TALKING LITERACY WITH HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER JARRED AMATO

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Anybody who is involved in education issues and is active on social media should be aware of Maplewood High School English teacher Jarred Amato. Amato has been teaching now for about 8 years, after entering the profession through the Nashville Teaching Fellows/TNTP. He’s proven to be a dedicated, innovative professional, and at a time when young males need more role models, he’s just what the doctor ordered. Last summer Jarred dedicated himself to learning more about “book deserts” and then paired with his students, many of whom reside in those deserts, to do something about them. The result was what he calls Project Lit. Something equally refreshing about him is his humility. He recognizes that he is benefiting from exposure to great educators and that he’s just one of a system full of great teachers. Jarred and I recently sat down for a coffee and a chat at Portland Brew on 12th Avenue South.

Dad Gone Wild: Afternoon Jarred. You doing all right

Jarred Amato: I’m good, TC. How are you?

DGW: I’m doing all right. I’m kind of laughing a little bit because when you and I first met, what, about four years ago?

JA: That sounds about right.

DGW: Yes, four years ago and that was under little different circumstances.  Where was it, a teacher cabinet or a teacher group? Teachers for reform? Do you remember it at all?

JA: (looking puzzled) I’m not sure.

DGW: It was a meeting held by a group of primarily parents and some teachers who were trying to form a group to promote education reform, and you and I were on different sides of the table. I think I kinda got kicked out of that meeting, or it was hinted at that I might not be a good fit. That’s back when battle lines were really being drawn.

JA: Oh, over at the community center, right?

DGW: That’s the one, and that time we were definitely in opposition. But I’ve kept track of your career over the last several years, and I have to say I’m impressed. It’s reinforced to me that in arguing policy, we have to really be careful that the end result is not running people out of the conversation. It would have been a big loss if you were no longer in the classroom because of some ideology battles.

JA: Thank you for that. It’s been a blast. This is my eighth year in the classroom, and it’s crazy to look back at how much I’ve grown from 2009, graduating college and stepping right into the classroom at Jere Baxter MS to now at Maplewood HS. I look at my transformation as a teacher, but also how I’ve broadened my perspective on education policy, not just here, but nationally and internationally. I have been fortunate to learn from and work alongside some great people during my career. I think I’ve been able to figure out what works for me in the classroom and at the same time recognize that there’s still more to be done.

DGW: So you started off as a coach, right?

JA: I was actually hired as a teacher, but saw coaching as a way I could connect with kids who didn’t look like me. My first year at Jere Baxter I took a job volunteering as a football coach even though I had never actually played the sport growing up. Driving kids home from practice is kind of where I learned how to teach kids who were just super brave, courageous kids who faced challenges beyond anything I had experienced. I went on to coach basketball as well, so that I could continue to learn from and connect with my students.

DGW: You attended Vanderbilt University, did you go there for a teaching degree?

JA: Initially, no. I was an English and history major in the College of Arts and Science. I have always loved reading, writing, and playing sports – those are my three passions. And I took a freshman seminar course from a professor, Dr. Gilman Whiting, on the intersection of sports and race in American culture, and then took another course on the achievement gap in America during my junior year. Those courses exposed me to educational inequity. As I was about to enter my senior year, switching majors was not going to happen. Instead, I went through the first cohort of TNTP’s Nashville Teaching Fellows.

DGW: Okay, I didn’t realize that.

JA: So that was back in 2009, and everybody at TNTP was trying to get a handle on things, but I was lucky because my coach and mentor during that summer was Julie Travis, who was then an English teacher and mentor coach at Jere Baxter and is now my assistant principal at Maplewood. She’s been the best person to learn and grow from. I was able to get an idea of what English instruction should look like from her. My first year at Jere Baxter was in special education, so I was a co-teacher. I had a year, essentially, where I didn’t have to run or manage my own classroom. I was able to learn from Julie along with my co-teacher, Kristin Rowan. I had a year of what was essentially a residency. It was invaluable.

DGW: I would think that would prove invaluable..

