Learn more about Project LIT Community in Human Restoration Project podcast

I recently had the opportunity to join the Human Restoration Project Podcast and chat with host Chris McNutt about a wide range of topics, including book access, tips for fellow English teachers, and the growth of Project LIT Community. You can listen to the entire podcast here. I would love to hear your thoughts on our conversation!

I also wanted to capture the highlights of the interview below, particularly for those who may not be podcast fans just yet! However, it’s worth mentioning that the following questions & answers are not transcribed from our conversation, but my revised reflections (although there is plenty of overlap between the two).

ALL 17-18 and 18-19

What has drawn you to build the Project LIT Community?

I believe wholeheartedly that every child deserves to grow up around great books. And unfortunately, we know that’s not the case for many of our students, including my own here at Maplewood High School. Project LIT Community began as a class project in the fall of 2016 after my students & I read about book deserts. From that first conversation, we’ve been committed and passionate about not only increasing book access, but also about promoting a love of reading in Nashville and communities across the country.

What are your major goals today as the Project LIT Community has expanded?

The ultimate goal is to build readers and leaders in every school and community. How do we do that? Continue to grow our grassroots literacy movement by connecting & collaborating with passionate educators who already believe in the power of books, who already believe that ALL of their students should see themselves in literature, who already have a great reading culture in their classroom. Let’s work together to empower our students and provide them with as many positive literacy and life experiences as possible. Not get caught up in numbers or metrics, and instead just focus on continuing this work.

It’s evident from your writings that you’re very successful in encouraging students to read – and actually enjoy reading – in your classroom. Often, school has detrimental effects for a love and reading and doesn’t promote literacy even into adulthood. What strategies have you used to foster a love of reading?

First and foremost, I’m a reader. Every one of my students will tell you that, and I believe that as teachers, our passion is contagious. Because I’m always reading, it’s easy for me to match students with books that I think they’ll enjoy. So yeah, for the new teachers out there, know your books and know your kids.

Second, I’m serious about book access, and access to high quality, culturally relevant books in particular. We’ve worked really hard to build an awesome classroom library that values & affirms all of our students. Students are far more likely to love a book when they can see themselves in it. And when they have an opportunity to Skype with or meet the author who wrote it. And when they have a chance to talk about that book and celebrate that book with their classmates & community and even other students around the world.

Finally, it’s essential that we give students choice in what they read and consistent time to read. Community is also huge. Reading is too often a solitary experience, and in our classroom & through our Project LIT Book Club, we try to make it a shared one, a fun one.

For someone who is looking to build their own classroom libraries, what suggestions do you have? I know from experience that while well-intentioned, many classroom libraries tend to be “leftover books” that no one seemingly wants to read.

Great question! I recently wrote a blog post about this, so I’d love to offer a few tips.

1. Focus on quality, not quantity. If the books aren’t going to be read, don’t bother buying them. So, work with your students to develop a list of recommend reads & then share it widely on social media (Twitter, Facebook, IG).

2. Make it easy for people to donate! (Amazon Wishlist, Donors Choose, book drives, etc.)

3. Let adults hear from your students! Videos, letters, pictures, adults want to know where their money is going.

4. Be on the lookout for local & national grants.

5. Check out the First Book Marketplace, phenomenal organization that gets books to kids.

6. Join Project LIT Community! We don’t have the $ (yet) to give you books, but we have resources & checklists to help you get started.

7. If you and your students are passionate & persistent, it will happen. Enjoy that process!

I think that it’s incredibly important that everyone recognizes that literacy is not limited to English or Social Studies classes – how do you recommend that mathematics, science, or other electives go about incorporating literacy in their classrooms, while not forcing texts that may be detrimental to one’s love of reading?

One, I always encourage science & social studies teachers to check out Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week. In order for students to grow as readers & writers, we have to increase the volume of reading & writing they do, and the AoW is a great way to help with that.

Second, I wish that ALL adults in a school talked to students about what they’re reading. Wait a minute, our math teacher is reading The Hate U Give this week? Oh, and our assistant principal loved Long Way Down, too? Our students can never have enough adult reading role models.

In a past podcast, we spoke to Dr. Molly Ness – a researcher and teacher in the literacy field – and we spoke fairly extensively on the negative impact of “reading rewards” that many library and school systems offer (e.g. “read x books, receive x pizzas.”) Specifically, “Accelerated Reader” has been documented to diminish a love of reading past elementary school. What is your opinion on reading rewards programs?

I think the question to ask is: Why do so many teachers & schools feel like they need these programs? A lot of times there’s this fear that if we don’t hold students “accountable,” we’ll never know if they’re actually reading. And that’s not just true.

