Early one Monday morning at the beginning of January, a sixth-grade student approached me as I entered a classroom to chat with one of my English teachers. “Hey, Mister. Hey, Mister. I want to show you something,” he said in a secretive and hushed tone. This young man called me to the side of the room, and motioned to his zipped jacket. As I approached him with curiosity, he unzipped and began to open his jacket as if we were in a gritty 80s TV show, and he was trying to sell me a watch on a street corner. Yet, inside his coat was, of course, not a knock-off watch, but a book from our district’s new literacy initiative. He couldn’t wait to tell me what he discovered on the shelves, and to express excitement about his new treasure.
Reading diverse, high-leverage (high-interest and culturally relevant) texts will transform our schools by igniting our students’ imaginations and interests. This belief is the guiding principle behind our literacy initiative, We Read Big. My district, Southbridge, MA. (located in Southern Worcester County), is in the first year of state turnaround work. We are a rural district with urban challenges, and at the moment, we are one of the lowest-performing school districts in the state. Yet, this is not where our schools or our students will remain.
Our students need to read more, and more often
Research suggests that increasing reading frequency results in students’ ability to better interpret text. Therefore, an increase in the amount of time our students spend reading—and talking about reading—should yield big changes in our schools and in our students’ futures.
These changes include an increase in state test scores (necessary for high school graduation) and communication skills that will provide our students with more competitive positions in the global job market. But it’s not just about quantifiable results. Beyond raising test scores and giving students a competitive edge, we believe that when students read big, they gain the tools to dream big—which, frankly, can sometimes be a challenge in Southbridge. We believe that by visiting new worlds on the page, our students learn to imagine a world for themselves that is richer because of reading. All students deserve this opportunity.
We Read Big: reading as a way of life
In December, we launched We Read Big in Southbridge Middle School. The purpose of this campaign is to begin a discussion around literacy and to inculcate a love of literature. We used the first person common plural—we—because it suggests that literacy is not only for students. It is something that teachers, staff, and students can actively enjoy, and together we can create a culture of literacy. It is something that we all do. Reading doesn’t stop at the conclusion of the school or work day, but continues as a way of life.
Getting the whole school on board
To get this message across, we polled our staff about their favorite books in order to design doorway posters showcasing their favorite texts. Next, we made a video in which our teachers, support personnel, and students talked about their favorite books and why they resonated with them. The purpose of these posters and short video was to illustrate to our entire student body that so many of us have been shaped powerfully by books. When we talk about literature we begin to build a culture that celebrates the words, which opens up a world of possibility.
We then purchased over 1200 lbs. of diverse, high-interest texts to outfit our 6th, 7th and 8th grade English classrooms. This means that each classroom has roughly 500 new books. These books include classics, some gross (yet scientific!) books about the natural world, “wicked” histories of notorious world leaders, and best-selling young adult novels. We gave our students a wide variety of reading material—diverse in subject, level and genre—so that every child could find something that will excite them. We purchased beautiful shelves and display cases to create the ideal book nook for each ELA room.
Sharing the written word
Before December break, we had a kick-off event in the Middle School. Speakers shared their experiences with reading, their struggles, and their eventual triumph with the written word. However, the highlight was our brave student poets. Young authors took to the stage to share the words they crafted about their life experiences and adversities that they have conquered. The link between author and text was so powerful that many people in the auditorium were moved to tears by these expressions.
With diverse books and fantastic displays in place, the groundwork has been laid for success. Now we ask students to read 20 minutes every night. Teachers are beginning to conference with students around their reading choices to provide accountability and to help students practice a healthy discourse around books. In addition, we will provide professional development for our staff around this practice for the remainder of this year and next.
Reflecting back on that 6th grader’s experience, that child found a book—a book that matched his interests and excited him. He became an evangelist of this literature, telling the first person he saw about his discovery and why it was so cool. His interests have been ignited, it is up to us as educators to continue to put rich content in front of him to keep the flame of learning aglow. We want this student and others like him to dream big through the opportunity of reading big.
Images via Gwen Paquette & Adam Couturier