Student Letters: Thank you Saïd Sayrafiezadeh!

There isn’t much we can add to these thank you letters that the students haven’t already said, more eloquently.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood lead a program about memoir writing at the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science (CIMS) in the Bronx, which just wrapped up. Check out some of the inspiring thank yous from eleventh graders to Saïd.

Field Trip! Second graders visit their pen pals

Our programs are unique opportunities to enrich students’ understanding of the world while improving their reading and writing skills. In that spirit, last week, Mr. Braverman’s second grade class from PS 46 joined author Susanna Pitzer at the Kateri Residence nursing home to meet their pen pals for the first time!

It was an exciting day of crafts and camaraderie; a great time was had by all. Check out the great photos, as well as Susanna’s heartwarming letter to the class about the trip.

Dear Mr. Braverman, Andrew, Anthony, Antwan, Carli, Joemy, Leroy, Natequan, Omari, R’Meek, Zamia, Zavon, Ms. Outlaw, and Ms. Wiggins,

Thank you all so much for coming to visit us at Kateri Residence yesterday.

All your pen pal friends were so happy to see you!!!!! They had a lot fun. They loved hearing you read. They enjoyed talking with you and working on art projects, and they were grateful for and impressed with the gifts that you made.

I was very proud of every one of you. I was so pleased with how well you interacted with your pen pal friends. You made their day much better and mine, too. : ))
I’m always happier when I see you all.

I’ve known most of you for many months now. I can’t get over how every time I see you, your reading skills are stronger, your drawing and art skills improve, how you are growing up to be such kind, wonderful, and valuable members of the community. Yesterday, I was able to see you all in action — you were truly making life better for other people by your attention and kindness to them.

Thank you so much for that.

Antwan and Leroy,
It was so nice to meet you. You are a terrific addition to this great group of people. : ))

I can’t wait to see you all again!!!

Your friend,

Isabel Hill and writing mentors visit CS 21!

A student revises his piece with a volunteer

A student revises his piece with a volunteer

What might you notice if you stop to look closely at the buildings around you?

One second grade class at CS 21 in Bed Stuy is writing about architecture with Isabel Hill, author of the book Urban Animals. Last week, the students went on a walking tour of their neighborhood, taking pictures of the kinds of architectural details they had learned about from Isabel and her fabulous book; details which they had never noticed before.

Since then, the class has been hard at work writing drafts for their class book. Each student choose one of the pictures they took and described it – its texture, shape, and size; what kind of architectural detail it was; what they were reminded of when they looked at it.

The class began with a story from Isabel about the publishing of the book – a story about what it means to edit one’s own work. She described how one publisher liked the photographs she had taken more than the drawings that accompanied them, and how she understood where they were coming from, so she took the photographs out. But when the same publisher asked her to change the text of the book – from a rhyming romp focused on teaching readers about architecture to the story of some children taking a walking tour – she could not bring herself to make the change.

“Revision,” she explained, “is trying something on. In the end, only you know what your art is, because you are the artist.”

The class then broke into small groups, a few students and an adult volunteer, to read their drafts and work on improving them. The students set about adding more detail, trying to describe their photos so the reader could see the architecture in their mind’s eye. The most fun part was making associations: the belt course looks like the one on my grandma’s building, or the texture was smooth like grease.

After the small group work, Isabel signed each of the students’ copies of Urban Animals, and the class took a picture. It was an exciting day of writing, and we can’t wait to see the finished book!

It’s National Volunteer Week!

National Volunteer WeekThis week is National Volunteer Week, and we want to thank all of the volunteers who make our programs possible. As a small non-profit with big goals, we rely on our many selfless supporters and the time they take to give back to the students who need it most.

From chaperoning field trips to helping students improve their writing, volunteers are an integral part of our mission to create readers for life. In the words of one student, who dedicated his story to the BtB writing mentors, “without them our stories wouldn’t have as much dialogue, detail and imagery.” We know how he feels – without volunteers, our programs wouldn’t have as much one-on-one engagement, or as many opportunities for growth, or such profound connections to the community.

Thank you, from all of us here at BtB.

7 Books for High Schoolers Recommended by Matt de la Pena

Today, we’re continuing our series of recommendations from the new library at the Community Health Academy of the Heights with a list from author Matt de la Pena! Matt is working with us and the 10th graders at CHAH who are writing short stories. Here are his suggestions.

