Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: As the Librarian for N.E.W. Academy Canoga Park, you have shepherded amazing literacy programs for the school, including the Literary Inclusion Project and “One School, One Book.” How would you describe these programs and their impact on the students, faculty, and staff?
Kelly Spector: Each week, I am privileged to witness and help almost five hundred students find their next adventure on the shelves of the N.E.W. Academy Canoga Park School Library, also known as Camp Read Smore. I believe that enthusiasm and love for reading grows when the excitement and emotions go beyond the pages and into their heart, thereby establishing positive, lifelong, sustaining qualities and principles through meaningful connections. Thanks to technology and resources like Skype, we have connected globally with students, teachers, and authors around the world. Last year, we were overjoyed to welcome Newberry Award Winner Katherine Applegate to our campus during our “One School One Book” with The One and Only Ivan. This year, New York Times Bestselling Author Sharon Draper brought us new friendships beyond her pages with the clients and employees of United Cerebral Palsy Los Angeles (UCPLA) as we read her novel, Out of My Mind. Thanks to Genein Letford and NACP's dynamic team of innovative educators, the Arts have been an integral extension of our "One School One Book" program. Students learn to interact not only with literary projects, but the Arts provide an avenue to explore other life issues through engagement, communication, and expression. Once these student-created projects are completed, they are shared on a national platform. The power of a wide and authentic audience inspires and cements the love of books like wild fire, and, from there, it spreads to the next adventure.
BD: In addition to these wonderful programs, you also recently partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne's Tony Magee and Jud Meyers, co-owner of Blastoff Comics, to kick off the Superhero Inclusion Project. What is the goal of this program, and what inspired you to initiate these partnerships
KS: The talented comic book artist, Megan Levens, spoke with our students during “College and Career Week” last November. With the idea of superheroes brewing in my head, I briefly explained my vision and asked if she had any superhero connections. Indeed, she did. Without any hesitation, she introduced me to a very real superhero: Jud Meyers, owner of Blastoff Comics. I made an appointment to meet with him and what was supposed to be a half-hour meeting lasted four. Our project was born. I left his store feeling like a superhero myself. Mr. Magee was a part of our “College and Career Week” last school year. The energy, inspiration, and motivation that he brought to our campus will be forever ingrained in the students he spoke with. On my way home from meeting with Jud, he immediately came to mind as the perfect person to tie this all together, and he graciously cleared his calendar to make time to do so. When I announced to our students that he was returning, they were ecstatic. In retrospect, uniting Rocketdyne, Blastoff Comics, and superheroes might have been beyond coincidental all along.
BD: Magee and Meyers recently visited the school to discuss the project with the student body. How would you gauge the response of the students, faculty, and staff to the visit and to the upcoming project?
KS: Their visit and response to the upcoming project was exuberant! I was careful to explain why they were coming, their background, and the purpose of their visit in the days leading up to their arrival. I shared that Mr. Magee and Mr. Meyers had heard of their super powers, that they were excited to see them, and that Mr. Meyers needed their help. I wish I would have recorded their sweet faces, because their eyes denoted they were "all in" from my first word. When Magee and Meyers entered the gym, you would have thought it was the “Avengers” themselves. Approximately five hundred students, faculty and staff, our new friends from UCPLA, and even Robyn Zelden and her therapy dog, Barron, all dressed in brightly colored superhero capes, listened intently, and joyfully nodded in acceptance of the proposed mission. Everyone couldn't wait to get started and everyone wanted in. Jud Meyers invited us to join him as active participants in the 1st Annual Blastoff ComicsFest by drawing ourselves as the superheroes we are on to genuine comic board that he provided. Blastoff ComicsFest attendees will be able to sponsor drawings of their choosing with proceeds benefitting Elizabeth's Canvas. Jud found a way for our students, who don't have much to give monetarily, to give a piece of themselves; to experience and feel empowered by the beautiful, philanthropic feeling that Jud Meyers knows full well. In closing, Jud then surprised everyone with a free comic book for EVERY student at our school. It was A-mazing!
BD: How do you feel that the core values of the school connect with the project?
KS: The underlying theme has been that we are more alike on the inside, despite our differences on the outside, and that everyone can be a hero, to themselves or to someone else. Our core values ring true throughout. Students have been making real connections beyond the pages of Out of My Mind with the residents of UCPLA and with our new friend Barron, a therapy dog. Through the many activities we’ve done this year, they’ve experienced that doing extra makes a difference. For example, with our Halloween candy drive, students raised $1,068 by donating 534 pounds of candy to a local dentist office. Candy was sent overseas to our soldiers via Operation Gratitude and proceeds were given to UCPLA to help fund their programs. The book has led to great conversations about bullying and being upstanders, not bystanders. Everyone is deserving of the highest respect is a topic that has come up continually and how even a smile or kind word can go a long way in changing someone’s day. Our hope is that these values stay at their core, so that when they have full autonomy as adults, they will search for ways to do extra in these areas. It’s not all about the curriculum, but rather growing and making these principles evident in their everyday lives as they grow older. This is one of the beauties of elementary age children. They are so eager, that experiences such as these have the potential to really make a profound impact on their future.
BD: What do the next steps of the Superhero Project include for N.E.W. Academy Canoga Park, and will you or the students have the opportunity to attend the upcoming Blastoff Comics Fest?
KS: Fliers have been distributed and will be once more before the event. We are also communicating about the event through other means, as well. Our students are highly encouraged to attend. My family and I, as well as several members of our faculty and staff, are looking forward to the event and can’t wait to see where this takes us. I have often seen that one great thing leads to another and that fills me with excitement.
BD: Are there any other events or activities that you are currently working on at the school that you would like to share with our readers?
KS: Top secret information precludes me from sharing much of what is in store for next year’s “One School One Book,” as that information is not released until our September book launch. Pardon the theatrics, but it’s all part of the master “excitement building” plan; however, I can share that we are currently counting down the days till Drew Daywalt comes to visit. He is the author of The Day The Crayons Quit which has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for 94 weeks and is currently number one, again! Last month, we connected online with over 10 authors/illustrators from around the United States for “World Read Aloud Week.” Authors like Marla Frazee, Ame Dyckman, Adam Lehrhaupt, Suditpa Bardhan Quallen, Tara Lazar, Dev Petty, Corey Rosen Schwartz, Katherine Roy, Lori Nichols, and Christian Robinson read to us and shared their talents. We were even visited live by author Jason O. Silva at the week's end. It was unforgettable! In just a couple of weeks, we will be celebrating N.E.W. Academy's 10 year Anniversary. It will be a wonderful time to reflect on the journey that has brought us thus far and the journey that awaits. We are inspired by the future and excited about the possibilities ahead.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about NEW Academy Canoga Park or who may want to donate their time and/or resources?
KS: We believe in a school without walls. We invite the community in to see what we are doing and join us in our efforts. Doing so shows our students that it’s a community effort. In addition to the authors mentioned above, we often host speakers such as those who join us for “College and Career Week.” There are often other events where community members come on campus to either help or share their expertise. Volunteers from C.S.U.N. and Louisville High School regularly join us. Come and tour the school and see how programs like our “One School One Book” are implemented and how our dedicated teachers incorporate other curricular areas. Lady Bird Johnson once said, “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.” We welcome the community to come and see what we believe possible for our students. The community’s presence proves belief in them, too.
For more information on Kelly Spector and her work with N.E.W. Academy Canoga Park, please be sure to visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@campreadsmore).
If you have a volunteer opportunity or an important cause that could use the assistance of a few geeks, please email the details to barbra (at) fanboycomics.net.