A Sacred Space

By Judy Cheatham and Jennifer Sicking

Photos by Guy Schafer

Adobe Stock Photo

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From left, George Ella Lyon, UT Southern Provost Judy Cheatham and Ronnie Erwin.
From left, George Ella Lyon, UT Southern Provost Judy Cheatham and Ronnie Erwin.

“Ginny loved reading circle,” begins George Ella Lyon’s The Pirate of Kindergarten.

But she wasn’t the only one loving reading during UT Southern’s second Lynn McKee Erwin Conference on Children’s Literature. More than 200 kindergarten through fifth grade teachers from Southern Middle Tennessee explored the joys of reading and the impact of children’s literature in education.

“Poems and stories are companions, windows and teachers,” Lyon says. “They broaden our minds, deepen our hearts and tell us we are not alone. Nurture a child’s love of reading, and you give them a gift for life. That’s what this conference is all about.”

The conference began when Ronnie Erwin wanted to honor his wife, Lynn McKee Erwin (Southern ’66), after her death in 2019. Lynn Erwin, an elementary school teacher, believed teachers can change the lives of children, her husband says.

In a 2021 meeting with UT Southern Vice Chancellor of Advancement Evan Beech and UT Southern Provost Judy Cheatham, Erwin shared his desire to continue his late wife’s passion. Cheatham (Knoxville ’79), who previously served as national vice president of literacy services for Reading Is Fundamental, suggested the idea of the children’s literature conference.

“I know all too well the issues with access and opportunity to books and other reading material, especially in rural communities and communities with a low tax base,” Cheatham says.

Books available for attendees to peruse at the conference.
Books available for attendees to peruse at the conference.

Erwin agreed to Cheatham’s idea.

“This conference is my way of continuing the conversation that my wife started,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to share her passion for teaching, her ideas and her dreams with a wider audience.” Cheatham recruited the UTS Grissom School of Education faculty as well as students in the teacher education program, and they began to plan.

Left to right, guest speaker Don Tate poses for a photo with conference attendee Scott Gaines during an illustration demonstration.
Left to right, guest speaker Don Tate poses for a photo with conference attendee Scott Gaines during an illustration demonstration.

During the conference, educators heard from authors, talked about reading and learned about the publishing and writing process. They also were treated to a book room to preview about 4,000 books, as well as presented with 12 hardback books, including two they chose. While the conference celebrates reading and elementary teachers, it also provides professional development with opportunities for K-5 teachers to participate in a collaborative “deep dive” to study the Universal Design for Learning and reinforcing K-5 teachers’ knowledge and skill bases.

Crystal Harris Coleman, who attended the 2023 conference, applauded it. “Taking home free books is a wonderful benefit, but it doesn’t beat getting to meet the authors and literacy professionals,” she says. “I learned so many things that I have been able to use in the classroom this year.”

Erin Crisp, director of Grow Your Own, the Tennessee initiative to address Tennessee’s teacher shortage, says, “If the five-minute conversation teachers have in the hallway between classes is like a piece of chocolate, a whole day spent together to hear authors, discuss literacy, imagine a better future for our students and walk away with new books is the whole box of chocolate. Time together in the world of words and stories is a gift.”

A gift that was born of love.

“For me, the conference was a sacred space,” Erwin says. “I hope attendees will find joy in Lynn’s story while carrying on her love for others, for teaching and for encouraging those little ones to be more than they ever thought possible.”

Authors Attending the Second Lynn McKee Erwin Conference on Children’s Literature

Don Tate is an author and illustrator. His children’s books include It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw; Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton; and Jerry Changed the Game: How Engineer Jerry Lawson Revolutionized Video Games Forever.

Cynthia Leitich Smith, a lawyer by training and a citizen of the Musgogee-Creek Nation, writes fiction and fantasy across genres for children and youth. Two of her most renowned are Jingle Dancer and Sisters of the Neversea.

Devin Scillian, a news anchor on WDIV-TV, NBC in Detroit, is an author of the Memoirs books, one of the most popular book series for children: Memoirs of a Hamster, Memoirs of a Tortoise, Memoirs of a Parrot and Memoirs of an Elf.

Frank Murphy, a full-time teacher, coach and children’s author, focuses on historical figures, leadership, kindness and positivity of spirit with his books. In 2020, one of Murphy’s best-selling books, A Boy Like You, earned the California Reading Association’s 2019 EUREKA! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award as well as a place on the 2020 Amelia Bloomer Book List.

George Ella Lyon, poet, writer, teacher, musician and storyteller with Appalachian roots and a worldwide reach, has published 10 poetry collections, two adult novels, six novels for young people and 34 picture books. A former poet laureate of Kentucky, Lyon’s titles include ALA Notable All the Water in the World, Time to Fly and Pirate of Kindergarten, as well as her series Trucks Roll!, Planes Fly! and Boats Float!

Also attending the 2024 conference were: Sarah Rockett, senior editor at Sleeping Bear Press and editorial director at Tilbury House Publishing, and Carol Hampton Rasco, a national children and family literacy expert who previously led Reading Is Fundamental, which at her retirement had distributed over 415 million books to over 41 million children across the country.