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Extraordinary Middle School Opportunities

"Reading Teaches Empathy" and Other Lessons from Matt de la Pena
Posted 10/19/2017 08:41AM

The excitement for 2016 Newbery Award Winner Matt de la Pena’s visit to Country Day began long before his presentation on October 11 as this year’s Diversity Guest Author. Middle School Librarian Megan Fink Brevard, who holds national leadership roles within the American Library Association, met Matt two years ago at a conference and booked him before his popularity really took off.

This annual event encourages students to appreciate literacy and the diverse literary voices that contribute to our sense of community and builds empathy through reading. Launched in 2006, this program has benefited not only Country Day students, but also over 2,500 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools middle and high school students.

In introducing Matt to our guests from CMS, Mrs. Brevard shared that she created the Diversity Guest Author Series, along with Director of Diversity Planning Brian Wise, because she never had direct access to any authors, much less diverse ones, in her public school in West Virginia, and she wanted to bring that experience to others.



Funny and engaging, Matt kept the students enthralled with his story of growing up poor with very young parents, and his journey from a non-reader focused on sports to someone who writes for a living. In a very powerful story, he shared how he finally connected to the value in reading great literature. In college, where he played on a basketball scholarship, a professor gave him a book and said, “I thought of you.” No one had ever recommended a book to Matt before. He started reading the book and at first didn’t particularly like it. The story was about an older woman of a different race. Matt kept reading, mostly because he wanted to figure out why the professor suggested the book to him. Then he began to care about the character and what happened to her.

“Reading is the ultimate form of empathy,” he said, “because it’s one sided. We want the character to be OK.”

Matt told the enraptured students that by the time he finished the book, he was on the verge of tears. “The Color Purple (by Toni Morrison) changed my life,” he said. “It made me feel things; books became my secret place to feel.” Other memorable quotes, include:

“You can never be a good writer if you’re not a great reader.”

"Having a goal can change your life even if you don't achieve it." 

“If you do any kind of art, put it out in the world because you never know who is listening.”

Diversity Author Book Club

In the evening, a small group of students from Country Day and CMS, who were selected for the Diversity Author Book Club through an essay contest, had the privilege of sharing their perspectives with one another and talking first hand with Matt about his books.


Modern Language Classes

Prior to Matt’s visit, Middle School Spanish teacher Liliana Forero and French teacher Diane Farrug put in considerable work on a research and development grant over the summer to prepare students for Matt’s visit. Students in their classes 
read “Last Stop on Market Street” in their second language classes. Matt was pretty impressed with the dioramas the students made. He tweeted:

"Check out what the French class at Charlotte Country Day put together before my visit."




Charlotte Country Day School
1440 Carmel Rd Road, Charlotte,
NC North Carolina 28226
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