DrownDrown by Junot Diaz:
Born and raised in Santo Domingo, Diaz uses the contrast between his island homeland and life in New York City and New Jersey as a fulcrum for his trenchant tales. His young male narrators are teetering into precarious adolescence. For these sons of harsh or absent fathers and bone-weary, stoic mothers, life is an unrelenting hustle. In Santo Domingo, they are sent to stay with relatives when the food runs out at home; in the States, shoplifting and drug-dealing supply material necessities and a bit of a thrill in an otherwise exhausting and frustrating existence. There is little affection, sex is destructive, conversation strained, and even the brilliant beauty of a sunset is tainted, its colors the product of pollutants. —Booklist

nocountryforoldmenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy:
In 1980 southwest Texas, Llewelyn Moss, hunting antelope near the Rio Grande, stumbles across several dead men, a bunch of heroin and $2.4 million in cash. The bulk of the novel is a gripping man-on-the-run sequence relayed in terse, masterful prose as Moss, who’s taken the money, tries to evade Wells, an ex–Special Forces agent employed by a powerful cartel, and Chigurh, an icy psychopathic murderer armed with a cattle gun and a dangerous philosophy of justice. In a series of thoughtful first-person passages interspersed throughout, Sheriff Bell laments the changing world, wrestles with an uncomfortable memory from his service in WWII and—a soft ray of light in a book so steeped in bloodshed—rejoices in the great good fortune of his marriage. — Reed Business Information

boy21Boy21 by Matthew Quick:
Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights, and Finley is left to take care of his disabled grandfather alone. He’s always dreamed of getting out someday, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay. Russ has just moved to the neighborhood, and the life of this teen basketball phenom has been turned upside down by tragedy. Cut off from everyone he knows, he won’t pick up a basketball, but answers only to the name Boy21—taken from his former jersey number. As their final year of high school brings these two boys together, a unique friendship may turn out to be the answer they both need. —Amazon

insideoutandbackagainInside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai:
For all the ten years of her life, Ha has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by, and the beauty of her very own papaya tree. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Ha and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. This is the moving story of one girl’s year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next. —Amazon

jesussonJesus’ Son by Denis Johnson:
The unnamed narrator in Jesus’ Son lives through a car wreck and a heroin overdose. Is he blessed? He cheats, lies, steals–but possesses a child’s uncanny way of expressing the bare essence of things around him. The stories follow characters who are seemingly marginalized beyond hope, drifting through a narcotic haze of ennui, failed relationships, and petty crime. In “Dundun” the narrator decides to take a shooting victim to the hospital, though not for the usual reasons. Later he takes his own pathetic  stab at violence in “The Other Man,” attempting to avenge a drug rip-off but succeeding only at terrorizing an innocent family. Open to any page and gems spill forth: “I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside that we’d have an accident in the storm.” —Amazon

okayfornowOkay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt:
Doug struggles to be more than the “skinny thug” that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to  endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival. —Amazon

antsEverybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King:
Lucky Linderman didn’t ask for his life. He didn’t ask his grandfather not to come home from the Vietnam War. He didn’t ask for a father who never got over it. He didn’t ask for a mother who keeps pretending their dysfunctional family is fine. And he didn’t ask to be the target of Nader McMillan’s relentless bullying, which has finally gone too far. But Lucky has a secret–one  that helps him wade through the daily mundane torture of his life. In his dreams, Lucky escapes to the war-ridden jungles of Laos–the prison his grandfather couldn’t escape–where Lucky can be a real man, an adventurer, and a hero. It’s dangerous and wild, and it’s a place where his life just might be worth living. But how long can Lucky keep hiding in his dreams before reality forces its way inside? A.S. King’s smart, funny and boldly original writing shines in this powerful novel about learning to cope with the shrapnel life throws at you and taking a stand against it. —Amazon

Field Trip! CS 21 Second Graders Take Architectural Walking Tour


A student points out an architectural detail to author Isabel Hill

Yesterday, CS 21 second graders took a walking tour of their neighborhood in search of architectural gems. Accompanied by Urban Animals author Isabel Hill, the students put their knowledge of architectural terms to the test, and discovered what stories the buildings in their neighborhoods had to tell.


A volunteer supervises her pair as they practice using the camera in the classroom.

The day began with BtB teaching artist Barbara Korein demonstrating how to use digital cameras. After a practice round in the classroom, the students were paired up, matched with a volunteer and a camera, and they were on their way!

The tour stopped at several buildings near the school which Isabel had scoped out; the students took turns photographing architectural details and writing down their observations. The buildings, which most of the students walk by each day, were far more interestingly detailed than they had ever noticed before. Before long, they wanted to stop at each building they passed!


Next up, the students will write polished pieces based on their notes and photographs from today to be compiled into a published book. We can’t wait to see the final project!  Want to come on our next classroom visit?  Sign up to volunteer by emailing

Special thanks to the Edelman Community Grant Program for their support!

New Book Celebration!

On Friday, class 802 from JHS 113 in East Harlem, were surprised to find an ecopy of their newly published book of autobiographical poetry Where 802 is From up on the smartboard. The surprise book party, complete with cookies and juice, was a great time for all; the students took some time browsing through the copy on our website, but were most excited to have physical books with the poems they so carefully crafted.

The authors each took a turn getting up and reading their pieces, “I am from” poems inspired by George Ella Lyon’s version which author/poet Tony Medina  introduced during his workshop. A math teacher said she was so inspired by the students’ poetry that she grabbed a napkin and wrote her own “I am from” poem on the spot!

Congratulations again to class 802 on publishing their first book!