I also know if that we’d all be better off if we took the money that we spent on AR and other programs and just bought great books instead.

Lastly, if teachers don’t know how to get their students excited about reading without these programs or extrinsic rewards, then our schools and districts have to offer more coaching & support. Let’s show teachers what it looks like to build a strong reading culture. Let’s help them fund their classroom libraries. Let’s eliminate the excessive testing. Let’s get rid of the scripted curriculum. Let’s listen to our students & help our teachers meet their needs as readers, as writers, as human beings.

Do you utilize silent reading time in your classroom? Do you believe that silent reading time (where students are given a choice of what to read, simply for pleasure) should go beyond an English classroom?

We begin every class period with 15, 20, 25 minutes of silent reading time. No exceptions. And for many of our students, it’s the best part of their day.

I recently had a student tell me, “I’m grateful for you, Mr. Amato, because without you, I’d only be reading Instagram posts.” Our students want & deserve time to read. And what, in our 7-hour school day, we can’t carve out 20 or 30 minutes for reading time? What’s more important than that?

If we don’t give students time to read during the school day, many of them will simply not read at all. For a lot of valid reasons that we could get into. I don’t understand why so many adults are okay with that.

Do you foresee (or know of) any dangers of standardized testing prep. and its effects on a love of reading? Specifically, I’m talking about “deep-reading” of text and other complex analysis that while well-intentioned to understand text, can drive students away from reading for the sake of reading.

Absolutely. I don’t think we talk about text selection enough. Often times we call a text “complex” or “rigorous” or “challenging,” or “grade appropriate,” but go into that English class and watch who’s doing all the work. The teacher! How are the students responding? Are they asleep? Acting out? Shutting down? Copying notes from the teacher? From their friend?

A lot of lesson and unit plans look good on paper. And companies make a lot of money selling scripted curriculum. But, does it work? Are students engaged? Are teachers engaged?

In my experience, the best readers read all the time. There’s no magic set of texts that will turn a non-reader into a proficient one.

Also, I think it’s interesting what books and texts our schools & districts consider “complex” or worthy of including in our curriculum. There’s this elitism, and often times, racism, that hurts our children, especially our children of color. And I love that our Project LIT family is serious about challenging the status quo.

Do you believe that there is a connection between declining reading rates and how we teach students how to read?

I don’t think I’m smart enough to answer that question, but I will say that many of our students have the ability to read; they just don’t read enough. They reach middle school, high school, and they stop reading altogether. And our schools are a big reason why. There’s this sense that an English classroom has to look a certain way, that students have to read a certain set of texts, even though we know that most students aren’t enjoying it. Shoot, most of them are faking their way through it anyways. So yes, I think we absolutely need to rethink what an English classroom looks like and how we teach students to read and interact with texts, especially in the middle & upper grades.

Often when we talk about the decline of reading in our school systems, the innate response is that the growth of social media, video games (especially Fortnite), and television are to blame for a loss of passionate readers. Do you believe that this is the case?

Look, there are absolutely more options for today’s teenagers! They’re looking not only for entertainment, but for that connection to others. And that’s why social media & even Fortnite are so popular. As adults, let’s stop blaming the smartphone & criticizing the younger generation (especially since so many of us are guilty of it, too). What we need to realize is that in order for a young person to a pick a book over Fortnite, it has to be good! It has to be relevant. It has to matter. And in my experience, if we give students books by Jason Reynolds & Kwame Alexander and Nic Stone and Angie Thomas, they will put down their phone and read. And thank you for it!

Also, I think we have to think about how students are responding to the texts. If they know that after they read a book, all they’re going to do is take a test or write an essay that no one will ever read, why bother? But if they’re going to be able to take about it, and write poetry, and create videos, and artwork, they’ll see the relevance, the purpose, the entertainment.

What is one program or initiative that you believe every single school in the United States should adopt tomorrow?

I will say Project LIT Community. I’m so grateful for our group of educators and students and I’m inspired by all of them daily. I think that our work is just beginning, and that there is tremendous strength in numbers. We just released our 2018-19 book list and it is incredible! 12 middle grade & 13 young adult titles that we think everybody should read. We’re so excited that hundreds of schools across the country, the Bronx, D.C., Denver, St. Louis, LA, Nashville, Chicago, you name it – will be able to celebrate and discuss these books next year.

What I love about Project LIT Community is that it’s not just about reading. It’s also about creating that sense of belonging for kids and adults. Allowing them to utilize their skills and their passions, empowering them as leaders in our schools and communities.