“Books are fun, Nicholas, he says,
Yeah, well, maybe
they would be fun
if I got to pick
sometimes, you answer.”
– Kwame Alexander, Booked
This past weekend, I attended the very first ProjectLit Literacy Summit. All indications are that it won’t be the last. On a Saturday morning at Maplewood High School, over 200 people gathered to discuss books written for and about young people. We live in a time where there is an abundance of quality literature being produced for young readers, and ProjectLit celebrates that abundance.
ProjectLit is a movement created by Maplewood students and facilitated by their teacher Jarred Amato. It’s a movement that grew out of a study on what to do about book deserts and the realization that there are kids in Nashville who don’t have unfettered access to books. Out of that initial focus has grown a community that does more to hook kids on the power of reading than any other initiative in Nashville.
There are two main reasons for the rapid growth of ProjectLit. The first is that the focus sits squarely on students. Students pick the direction of the organization, the books, and facilitate the book discussions. This isn’t one of circumstance where adults are driving the train. In truth, most of the adults are along merely for the ride. ProjectLit doesn’t just ask for student buy in; it demands it.
Secondly, Amato gets what nearly every other adult in the city fails to grasp: it’s all about culture. Sure, the majority of his books are culturally relevant – we’ll talk more about that in a minute – but more importantly is the culture centered around literacy that Amato and his team foster. Reading is fun. It’s cool. It’s attractive. It’s something you want to do and do more often.
This belief in the power of culture is something I share with Amato. It was in that spirit that my wife and I loaded up both kids, aged 7 and 8, and headed to Maplewood on Saturday morning. The kids, to be honest, weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to go, but they’ve sorta gotten used to this kinda thing. Community meetings, school board functions, trips to legislative sessions, candidate door knocking – these are all activities they have had to endure in their short lives. You see, these are all part of the foundation of our family culture.
Politics, intellectual curiosity, compassion, empathy, athletics, and literacy are all among the bedrock of our family’s culture. They are not things we just talk about in an abstract sense, but rather things we try to put into practice as well. I believe in exposing kids to things that they may not fully grasp, nor be overly interested in at the time. After all, you can’t get a Redwood without first planting the seed.
We arrived on Saturday morning shortly after author Kwame Alexander started speaking. I could fill a whole blog post full of inspirational quotes from Alexander. Beyond being an incredible author, he’s an inspirational speaker as well. I strongly urge anyone who has an opportunity to attend one of his talks to do so.
During Alexander’s talk, my kids did not silent in rapt attention. They wanted to check out the books around the room and sample the eats available. The were fascinated by a calendar filled with author birthdates. I encouraged my son to ask Kwame Alexander a question during the Q and A period because I’m also a believer in the importance of call and response between adults and children when it comes to brain development. I’m trying to raise children who are never afraid to question adults. Alexander was extremely gracious in his response.
After the author talk, as the room broke into small groups, we took our leave. First appearances would indicate that the kids took very little away from the morning. However, as we got in the car, the first words out of their mouths were, “Can we go to Barnes and Noble?”
We went to Barnes and Noble, and we bought several books. My daughter spent a large portion of the remainder of the weekend consuming those purchases. My son, not quite as much, but the foundation is continuing to be built. The culture was reinforced.
It seems that we are continually focusing on trying to increase literacy rates, but are never willing to do the work to create a culture that supports that goal. We decry society’s focus on sports and lament that the same importance isn’t attached to education. But why should reading be held in higher esteem when we don’t open the doors like we do for sports?
We represent reading as a chore. Something that needs to be done to achieve a reward, with little focus on its inherent value. It’s an activity almost entirely directed by adults, and we justify that by proclaiming how it’s important to read the right texts. Confession: I spent a year as an emerging reader reading nothing but Sweet Valley High romances. Confusion is further created in children because reading seems to be a “do as I say, not as I do” activity. How many of those adults pushing reading lists this summer will read more than 2 books themselves? If they read that many books.
Sports, on the other hand, comes with no prerequisites. No adult is telling you how many games you must watch this summer or even how many you must play. Can you imagine a campaign that gave kids a free cheeseburger if they attended 10 baseball games or played in 9 dodgeball games? It would be considered ripe for ridicule. Instead, with sports, kids are left to discover their passion at their own pace.
My son has fallen in love with the Golden State Warriors, a team I share no affinity for, but am all too willing to discuss with him. He utilizes his iPad to scour the internet for information about the team, frequently returning to me to share newly acquired knowledge. We spend a fair amount of time these days discussing the Warriors and as a direct result, basketball. He has what I would describe as a fever to know more about his chosen team. Imagine if I would have told him he had to cheer for the Utah Jazz and then demanded he bring me facts back. I don’t doubt he’d be as enthused, but that’s what we do with reading.
