Blairsville educator's book tackles elementary problems
Leisa Clawson Noel has 17 years of teaching experience and, as a result, possesses a pretty good understanding of the issues most students deal with as they advance through the public education system.
She decided to put those learned lessons down on paper and developed them into a book published in September with the challenging title “Every Elementary School Has a Lot to Learn about Respect.”
The book follows four characters as they enter the third grade and face situations any elementary school student might encounter. Along the way, the reader meets the students' parents, teachers and principal and gets Noel's take on the best way to approach the various scenarios.
“I think that everybody needs to look at things from both sides,” Noel said. “Parents don't always see what the school is seeing, and the school doesn't always see what the parents are seeing. That's what the whole story brings out, that communication is so important and respect should be the center of everything we do.”
Noel lives near Blairsville and is a learning support teacher at West Shamokin Jr.-Sr. High School in the Armstrong School District.
After earning her bachelor's degree in education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she initially taught fifth-grade students at schools in Virginia.
She eventually returned to Pennsylvania and to IUP, earning her master's degree in reading. She was employed at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School before taking her current position.
Noel sat down in 2008 to write what she at first evisioned as a nonfiction book that would offer parents advice on how to deal with the public school system.
But after writing about 30 pages, “I was bored out of my mind,” Noel said. She acknowledged that first version read like the procedural safeguards notice that is distributed annually to parents in her school district.
She put the writing project aside for more than a year before seizing on the idea of recasting it as a work of fiction with characters that live through and learn from school-related situations.
“I thought about creating a character and taking that character through school and talking about the family and the parents and what they're going through,” she said. “As a learning support teacher, I've talked to a lot of parents, I've raised my own kids, so I've seen it from both ends.”
She created four characters in total — Izzy, a learning support student; general ed student Sawyer; Abel, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and a gifted student, Hannah.
Once she resumed work on the reconceived book, it took Noel a little over a year to finish writing it.
“Once I figured out what I was doing, it was easy,” she said.
She completed most of the writing while her own kids were at practice sessions for various sports or faced a waiting period between tournaments.
“That's where I could write,” she said. “When I wasn't around kids, I had a really hard time writing.”
For research, Noel recalled her own days as an elementary school student as well as the lessons she'd learned as a mother and the school experiences related by her two natural children, two adopted children and two stepchildren, who range in age from 12 to 26. She also took some of the many scenarios she's seen played out in public schools and applied them the group of third-grade characters she created.
In her tale, cheerleader Izzy doesn't want to tell her mother about an ear infection that won't go away because she doesn't want to miss cheering at the last football game of the year.
Holding back that information, though, leads to problems at school for the girl because she can't hear things correctly, and she ultimately ends up in the hospital.
Meanwhile, Sawyer has grown bigger than most kids his age and loves to play football. But his atypical size causes older kids to bully him.
Abel is excited when some girls at school teach him to do cartwheels but is teased by some other boys who think gymnastics are just for girls. Lastly, Hannah struggles with her intelligence, downplaying her intellect in order to fit in better at school.
Noel also introduces readers to each character's family, their teachers and Mrs. Travail, a teacher-turned-principal who fights for the kids' right to recess.
The book's target audience originally was parents of school-age children, but Noel realized, “If I keep this written at the fifth-grade level, this could be something kids could get a lot of out of, too, identifying with the characters.”
Several friends who are fellow teachers helped Noel edit her finished product, and they pointed out it could be good for teachers as well, helping them to recognize situations within their classrooms and how to react to them.
Noel also has university staff reading it to determine if it could be used in teacher training.
In the spring of 2011, Noel sent the finished manuscript to four publishing companies. The following July, Tate Publishing and Enterprises agreed to release the book, Noel said. It may have helped that the company representative she talked with had a friend who had just been through some of the scenarios covered in the book.
It took a full year to get through publishing process, according to Noel, “But boy, was it worth it when I had that book in my hands for the first time,” she said.
As a reference for herself as she wrote, Noel drew sketeches of each of her characters using Microsoft Paint software.
She said the book's illustrator, Tate Publishing's Liz Holt, “did a fantastic job of creating those characters from my crummy little dot-matrix drawing. She wanted to know what they were wearing, how they would stand. She was fantastic to work with.”
Noel has already started writing a proposed second book in the series, which will follow the characters into middle school. And because middle schoolers are more social, new characters will be introduced, she said.
“Every Elementary School Has a Lot to Learn about Respect” can be ordered in print and e-book form online at http://leisanoel.tateauthor.com. Hard copies also can be found at Amazon and in local Barnes & Noble stores.
Noel will also have books available to purchase at two book-signing events planned in the area, the first being 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the Blairsville Public Library. She will also appear at 2 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Greensburg Barnes & Noble store.
The book retails for $23.99, but copies will be available for a reduced rate at the library event.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.