Woodrow Middle School* recently underwent a renovation project to its 75-year-old building—a renovation that closed the library for a year and reduced the library's collection to bare essentials.
Spurred by the impending construction project, the media specialist, an ELA teacher, and the literacy coach created a program to cultivate school community while keeping books in the hands of students.
Building on the concept of "city-wide reads," in which one text is chosen and community members are invited to city-wide conversations around the text, the core committee created a year-long literacy event called a "school-wide read."
The spring semester before construction began, the committee brought its idea to the Woodrow faculty who saw the potential of the program. They chose as the focus text, Paul Fleischman's 1999 novel, Seedfolks, a story about inner-city residents who come together to redeem a vacant lot, eventually creating a community that works together to improve their neighborhood.
The Woodrow teachers believed that issues inherent in Seedfolks would resonate with the students. Nine hundred books were ordered and made available to faculty, students, and families. Not wanting to add to the teachers' workload, the committee created a guide for teachers that included interdisciplinary lesson plan suggestions and explained the rationale, process, and events surrounding the school-wide read.
This thoughtfully designed program valued students' interests, provided opportunities for multiple responses to literature, devised a mechanism to bring transition-year students into the school community, increased parent involvement, and brought together students, teachers, administrators, and families around a piece of literature.
Valuing the interests and concerns of students
The school population at Woodrow is diverse—racially and economically—and the committee knew that a book like Seedfolks, with similarly diverse characters, had the potential to address concerns that were real to students. As one seventh grader said, "It deals with the real world and how everybody is." Seedfolks provided students with real-world issues that helped them stay engaged with the book.
Providing opportunities for multiple responses to literature
In their approaches to Seedfolks, the teachers supported the habits of mind that led students to take a critical perspective, providing opportunities for students in individual classrooms and across classrooms to consider differences of opinion and think about their beliefs in light of the beliefs of others. They read about the multiple perspectives of Latino, African-American, European-American, and Asian characters and the different worldviews and aims they brought to the garden.
As students collaborated and deliberated, they explored issues of discrimination in the book such as the prejudice characters demonstrated toward each other. One student explained, " … You should get to know somebody before you judge them. Like, Anna had judged what Kim was doing before she knew what it was."
Multimodal learning through integrative curricula
Integrative curricula encourages students to see connections across disciplines, recognize real-world connections, and work through problems that are important to them. The teachers at Woodrow used multimodal response approaches to Seedfolks, with each team implementing and responding to the school-wide read in different ways.
The teachers talked among themselves in their teams, in their grade levels, and in content area meetings. These cross-grade and cross-curricular conversations led to even more connections to Seedfolks.
Some groups of students created real gardens that required plotting out their land using math skills, planning what they would plant based on weather patterns and regional climate, and making signs to protect their gardens from foot travel. Others used the text to create class rules, produce dramatic presentations, and explore historical immigration.
As students walked through the hallways, they saw wide-ranging responses of other readers, yet the responses linked individual classroom communities to the larger school community. One eighth grader said, "I think it's cool that everybody in the whole school is reading it and that everybody's doing projects on it."
Transition into the learning community
Each year, issues of transition emerge as new sixth graders are introduced to the school. With everyone—from the students to the janitorial staff—reading the same book, the new students immediately felt a part of the community. They had a common talking point with other students. This enabled new students to enter the community as equals.
One sixth grade boy shared: "Instead of eighth graders talking about the book they read, and the sixth graders and the seventh graders talking about different books, we can all relate to the same book: 'Oh yeah, I liked that part.'"
Parent and community involvement
The school-wide read helped create authentic parent/community involvement. Parents were encouraged to read Seedfolks and talk about it with their children. Community members, from those who lived close to the school to more public figures, were encouraged to read and join in the celebrations. One of these celebrations included students reading excerpts aloud, the band playing a piece inspired by the book, students displaying their projects, and students and families creating a virtual garden that symbolized their hopes for the future of their community.
Authentic relationships grew through this and other opportunities for parents and community members to be involved.
At the end of the year, the students and teachers provided feedback about the project. Many of their suggestions will help other schools that are considering implementing a school-wide read:
1. Offer the text on CD or cassette tapes.
Several teachers said they did not enjoy reading, but had long drives to school and would have appreciated having the text on CD. This would also benefit some students who struggle with reading and parents whose first language is not English. By offering the book on CD, more people have access to the text.
2. Lead literature discussions among the teachers the year prior.
Many teachers said that the discussions they had with fellow teachers in the hallway or during team time were some of their most valuable in terms of thinking about the issues in the book, understanding how the issues tied to their content, and knowing how to address the issues with their students.
If the teachers have time prior to the beginning of the school year to discuss the book in depth, they may feel more comfortable creating curricula together, thus making classroom activities and discussions even more meaningful.
3. Use student input during book selection.
The students wanted to take part in selecting the book. They said they knew the issues that their community was dealing with and the type of books they enjoyed reading. Sharing the leadership with students would allow their voices to be heard and would create more lively discussions.
4. Read the book during advisory so that everyone is literally "on the same page."
The students requested this more than the teachers, and a couple of students even gave us the idea of using the daily school television productions to have local celebrities read a portion of the text or students perform a readers' theatre. By reading it during advisory, all the students are "on the same page" each day, fostering more impromptu discussions in the hall, at the bus stop, and in the cafeteria.
5. Involve parents even more.
One eighth grade teacher saw the opportunity to create family book clubs at the end of the year. This is an excellent idea and could be started at the beginning of the year with the school-wide read. Students and parents could then explore the themes from the text together in subsequent discussions.
The school-wide read at Woodrow drew from what we know as best practices in middle level education. By using developmentally and culturally appropriate pedagogy, the teachers were able to create meaningful student engagement and foster a deeper sense of community. All this was possible, as one sixth grade student told us, the school-wide read project brought each and every person closer together just by reading this one book."
*Not the school's real name.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2009
Jennifer Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Pamela Jewett (email@example.com) are assistant professors in the Instruction and Teacher Education Department, Language and Literacy Program, at the University of South Carolina. For more information about the project, see the September 2008 issue of Middle School Journal.