Currently his interest in sports continues to grow and expand into other areas. It’s a pursuit that he feels he has ownership of. He chooses the players that inspire him and the teams he chooses to cheer for. He establishes in his own mind ownership of content. He is inspired by Steph Curry, not because an adult told him that Curry is the “right” athlete to cheer for, but rather because of the qualities that Curry exhibits that resonate with him.
How many times have I sat around with other fathers discussing how we took our children to sporting events knowing full well it wouldn’t hold their attention for the duration. We freely admitted we were priming them for the future. We would speak with pride on how they made it to the 2nd period and what an improvement it was over last year. Yet, we seldom drag kids to literacy events. Instead we offer the excuse that they would find it boring and uninteresting, perhaps when they are older.
Exposure at an early age allows a love of sports to take root and grow into adulthood. I think about my own travels to adulthood and how a love of Penn State football always served as a connection with my father, even when all others failed. I continue to follow Penn State football today, despite my father passing away several years ago, not just because of the entertainment factor but because it’s a constant conduit and reminder of the values of my family. My wife shares a love of reading as a similar conduit with her own father.
The analogy to sports is not perfect. Some kids never develop a love of sports, but substitute music, movies, or other recreational activities. Think about the things that anchor the culture of your family. For some of you, it may already be reading. Think about how those activities became integral and ask yourself, what if we recreated the process with literacy? Why don’t we take a similar approach to reading?
What if kids constantly saw city and school leaders with a book in their possession? What if adults stopped and asked kids what their favorite book is like we currently ask kids their favorite athlete or musician? What if we bought kids apparel adorned by images of books like we currently purchase sports jerseys? What if we allowed kids to see us reading like they currently witness us watching games? I just don’t believe you can underestimate the power of “culture.”
One last observation on reading and literacy. Over the last several years, there has been a push to make sure kids are reading “culturally relevant” books. I agree with the concept that books can serve as mirrors and that students will take a greater interest in books that reflect their lives. However, even in the interest of producing better readers, we can not sacrifice the power of books as windows and time machines.
I’m not a Jewish boy growing up in NYC in the 50’s, but I interact with enough adults who were. Therefore, reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provides me a greater understanding of their motivations. I know little about life in Scandinavia, but by reading Jo Nesbo books I get a glimpse of what life is like for people who live there. Few of us may run away from home and live on a mountain, but in the pages of My Side of the Mountain we can discover how those who bear little outward resemblance to us share several inner traits. We discover that fear, loneliness, a desire for self-sufficiency are not traits exclusive to certain individuals.
Books can provide role models of who we want to be as adults. They can show us the consequences of certain choices that we all face daily. They can instill empathy for those who may appear foreign.
I just finished a book call Lightning Men, a mystery set in 1953 Atlanta. It’s a book that not only drives home the serious implications of racism on individual lives but also helps explain why changing laws sometimes just isn’t enough. As a mystery book, written primarily for entertainment, I’m sure it’s a book that few would place on the “right kind of reading” list. But that’s the power of the written word; it can entertain and inform simultaneously.
Personally, and I must add my disclaimer that I am not a teacher nor do I play one on TV, I would love to see instruction that placed To Kill A Mockingbird next to The Hate U Give. How are the characters similar and how are they different? Have times changed much? What are the universal themes that both express? The possibilities are endless.
Lord knows I don’t want to undervalue the importance of decoding and phonics and other strategies, but if you don’t get the cultural aspect right, then they won’t take root either. Drill a kid on phonics and watch his eyes glaze over and attention waver. Get them caught up in the narrative and its inherent power, and they are yours to work with.
I think that the work Amato is doing is vital to creating a culture of literacy districtwide. He’s pushing boundaries further and in a more sustainable manner than any previous initiatives. It’s my belief that real gains could be made if district leadership embraced his, and his students’ work. Like children themselves, if allowed to grow unencumbered to its full potential, there is no telling what benefits mights be reaped from ProjectLit.
Congratulations to Steve Ball who was recently announced as the latest Executive Director of School Support and Improvement (EDSSI). What? You missed the job opening being posted? That’s all right, near as I can tell nobody else saw it either. Nor the posting for the East High Magnet School principal position which will reportedly be filled by AP Jamie Jenkins. In defense, I suspect Jenkin’s appointment will be as a temporary principal with a job posting to come in the future.
