In a typical school year, authors and illustrators Trisha Speed Shaskan and Stephen Shaskan would visit between 30 and 40 elementary schools across Minnesota.
The Minneapolis couple, who met while teaching creative writing and art to elementary students, have written and illustrated over 50 books combined for children.
“The energy that comes with being with kids and helping them create their own characters is really wonderful and inspiring,” Stephen said.
Trisha and Stephen are the featured authors of 2021’s “Hooked On Books ... and the Arts, too!,” a celebration of literacy and arts presented as a partnership between Eastern Carver County Community Education and the Carver County Library system. Started as a reading fair 15 years ago, Hooked on Books has evolved into a free event for families with activity stations, author meet-and-greets and musical performances — but this year, it’s moving online on Feb. 6.
In the past, around 2,300 people attended the free event, which normally takes place on a Saturday morning in February, said Lori Kendall, district communications specialist.
“Clearly, that’s more than the capacity of the COVID world we live in,” Kendall said. “But even in this challenging time, we wanted to continue the celebration of the arts.”
In previous years, the featured author would visit classrooms during the week leading up to the event. The 2020 celebration, held at Chanhassen High School, had nearly two dozen activity stations, including painting demonstrations and opera performances, and participants would receive a free book on their way out.
This time around, all activities will take place online the day of, with links that go live at on Feb. 6 at eccs.mn/hooked. Visitors can click and choose what they’d like to participate in throughout the day.
Trisha and Stephen created a musical performance related to their recent book and a build-your-own-character workshop. There will be an ethnic dance performance by Los Alegres Bailadores, an art gallery of elementary students’ work, and an artistry creation workshop and music from Ten Penny Tunes. Readers can also submit a book review of any book and receive a coupon for a free treat from Qdoba in Chaska.
“These activities are quick and simple ... you don’t have to go onto Zoom or Google Meet. Kids can choose from a variety of things and can do it by themselves,” Kendall said. “If it’s a snowy day, I think we’ll have a lot of participation,” she added.
One of Trisha and Stephen’s videos for the event is a family musical performance, where they both play the guitar, read their books (like “Punk Skunks,” about two skunks who play guitar and drums) and explain how their ideas came to life.
Their second workshop shows how they came up with their original characters and guides kids through creating their own with the help of worksheets. One activity shows how participants can draw their own character with simple shapes, and another brainstorms names and traits. (“We get really funny things, like a pancake afraid of maple syrup,” Trisha added.)
Also highlighted during the presentation are other Minnesota authors, like Ojibwe author Brenda Child and Colombian writer Anika Fajardo.
“Minnesota has a really rich community of children’s book authors and illustrators, and we wanted to invite some of our friends that represent some of Carver County’s population to introduce students to their books,” Trisha said.
There is one downside to the online format: they’re not able to see the kids, Stephen said, though they encourage teachers and parents to send their creations to the couple.
“We hope families have a lot of fun with it, because it really is fun and easy. We give simple tools to create, but it really draws upon the imagination,” Trisha said.
“We try to make it accessible,” Stephen added. “Art, writing and telling stories is accessible to everyone — and everyone can do it.”
In the refrigerator
Sharing Life’s Lessons
Five days a week
One of the first challenges Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams championed upon her arrival to Eastern Carver County Schools in July 2020 was asking principals throughout the district to identify the students who struggled the most with distance learning at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
They used the summer months to prepare a Distance Learning 2.0 plan to close the gap; to lend the support and increase engagement to the students that needed it the most.
As students head back into classrooms, first in elementary buildings, followed by middle and high schools, a Jan. 25 School Board meeting was a time for reflection, and a time for celebration, for the work being done. And work that will continue to be done throughout this school year into the summer and into the 2021-22 calendar.
“I really want to applaud our principals and their leadership teams for taking the time to hold on and know each and every student is, and the needs that were presented in front of them with distance learning,” said District 112 Assistant Superintendent Erin Rathke.
Rathke acknowledged that with the ups and downs of changing learning models, additional students have been added to the original list. In most buildings, roughly 20% of students need additional support.
Instructional leaders are consistently looking at engagement of all students, whether in-person, hybrid, or in distance learning; monitoring data closely to provide support for students; and providing champions for students.
Rathke said when schools reimagined what staff would be doing this school year, many took on additional responsibilities, such as checking in on students, “a touch point” from the school building on a consistent basis.