JA: Not having any of the typical first-year pressures definitely shaped me as a teacher. I’m really thankful I had that opportunity. When I got certified to teach English for grades 7-12 and run a classroom of my own the following year, I was far more prepared

DGW: Now, Jere Baxter Middle School, for those not familiar with it, and I should disclose that my mother-in-law taught there for 35 years, is what, 70% African-American, would you say?

JA: Yes, I’d say about 70%.

DGW: And the poverty level is about…

JA: 98 percent?

DGW: So it can be a challenging school and has been for years and years and years. One that, at times, has been drastically under resourced.

JA: Yes. I think almost the only constant for these kids is change. Look at the changes there from 2009 through 2015, how many changes in leadership structure the school has been through. Essentially, the kids never had stable leadership, and these are the kids who need stability in their schools the most. That broke my heart. But what you see in these students is just super resilience, super strong talent, and a super strong desire to learn. Jere Baxter became my home, and when I decided to move to Maplewood HS, it was to stay in the same cluster and to continue to work with the same kids I’d taught and coached in seventh and eighth grade. Being at Maplewood has been a wonderful opportunity.

DGW: And I should clarify that I’m always hesitant to refer to a school as a challenging school because schools aren’t just made up of brick and mortar. When we classify them, we are actually classifying the very real children who create the school. That makes me hesitant to use phrases like challenging.

JA: Very true. I try to focus on relationships and that is what has helped me first survive and now thrive. I think it’s about really caring about kids and getting to know them as more than just a number. To build relationships with my class and with my students. As a young teacher, I spent a lot of time just getting to know them and love them. I think the shift for me probably happened three or four years in. I realized that I also had a responsibility to be a really good teacher on top of that. To really give them the kind of instruction as their English teacher that I knew they were going to need to overcome the odds and get to where they want to be. That’s been the fun part. Figuring out over the past few years the recipes that will make me a better teacher. I don’t know if you can teach people things like caring about kids and having empathy, and I don’t know if I had that ingrained or if I had to learn it. The caring part certainly came more naturally, but then the fun part has been figuring out how do I become just a really good teacher who can give my students the skills they need as writers, readers, and communicators.

DGW: To give it all focus.

JA: Yes, to give it all focus.

DGW: We don’t have enough male teachers in the classrooms and especially in the high school setting. Which translates into a lack of role models for males when they need it most. Do you embrace that role, or is it is something you keep at arm’s length?

JA: I hadn’t thought about it in that sense until recently, when a librarian actually talked about it at a professional development session last month. I think I’ll have to find the studies – I am sure they’re out there – that find how a lot of our boys don’t enjoy reading or struggle to read. There could be a connection to the fact that they haven’t seen or had many real male reading role models in their lives, both inside and outside of school. I don’t think my guys have had a lot of English teachers who love sports and can talk to them about Kevin Durant and Steve Kerr before the bell and then in class we can read together side by side and I can make book recommendations. It’s my job to find ways to connect with all students so that I can connect them with the right books. It could be the introverted girl who wants me to read a book like The Selection by Kiera Cass, and I’ll do that. But then, back to our boys, some of them have maybe gone seven or eight years without male teachers, and have possibly only read books that their female, probably white, teacher, made them read, right?

DGW: Good point.

JA: And if that’s their only experience in reading, it’s probably not going to be the most positive. So, I’ve tried to embrace being a male reading role model and I’m getting more comfortable in that role.

DGW: I believe that being a role model is extremely important. I’ve worked with kids over the years, in different fashions, and have seen how much they are looking for guidance. Too often, we adults try to avoid that role by saying things like, “No, no, don’t call me sir, that’s my father’s name or whatever.” I believe that does a disservice to kids and that it’s important that adults recognize we are the generation ahead, and we owe it to the kids who are coming behind us to provide them with some guidance. To help them understand both morally, and like you said, in reading, to provide a positive role model. It’s challenging, but we need to recognize that we’ve made it this far, and we wouldn’t be in these roles if we weren’t capable of passing them on. Kids are going to take their cues from somewhere, and obviously someone with your skills and your qualifications is going to be a better source to somebody who didn’t finish school or is in trouble with the law or having trouble navigating the system on their own.

