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12th Annual Festival of Words inspires DE students and educators


FOW authorFollowing the 12th Annual Festival of Words, sponsored by University of Delaware’s Center for Teacher Education, Education Resource Center, Writing Center and School of Education, a graduate student provided a summary commemorating the speech of the keynote speaker and author, Matt de la Pena.

One-by-one, the auditorium seats fill with nearly 300 anxious middle and high school students and teachers.  Some feet dangle suspended from their seats, some tread undecidedly about rows and aisles, as if in search of a lost pair, and yet others cross, wiggle, or shake, planted at their resting place for the event. They have traveled from as close as Newark High, a next-door neighbor of the University of Delaware campus, and from as far away as Laurel Middle School, about a 2-hour drive from the Southern end of the state. Matt De la Peña’s written words are familiar to many in the assembly, but his voice has only been heard by a few. He casually heads for the podium, and the chatters evolve into whispers. Before long, he has captivated the crowd with a great deal of inspiration for aspiring writers and readers, and even insight into character creation.

Matt shared that as a high school student, his potential career aspirations were to become a professional basketball player, a musician or a poet. He was a student athlete, played the guitar and enjoyed writing poetry, so those were the options on his list.

The students in the audience could relate, as he began describing how his mind would sometimes wander in classes. He started writing many of his first poems “in the back of the class, when I was supposed to be paying attention to the science lectures.” One day, he even built up enough bravado to hand-deliver a poem to a girl he admired. He handed her the folded poem, she took it and walked away with three of her friends. As she stepped away, his mind ran wild imagining how this poem would lead the two of them into an instant storybook romance, but that was not to be. She never spoke to him again. Maybe poetry was not for him! Perhaps his college years would lead him toward a more reliable career.

De la Peña’s athletic interest and ability eventually led him to become a student-athlete in college, and he began these experiences with optimism. Perhaps he would go to the NBA! During only the second game of his college years, he faced off against a guard from a nearby college by the name of Steve Nash. At the conclusion of the game, the stats revealed that “Steve Nash had 36 points, 14 assists… and ya know what I had?… I had 3 points, 1 assist, and 8 turnovers.” While Nash went on to become the starting point guard for the Phoenix Suns, for Matt, professional basketball was crossed off the list!

For Matt, romance seemed to pick up where his athletic pursuits left off. De la Peña shared an amusing story about how his romantic pursuits further narrowed his career focus, a brief encounter that unveiled his discomfort with music. Convinced by his girlfriend to play his guitar for an audience of one, Matt revealed that he “was literally shaking, and sweat rolled down my face,” as he was stricken with intense and nearly paralyzing nervousness.  Realizing that he was somewhat lacking in stage presence, yet another potential career was crossed off the list! At long last, Matt decided to return to his first love – writing.

In addition to tales of his own career development, de la Peña also shared insight into his own writing style and technique. He divulged to the audience that one dilemma writers have is finding inspiration for characters. “You have to know the character, so that you know what they will do in any situation,” Matt disclosed. Once, while struggling to figure out a character in one of his books, Matt witnessed an eighth grade male in an assembly give up his seat to a female student standing in the back of the crowded room. He decided this young man’s name would be the name of his character, because “that’s the kind of thing that he would do in that situation.”

Matt de la Peña also offered great advice to all readers, especially those reading new books or authors for the first time. He petitioned to those in attendance to “please give a book 15 to 25 pages before you decide whether to continue.” He went on to state that “some of the best books you ever will read will feel uncomfortable at first.” Matt shared that he feels a sense of literary euphoria, after falling in love with a book.  Delving into the plot, he is encompassed by the setting and embarks on a page-by-page sojourn with each of the characters.

This reoccurring feeling of euphoria continued to inspire Matt de la Peña to major in English in college and continue to pursue writing as a profession. His motivational speech served as an awesome catalyst to the engaging interactions that continued throughout the course of the day’s events. The twelfth annual Festival of Words included presentations from teachers and students, a variety of creative sessions and workshops, contests, and even a Spoken Word and Open Mic session.

Many participants reported that the best features of the conference were the keynote speech and time they were able to spend with Matt de la Peña. His ability to connect with the audience during and after the speech made an outstanding impression on those in attendance. As one student shared, “Matt was hilarious and I can relate to him.” His story showed many Delawarean students that they, too, can pursue their passions!




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