There’s a lot I will eventually write about Friday’s Project LIT Book Club.
Eventually, I’ll share the full journey, which in many ways begins in 2014, when my current juniors were in eighth grade, so that you can better understand how and why best-selling author and amazing human Nic Stone ended up at Maplewood High School on February 2, 2018, spending hours in our library snapping selfies, singing songs, answering questions, autographing books (and T-shirts), cracking jokes, and just listening to and loving our young people.
Eventually, I will find the words to properly thank Nic and capture the magic of that day, a day that my students and I will never forget. Eventually.
In the meantime, however, I figured it’d be best for you to hear from two of my favorite people, two students who inspire me and their classmates daily.
Let’s start with Jakaylia, who opened up our book club with this speech. Seriously, go ahead and watch it if you haven’t yet. And here’s what the speech looked like from her phone (because I know some of you still haven’t watched the video):
“Over The Past Few Months I’ve Had The Pleasure Of Getting To Know One Of My Favorite Authors Ever: Nic Stone, Best Selling Author of Dear Martin. I’ve Never Had The Opportunity To Personally Know One Of My Favorite Authors So For Her To Reach Out To Me Meant The Entire World. We’ve developed A Bond And She’s Inspired Me To Think Deeper About My Goals In Life And Never Giving Up. I’ve Always Had A Passion To Write Short Stories And Eventually Even Try To Write A Book. I Doubted Myself Because I Could Never Get Any Ideas Or I Would Beat Myself Up Once I Started Because I Felt Like It Wasn’t Good Enough. When I Had This Conversation With Nic a couple of weeks ago, She Told Me She Felt The Same Way And She Didn’t Know Where To Start But She Kept Trying. She Found It Within Herself To Be Different And Face Her Fears, Inspire Those Like Me Who Felt Like Writing Wasn’t For Them Or Got Discouraged Because Their Ideas Weren’t Supported. I Am Beyond Grateful And So Proud To Let Everyone Here This Morning Have The Same Amazing Opportunity That I’ve Had To meet and Hear From The One And Only Nic Stone. Before We Begin, We Wanted To Present Nic With Our Own Book. This Book Includes All Of Our Poems, Letters And Stories That Were Inspired By Dear Martin. We Hope That You Enjoy Reading Them As Much As We Enjoyed Writing Them.”
And here’s what Chelsea, another one of our Project LIT leaders, tweeted out Friday night as she reflected on the day:
“Today was one of the best days of my entire life. Today I was able to be a part of something I could only dream of. I used to think that my writing was terrible. Until @jarredamato put me up to the challenge of writing essays and poems. I could never thank him enough. I also want to thank Nic personally for actually taking the time to read my poems and hangout with the kids at Maplewood. You were such a down to earth person. We hope you can attend a future book club with us. Thank you for believing in me and Maplewood. –CJ your favorite poet.”
What it’s all about right there!
And with that, let’s get into our Sunday 7…
1. All students deserve the opportunity to read books like Dear Martin
So, here’s the question I’ve been thinking a lot about this weekend: How did this happen? How did Jakaylia end up with a microphone, surrounded by more than a hundred kind, caring, committed classmates and community members, introducing Nic Stone? How did Chelsea end up sharing her amazing poetry and artwork with an award-winning author?
Let’s start with the obvious: Nic Stone does not end up at Maplewood High School if my students do not have the opportunity to read Dear Martin.
Over the past year, since starting Project LIT Book Club in January 2017, my students and I have read and discussed the following books – The Crossover, March, Booked, Ghost, All American Boys, The Hate U Give, A Long Walk to Water, Solo, and Dear Martin – in addition to all of our self-selected reading.
At a time where teens are reportedly reading less frequently than ever, Jakaylia, Chelsea and the rest of their classmates are flying through at least one book a month.
Would this happen with some of the “classic” texts that many students are unfairly forced to read (or at least fake read) in the traditional classroom, where everything is designed for the comfort and convenience of adults?
Would this happen if I taught the books to death, forcing students to read the book at my pace and answer comprehension questions at the end of each chapter?
Would this happen if I forced my students to do all of their reading at home, even though I know that many are playing sports, working part-time jobs, looking after siblings, completing homework for seven or eight classes, and waking up at 4:30 or 5:00 AM to be at school by 7:05?