JA: I do a lot of talking about how I ended up here and how important it is for young men to do well in school. For me, I just read a lot from a young age. I always had a book in my hand. My mom loved to read, so I was reading the sports page when I was a young kid at the breakfast table. Or then, throughout elementary and middle school, I was just constantly reading. I think a lot of our kids haven’t had that reading experience, and so we owe it to them to give them the time and the space to read. We also need to create the environment in our schools to give them that opportunity. If you ask most successful people what was a major contributor to their success, odds are they will tell you they read a lot. We need to instill that in our kids.

DGW: It’s interesting when we talk about that because I believe the same thing. I’ve discovered a lot about life through reading. I’ve travelled to far off countries through books and even some of my moral tropes have come from books. Books that might not necessarily be considered “good books.” My wife (she’s a literacy teacher herself and better read in the classics than I am) and I get into the conversation all the time about reading the “right” books vs. just reading. We both agree that all reading is valuable. The throwaway detective novels I’ve read over the years have had an underlying theme of doing the right thing, be honest, be trustworthy, and I think through these books, a set moral of codes started to sink in. I discovered a lot of who I wanted to be as man, what I aspired to, through reading both “good” books and “bad” books. To often we try to qualify the reading.

JA: I agree on the importance of fiction. If we want our students to develop empathy, they need to read fiction. If the kid’s reading and that’s what he’s enjoying, there is no bad book. Reading books by Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Kyleen Beers, and other inspirational teacher-authors, has shaped my views on English instruction. We have to give kids choice and help them to see themselves as readers.

DGW: Here is a chuckle for you. When I was in middle school, the books I read the most were those teen romances and Doc Savage Pulp Fiction novels. My mother would send us to our room to study, and I would tuck one of those books into a textbook and read it while pretending to do my homework. Those books were terrible. But the act of reading was important. They helped develop vocabulary, understanding of sentence structures, and development of plot. To this day, even though I write all the time, I can’t necessarily tell you the grammar rules. I’m not one of those people who can quote The Elements of Style, but I intrinsically understand proper sentence structure a because I’ve read so much.

JA: That’s exactly it. So on a standardized test, there may be a question with a sentence that’s either correct or incorrect, and if you ask kids, the good readers, those who read all the time, they will just say, “It sounds right or it sounds wrong.” And they’ll get the right answer. Take for example, the concept of main idea. Every kid knows what main idea is, right? But it’s when they read, if they read all time, they’ll be able to pick out the main idea about a passage, whereas if they’re a non-reader or an inexperienced reader, they may kind of get the main idea but they won’t be able to really identify it. That only comes with volume, volume, volume, volume – just increasing the amount of time that kids spend reading and writing. We know it doesn’t happen at home as much anymore, so at school, we have to give them time every single day to read and to write and to increase that volume.

DGW: I thought of you the other day when I finished a book that was just a slog to get through, but paid off handsomely in the end. I think about a year or so ago, we had a brief online conversation about the importance of finishing a book or not once you start it. And you said, sometimes you allow your students to abandon a book.

JA: Yes.

DGW: It was always ingrained in me that you don’t abandon a book. Once you’re on an adventure, you need to trust there is a pay off in the end. This book, I Am No One, was such a perfect example of a book that seemed to drag but came together perfectly at the end. I finished and I was like, “Where is Jared’s number?” This is an example of why you need to finish a book you start because the author’s whole scope or whatever the technical term may be didn’t get wrapped up until the end.

JA: (laughing) I love that. Every English teacher can tell you about the kid who constantly starts a book and puts it back. Those kids, they’re just hilarious. Every teacher will know them, but you’re right, I think it’s important to finish books. There are so many kids, and I’ve had some of them as freshmen, where this is the first time they’ve ever finished a book from start to finish on their own. And that’s a big deal to them.

I think in some places the only time kids read a book now is when they’re reading it as a class. So you have a situation where someone’s reading it out loud, maybe a teacher is trying to read this book from beginning to end aloud, and there is value in that. But then you’ve got one kid asleep, and the teacher’s trying to wake him up and then one kid’s talking and the student is trying to pay attention and follow along, but the read aloud is either too fast or too slow for him. If that’s the only reading you’re doing in school, it’s no wonder that A) you’re not going to grow enough, but B) you’re not going to enjoy it. So that’s why I give kids time every day to read silently and independently. That’s a struggle for some kids. It may take them a semester to finish a book from beginning to end, but it’s super rewarding for them.