“With our focus forward plans, it is a living document that is helping us achieve school improvement where we are looking at growth and progress in monitoring students. We continue as an organization to be data driven, looking at the growth of each and every student,” Rathke said.
The words of Joan MacDonald, Bluff Creek Elementary principal, who was joined by Administrative Dean Jane Best for the school board presentation.
When the pandemic forced schools into distance learning in November, MacDonald and her staff identified 139 students out of 537 as those that were gifted, and not being challenged enough; those with instructional needs that required remediation; or those with attendance or engagement issues.
Casting a net, everyone from teachers to support staff, secretaries, paraprofessionals, Reading Corp volunteers, nurses and specialists, were on board. Each of those identified students were attached to a staff member, Best said.
Sometimes it was a phone call. Sometimes it was a tutor session. Sometimes it was dropping off a swag bag at homes to celebrate achievement.
MacDonald described a physical education teacher working in 1-on-1 groups with kindergarteners on letter identification. A classroom music teacher collaborating with second, third and fourth graders on math problem solving activities.
Phone calls supported attendance and engagement, while individual virtual check-ins through Google Meet encouraged students to participate. The staff also set-up daily wake-up calls for some students, or helping to set-up Chromebook alarms for class reminders.
A girls group at Bluff Creek Elementary, featuring fifth graders, met online with Chanhassen High School students to replace the void left from not having that daily social interaction in-person.
MacDonald also commended the community center at Riverview Terrace in Chaska for its after-school tutoring program. “They did a phenomenal job catching the students we were not able to reach throughout the day,” she said.
MacDonald said the work isn’t done now that students are returning to buildings.
“Participating in Google Meets during distance learning gave us an insightful and spectacular glimpse into the lives of our individual students,” MacDonald said. “For us, it has created an increased urgency to continue the work with our students as we return to learn.”
Fred Berg, school board member and longtime educator in District 112, said it is his hope these programs continue, even after the pandemic.
“I’ve seen a lot of really good programs that after two years you say whatever happened to that. This is something I really think we need to work hard at making sure it continues. Whether we get back together all normal, or whatever, this is an excellent way to reach kids,” he said.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this being done in our district to this depth, and degree. I’m just really excited about this program,” Berg added.
Sayles-Adams shared these initiatives are happening throughout the district, though they may look differently depending on each building.
Nate Gibbs, first-year principal at Chaska Middle School West, said the theme for the school year within his building was “kindness-empathy-respect.”
“The commitment to these values are building a culture of engagement and support at West that is reflected on how we show up for our students, and is reflected in how our students show up for us,” he said.
His challenge for the West staff was building something better for students this past fall versus what was done on the fly in spring 2020.
Staff emphasized three points: relationships matter, a focus on engagement and assessment of learning. Through these, Gibbs said he has heard from families as well as other middle school building leaders the growing connection with families.
Gibbs said between 80 to 120 students are called every day by a group of staff with a personal invitation to attend class — attendance reports are run every hour.
Additionally, grade reports are available weekly for families to see where kids are at. For teachers, this highlights students that are in need of additional support.
Gibbs said West uses the High Five system. Each advisory teacher chose five students to cultivate “a close and supportive relationship with those students.”
He also pointed out the work of paraprofessionals, who meet with students sometimes late into evenings, or on weekends. Wednesdays are a time for math parties through Google Meet for tutoring and support.
“They are giving a high level of support that I have to honor and highlight,” Gibbs said.
Feedback from families details that regular communication from teachers is being accomplished, while there is a pretty clear snapshot of what’s being expected, and what’s being covered in class.
“It’s an important time to learn our student’s story and their family’s story. Our work is ongoing. It’s by no means perfected, but I am incredibly proud of the persistence, the dedication, the commitment our staff have demonstrated,” Gibbs said.
Looking back at Distance Learning 2.0, Sayles-Adams said the work of principals and leadership teams in each building, identifying new roles, providing professional instruction to support staff, was an effort that led to a successful transition from in-person and hybrid learning models.
“We learned that first we must know our students, then we must know what they know, and then we must know how we can help them,” MacDonald said. “I believe the work we’ve done in this short time has helped us to do that.
“People come into this field because they care about kids, they want to watch them succeed. When you get a little glimpse into what their life is like when they’re not with us, we’ve talked about the passion for reaching kids, making sure everyone has an opportunity to succeed; I believe that is what is driving our teachers, our staffs to champion this,” MacDonald added.