Not a chance.
Instead, for the first 20 to 30 minutes of every class period, Jakaylia sits on the black futon in the back of the room and gets lost in a book that values her and her classmates. She gets to meet Starr and Rashad and Justyce, compelling, complex characters that she can relate to and identify with. And then she gets to talk and write about what she’s reading in a safe and welcoming environment, where’s she encouraged to share her words with not only her classmates, but with the world. (And because of the relationship Jakaylia and I have developed over the past three years, she trusts me to snap pictures of her poems and text and tweet them to Nic.)
2. That sounds great, but…
I can hear the questions now.
“But, how did you get all of those books? My school doesn’t have the money.”
“But, what about the standards?”
“But, why are you are always reading those books?”
Let me answer them in order:
My school doesn’t have the money either. That’s one of the reasons my students and I started Project LIT Community: to increase book access, and access to high-quality, culturally relevant books in particular.
We began by asking friends on Facebook and Twitter to send us books from our recommended reads list. Then, we put together a Donors Choose project for The Crossover, our first community-wide book club. Then, we began to apply for every literacy grant we could find (and while we were rejected by many, it only took a couple of wins to fill our classroom library with great books).
Through it all, we’ve been passionate and persistent, doing a little bit day in and day out, sharing our story on social media, and connecting with others (fellow educators, authors, and community members) who share our passion for helping all students fall in love with reading.
3. “But, what about the standards?”
What do all successful readers have in common? They read a lot!
Whether we’re talking ACT or an end-of-year state assessment, the top performers are generally those who have had the most hours of reading under their belts. Volume matters.
And that’s what I prioritize – inspiring students to see the joy and value of reading and writing, so that they continue to do both more often, not just for a year, but for a lifetime.
To be clear, I still teach the standards (here’s an older post on what my English block looks like), just not in a traditional way with one daily objective written on the board.
Of course, I’m constantly tweaking and refining my classroom structure, but it’s freeing to know that every day, without exception, my students will engage in meaningful reading and writing.
Is it perfect or the only way? Of course not. But, my students are happy to come to class every day. They feel cared for and valued and connected. They’re becoming better readers and writers and human beings, and that’s good enough for me.
4. “But, why are you are always reading those books?”
Here’s who I have zero patience or respect for: the folks who question the “complexity” of YA literature, particularly books featuring black and brown characters. These folks are almost always non-readers. Additionally, most of these folks do not spend meaningful time around black and brown children.
And here’s how I know that: because if they did read books like The Hate U Give, Dear Martin and Long Way Down, and if they did spend time listening to our young readers talk about these books and how they’ve changed their lives, they wouldn’t continue to make it so difficult for teachers to add them to our classrooms and curriculum.
(Side note: shout out to all the authors and educators out there who are working to diversify the canon despite the obstacles.)
There’s more I can and will say on this topic, but I’ll stop there because I’m already approaching 1,500 words and I’ve got Super Bowl appetizers to prepare.
5. Important community perspective
I wanted to relay a few comments that Allison Buzard, the wonderful Equity & Diversity Coordinator for our district, shared following our book club on Friday.
On Twitter, she wrote:
“Some key takeaways for me are: 1. Students can love to read if they can see themselves in the literature, if they can find their story in the plot line, if they have choice in the literature, and if they are engaged in discussion around the text. 2. Adults can love to read, too, if they are challenged to do so, if they can see themselves in the book, and if they can find their story in the story. The adults at my table discussion were as eager to discuss the book as the students. 3. Students are brilliant. I observed students leading peers and adults in discussions about racism and civil rights this morning. 4. Teachers, school and district staff, and community partners can and want to be engaged in schools. And they will engage if given opportunities. 5. We have some amazingly passionate, creative teachers in our district. We need to value and listen to them. They get it!”
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! Thank you, Allison.
6. Book of the Week
Dear Martin. Obviously.
7. Announcement – Black History Month Challenge
We’re encouraging teachers and students across the country to join NCTE’s effort to read and celebrate literature by African American writers throughout Black History Month. Learn more about the Project LIT Challenge here.