DGW: A couple of my favorite books are ones that took me a great deal of time to read. There’s a book by Steven Pinker called Blank Slate, which is about nature vs. nurture, and it runs so counter to a lot of things that I believe in. It would make me so mad that I would throw the book down and then I’d pick it back up again. It was a difficult book to get through as well because the language was so academic, but it’s a book that continues to resonate with me. That’s another thing I believe as a reader – there are certain books that you finish and you think, “Oh that was a good book.” And then you’ll notice maybe six months later you can’t recall anything from it. On the flip side, there are books that you’ll think, “Meh, that was all right.” Then six months later, you find that those themes are still resonating. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose was like that for me. We had to read that, I guess it was either senior year in English or freshman year in college, and I hated it. But the themes it that book, even 30 years later, still play out in my life, or I’ll see something and I’ll think, “Hey, that’s similar to that circumstance in that book.”

JA: So you bring up the idea of the shared experience, and I’m going to ask you a question too. There’s this debate of the shared experience of a group of students reading the same book in class and enjoying that, and having that connection they can draw from (“Hey, remember when we’re read this in August and this character… ?”) versus knowing that in that experience there are going to be some students who don’t enjoy that book. Will they still get something out of that book? Is that as valuable as allowing a child to pick their book and retreat into it?

DGW: I think both are valuable. My wife and I often talk about the importance of teaching novels and its challenges. I’ll give you a couple personal examples: Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front are two books that I read in a shared reading experience. During the reading there were times that they didn’t really feel that compelling or I just wasn’t that interested at the time, but as a class we kept going forward and we finished them. Talking through the themes in these books aloud  and the feelings they evoked in others offered new perspectives and brought them to life.

JA: Yes. And that’s what I’ve found. We do a whole class novel and then when kids are absent, when they can’t take books home, you can run into problems in terms of logistics. To get kids reading a lot and to be able to take books home is a big deal for me. So I’ve ended up with kind of a hybrid model where kids are always reading something of their own choosing, but we’ve also created this book club where we’ve got one book every month that is a shared reading. We’ve begun to invite other people to join us. It has been great because now you have this shared experience of a community reading the same book, where people from all ages and walks of life are coming together to share their perspective. I think it’s been really valuable for both the adults and students. I ask the kids about it all the time. I give them quick online surveys about their thoughts, and 80 to 90 percent say they have enjoyed that experience of being together and talking about their reading.

DGW: And I think part of the value of the discussion is that sometimes we may think there is only interpretation. But then somebody else would mention another take on that book, and it would force us all to go deeper. If you go back to some of the classics, sometimes the language can be a hang up if you’re reading alone, but if you’re talking about it aloud, it starts to make sense. Dickens and Shakespeare always worked that way for me. The new Romantic poets as well. I had an English teacher who pretty much painted those guys as the hippies of their time. Lord Byron ain’t that different from Jim Morrison, and all of the sudden you’re like, “Oh well, now that I’m looking at it this way instead of that way, it makes sense.” And so I think sometimes our shared experiences open up doors that would normally stay closed.

JA: That’s a really good point. I’ve been really big on finding contemporary books, but we need to talk about classics as well, right? I struggle with that. I think some classics have value. But then I also believe our students deserve to see themselves in the pages, and there are so many great young adult books that deserve to be shared and discussed. There are some great authors out there that I’ve really been intentional about exposing our students to. The books are just as complex and just as rich as the classics. I think that’s been the fun part of my giving students choice in what they read. I’m able to discover books like this one (Holds up copy of book The Hate U Give).

DGW: Ah, I hear great things about that book.

JA: It’s just beautiful and real and already they’re making movie about it.

