the Beauty in Books to share his story with teachers and students. (Photo by Alicia Adams)

“Matt de la Peña was an inspirational speaker that reminded us all of the impacts that we have on a student’s life, even though we might not see it firsthand,” said Angelia Grimes-Graeme, local educator and presenter at the symposium. “As a teacher, these types of events are so valuable to fueling my passion and honing my craft.

“The Literacy Symposium gave teachers a valuable opportunity to collaborate with others in their field and gain new teaching strategies that can be implemented immediately in their classrooms,” Grimes-Graeme said.

Following de la Peña’s speech, participants in the symposium enjoyed refreshments and attended sessions pertaining to their selected grade level, led by local educators and pioneers in the field of education and literacy. Topics discussed were: Writing in primary grades; the National Writing Project; college-level writing; and building a positive community within a classroom. Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices.

“Nothing could be more inspirational than to hear Matt de le Peña as a keynote and then be able to choose from great [professional development] sessions that will sharpen our skills as facilitators of reading and writing,” James said.

The mission for the Pensacola Literacy Symposium: See the Beauty in Books was: “To provide an environment where students can enhance their learning through the integration of all language arts, empowering them to become clear and confident communicators in all settings.”

For more on UWF’s National Writing Project, visit the website.

Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices. 
Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices. 
Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices. 
Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices. 
Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices. 
Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices.
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Children’s books and other literary tools were set out for teachers and education students to observe to get ideas for classroom practices.