Former MNPS teacher Scott Bennett – many of you cite his guest post as your favorite of the year – whose family recently relocated to South Africa, was back in Nashville for graduation services. I encourage you to read his reflections from that visit. I know my wife will appreciate his inclusion of a Murakami quote.
Former MNPS Executive Aimee Wyatt has received a promotion after less than a year with SREB. She is moving into the position of Director of State and District Partnerships at Southern Regional Education Board. Her team will be serving the states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and New York. Another example of quality talent plying their trade elsewhere.
For the last four years, Metro Schools has participated in the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), the federal reimbursement program that allows school districts to offer lunch at no cost to students. Eligibility is based on poverty as measured by the direct certification numbers used for participants of government assistance programs. Effective with the 2018-2019 school year, MNPS is no longer eligible to participate system-wide and can no longer offer this program to all students at all schools. I cannot understate the travesty of this development. Families, make sure you check out who’s eligible for what.
Indiana is taking a slightly different approach on how it incorporates STEM principles into the classroom. I’ll let you decide what you think.
The MNPS budgetary needs continues to get muddier and muddier. First, the district asked the city for an increase in funds of $45 million. When the mayor responded with a budget that only allocated an increase of $5 million, the district announced that they were now $17.5 million short for next year based on expenditures that weren’t even outlined in the first ask. Friday – yeah, I know – MNPS announced that they needed an additional $3.5 million just to get through this year. Does anybody have any idea on just how much money MNPS needs?
I’m still waiting for someone to name the person who replaced someone at MNPS and is doing a better job than the person they replaced. In other words, name me the upgrade.
Time to take a look at this weekend’s poll results. Thank you to all who participated.
The first question asked was which department of MNPS did you think was performing at a high level. The English Learners department easily garnered the most votes, with 38% of you citing them as your answer. Special Ed finished second, and Curriculum and Instruction finished a surprising third.
As is par for the current course, MNPS has let EL Director Kevin Stacy go to another district and has elected to replace him in leadership with a number two who flamed out at an elementary school this year. Remember what I said earlier about letting quality talent get away?
This one garnered a lot of write-in votes:
|None of the above||3|
|Special Ed is amazing, yet it needs work on the local school level.||1|
|NONE! Not under Joseph’s leadership||1|
|None of them||1|
|none of the above?||1|
|None… total chaos.. #hungergames||1|
|None, at this point every dept has been dismantled.||1|
|EL department until Dr. A gets her hands all over it||1|
|Can’t vote for any of these.||1|
|The teachers in all the schools!||1|
|Don’t have a clue||1|
|The HS Academy office–at least they try to stay in touch with “on the ground”||1|
|I have no earthly idea. I don’t think any of them are.||1|
|Some individual school sites||1|
|All departments could improve.||1|
|Is this asked with a straight face? Then, none.||1|
|HR for top of the top – only||1|
|Jason Walsh and Allison Ross for VAPA||1|
|You’re joking, right?||1|
|I don’t have faith in any of them||1|
|Federal Programs and Grants Facilitators||1|
|Everything in too much churn (leadership turnover) to really be at high level.||1|
Question 2 asked for your reaction to the district’s relationship with ERDI. Out of 112 responses, 54 of you expressed grave concerns and 32 of you indicated a need for further research. Only 4 of you expressed a lack of concern. Hmmm… there are four chiefs… never mind. Here are the write-ins:
|Will someone ask how much ERDI is paying SJ and his minions?||1|
|No, you’re reaching||1|
|Stipends for their salaries concerns me|
The last question asked about summer camp attendance. I must admit that I was a bit surprised by the responses. I expected the usage to be greater. 35% indicated 1-2 camps, but 31% of you said none. Here are those write-ins:
|don’t have kids.||2|
|My kids are grown now.||1|
|I don’t have kids. 🙂||1|
|I have no kids at home||1|
|I don’t have kids.||1|
|I prefer to spend time with them.||1|
|Don’t have children||1|
|I don’t have kids of my own||1|
And that’s a wrap. Hope y’all have an awesome week. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I’m always looking for more opinions and will try to promote as many of the events that you send me as possible, but I do apologize in advance if I fall short and don’t get them all out there.
I have started using Patreon as a funding source. If you think what I do has monetary value, you can go there and make a donation/pledge. Just because Andy Spears is also on Patreon doesn’t mean you can’t support us both. Trust me, I know I ain’t going to get rich, but at the end of the day I’m just a Dad trying to get by. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page as well. And if you are so inclined, check out my new campaign web page and sign up to help if you can.