DGW: Reading the synopsis of this book, a 16-year-old girl who lives in a poor neighborhood and attends a private school witnesses the shooting death of a childhood friend by police, and I reflect back to when I was 13 and read The Outsiders for the first time. It was dangerous because it talked about things we as kids weren’t supposed to know about and it was written in our language. And I wonder if some of the power doesn’t get lost now that it’s taught like a classic.

The scene where Ponyboy is leaning against the car and the Socs come up and begin to hassle him, and he breaks the bottle and stands his ground. As a kid who was bullied a lot growing up, I can’t begin to tell you the power of that scene to me. That was a personification of the, “I’m not going to take it anymore” attitude, or that sense of “I finally found the strength inside to stand up for myself.” It really made me feel that as a kid in the shadows, somebody noticed me and my challenges, and I wasn’t alone. But now that it is universally taught, I worry that some of that power is lost because it’s no longer just speaking to us kids on the fringe. I think also sometimes when you have to search for things, they have more power. I compare it to punk rock. We had to actually search for that music to get it. There was no going online and typing in Ramones and 10 groups popped up. So when we found the music, it was almost like joining a tribe. The Outsiders felt like that to me. Having it as required reading is almost like being forced to listen to my dad’s music. You know what I mean?

JA: Yes, I think that at the end of the day, we want English teachers to be passionate about whatever model works for them. I think when we try to say this is going to be the one way that we’re going to do English instruction, it is a mistake. I think over time as you work together with people, you steal things from each other and mold it to make it yours. If we are passionate about it, then it’s going to be great for our kids. There’s no one way to do English class, but the best classrooms are the ones where students know that their teacher loves their job and is passionate about the material.

DGW: Ironically, that reminds me of something I heard on a sports talk radio show a number of years ago. Tony Dungy was the guest, and they were discussing how he has changed the model for football coaches. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t scream, he doesn’t do any of that. The talk show host said to him, “Do you think that’s the way a football coach should be?? That in the future, coaches should be less vocal. Dungy responded, and I’m paraphrasing, “I believe that you have to be true to who you are and know yourself. If you’re somebody that yells a whole lot, don’t try to be somebody who doesn’t yell. If you’re somebody who is not a yeller, don’t try to become one. I’m not a yeller. To effectively lead you have to know who you are and be authentic.”

JA: Yes, it’s absolutely true. Kids sense when you’re not being yourself and you’re not being authentic. If your heart’s not in it, they’ll know it. That’s why we need to be constantly selecting, evaluating, and adjusting our practice. But you’ve got to – whatever it is that you’re doing – you’ve got to believe in it.

DGW: Yes.

JA:I  think it took me too long to get to the point where I can say, “This classroom is right for kids. This is what they need.” It took me three, four, or five years to get to that point where I thought I was really being effective. There’s always going to be a learning curve, but I do think we need to find ways to get teachers up to speed quicker, like here are the things we know we need to see in English classrooms, here are the things that we know are good for students, good for teachers. I’d love to be part of that conversation, to figure out how we can get to the point where all teachers have this framework that they can take and mold and work for themselves. I was working with a new teacher the other day and we looked at my structure in the classroom and my core beliefs, and she was very appreciative. I was thinking we’ve got to figure out how to help teachers get established more quickly.

DGW: Agreed. Whew, we’ve really gotten off on a couple of tangents and almost missed the main reason I wanted to talk to you, the literacy project you started.

JA: So I’m big fan of Twitter. I love it because I get a lot of information and professional development through it. Last summer, I came across an article in The Atlantic about book deserts. I knew about food deserts, but book deserts I hadn’t heard of before. So I took this idea back to this great group of kids I’ve been teaching and proposed that we do something to address book deserts. I spent last summer meeting with different people, sharing what I was thinking about doing. Initially, I though we’d just do a book drive, but then school started and I proposed to the kids that we do a little research. We had a great discussion about the impact of growing up in a book desert. We went through and visually talked about our community. When you go down the road, what do you see? You see used car stores, you see fast food, but you don’t see a library though, right?

DGW: Right.

JA: So what impact does that have? We went through the whole scenario and decided to do something about it. And it’s really been organic growth from there. The kids named the project. They looked at challenges. Developed strategies. Let’s start collecting books, they said. All right, how many books are we looking to get people to donate? As long as we get a thousand, it’d be good, but let’s try for 5,000. Students wrote letters to businesses and the community asking for book donations, started a social media campaign, and created a promotional video. We recently passed 11,000 books.

DGW: Amazing.

JA: Yes, it has been very powerful. The kids are super passionate about it. They are all readers themselves, so this empowers them to be reading ambassadors and reading role models for not only their younger siblings and their peers, but for the entire community. And so we did the book drive. Then, the next piece was figuring out where we’re going to put these books. We knew we wanted to put them in places that normally there wasn’t access to books, but how were we going to do that? So again, we started talking to different people. The decision was made to build them. Let’s be creative, we can find things at home, like mini fridges, and turn those into little libraries. Then Matt Portel [is there a link? Check spelling of his name], who works with literacy in the neighborhood, suggested contacting The Tennessean because they have these unused newsstands. Eventually, we got in touch with them, and they donated and dropped off twenty newsstands that were no longer being used. We turned those into libraries.

DGW: Good idea.

JA: Then we got our former art teacher on board, Mike Mitchell, and we spent two Saturdays painting old newsstands. Now that we had these twenty awesome libraries, we had to figure out where to put them. Our students generated a list of potential sites, and we wrote letters to those locations explaining how this would work and requesting permission to place them. And so we started to place little libraries around the community – we call them LIT libraries. You can now take or leave books from four East Nashville community centers, two YMCA’s, the Nashville Juvenile Court, and we’re talking to hospitals and clinics next.

DGW: Incredible.

JA: I hate to toss out the term PBL since I think it’s one of those new buzz words, but…

DGW: Oh, that’s what I was going to ask you. It sounds like you backed into a project-based learning activity.

JA: We have. I’ll give you an another example. The week before spring break, students started to work on a business plan. They’re working in teams of four or five to design “swag” — t-shirts, sweatshirts, and such. They have to draw up the entire process: here’s how we are going to order, here’s what they’re going to look like, here’s what it’s going to cost, here’s how much profit we’re going to make, etc., and then they’re going to pitch their proposal. While that’s going on, they’re also reading to kids in elementary school, they’re doing community service hours, they’re using their artwork to design logos. They’re working in groups, they’re communicating. They’re writing letters and emails to authentic audiences, but on top of that, we’re just celebrating reading every day and working together on a project we’re all passionate about.

DGW: Reading.

JA: Reading. So when books come in, every day we’re taking pictures and sharing on social media. Kids are running Facebook and Twitter and Instagram campaigns and driving traffic up to those accounts, giving them their social media marketing experience. We didn’t put any timeline on any of this, and so it just happens naturally. I’m lucky that my kids eat lunch in my room out of preference. We put that 30 minutes of lunchtime where we’re hanging out to use by working on the project. It’s just been really rewarding to see the whole process unfold, and now the book club, which we started in January, is the next piece. I think this could be even more impactful because we are bringing the whole community together around reading. Hosting this book club where our students start facilitating will be huge. Imagine kids going from never finishing a book to hosting a book club. It’s huge. We’ll also spend the summer figuring out how else it can grow.

DGW: The possibilities are endless.

JA: They’ve taken it so far. We started with an idea that we had, and what it looks like now is completely different because of their curiosity and their energy about it

DGW: Absolutely incredible.

Jarred and I finish our coffee as he runs through a list of books that the book club hopes to tackle in the coming months. It’s an impressive list, and I have no doubt that they’ll get to them. These are the kind of stories that make me believe in public education. Instead of endless ideology debates we should be directing our energies towards supporting teachers like Jarred and the many others across MNPS who are doing similar projects. So much of the resources for projects like this come out of the teacher’s pocket, and that needs to stop. We need to start directing funding to areas that will most effectively create lifetime learners. I’m willing to bet that in 25 years when these kids reflect back on their high schools years, their participation in Project Lit will be among their most lucid and valuable experiences.

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One comment on “TALKING LITERACY WITH HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER JARRED AMATO

  1. […] TALKING LITERACY WITH HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER JARRED AMATO […]

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