13 Ways Educators Can Transform Literacy

On Valentine’s Day, 13 of our Maplewood High School seniors and Project LIT Community founders were called down to the principal’s office.

No, they were not in trouble. In fact, quite the opposite. One by one, our students received the same, life-changing news — that they had just received a full academic scholarship to attend Belmont University.

Angel. Adrian. Cerica. Chelsea. David. De’Montre. Jakyalia. Kiara. Lauren. Mi’Keria. Olivia. Paisley. Toniya.

Thirteen incredible, kind, creative, passionate, determined, empathetic students who successfully navigated a system — full of oppressive policies and practices — designed for them to fail.

Thirteen young people who, along with 30 of their classmates, continue to inspire and effect change here in Nashville and in communities across the country.

Thirteen young people who have, almost certainly, read more books than the average adult over the past four years.

There’s a lot of talk about our nation’s literacy crisis, but the fact remains that many of our middle and high school students simply stop reading. And our schools are a big reason why.

To be clear, books face more competition than any point in history. For better or worse (and I’m sure you have your opinion), the smartphone has become the teenager’s go-to source for entertainment and connection.

When you add in traditional teenage responsibilities like sports, band, clubs, jobs and sibling duty, to name a few, reading often becomes an afterthought.

Consider a survey I administered to 50 of my current freshmen at the beginning of the school year:

  • 14 reported that they read zero books last year. Another 15 read just one or two.
  • 35 said they rarely or never read outside of school.
  • 27 literally could not name the best book they read in middle school, responding with “I don’t remember,” “No idea,” “None,” or the teacher favorite, “IDK.”
  • 32 reported a neutral or negative attitude toward reading.

This falls on our schools, not them. Whether it’s forcing teachers to follow scripted curriculum and committing educational malpractice in the name of test scores, schools continue to disrespect our young people.

When schools focus extensively on Lexile levels and ban books like “The Hate U Give,” and when schools take away reading time during the school day and make no room for choice, they are telling students that their lives and experiences do not matter.

None of us should be surprised, then, when our students eventually say, “Yeah, this reading thing? It’s not for me.”

However, here’s the good news: You can do something about it! We need you to do something about it. The stakes are too high.

And with that in mind, in honor of our Project LIT Community founders, here are 13 ways to transform literacy in your classroom, school or district.

1. Stop looking for quick fixes. There is no magic formula or program that will turn a non-reader into a proficient one. Instead, commit to providing all of your students with positive literacy experiences, day in and day out. All of the little moments, the small wins, the book talks, the conversations, the book clubs and the author interactions add up over time.

2. Keep it simple. There’s a lot of noise in education. Almost always, it’s a distraction designed to discourage and dissuade us from the real work. Therefore, we have kept our focus on this formula: Access + Attitudes = Outcomes. By increasing access to high-quality, culturally sustaining texts and improving students’ reading attitudes, schools will see improved literacy outcomes.

For example, our 46 Project LIT students outperformed their peers by 5.7 points in English and 4.4 points in reading, compared to just 1.7 points in math, on last spring’s ACT.

A few quick comments here:

  • It sets the tone for our classroom.
  • We make time for the things we value.
  • If not in our classrooms, then when?
  • With consistent time, love and support, reading becomes a habit.

4. Give students choice. Provide choice in the texts they read, and in the ways they respond to those texts. There are plenty of ways to hold students accountable without a worksheet or reading log. For example, our students write letters to authors and journal entries from the point of view of a character. They write poetry and create one-pagers. They do what adults do: They discuss and debate and share book recommendations with one another.

5. Invest in inclusive classroom libraries. We’ve built ours one book at a time. We started with a Project LIT book drive, where we encouraged folks to donate books, used or new, to our classroom. We also worked to eliminate book deserts in our East Nashville community. However, we soon realized that our focus should be on quality, not quantity.

We created online fundraisers (before our district banned Donors Choose) and applied for grants in order to increase access to books our students actually want to read. Books that encourage students to fall in love with reading again or for the first time. Books that affirm and value all of the readers in our classroom. Books that spark important, necessary conversations. Books that promote empathy and kindness. Books that students will choose to pick up over their smartphone. Books that encourage students to write stories of their own. Books that matter.

And with that in mind, we started Project LIT Book Club.

6. Start a book club. Reading, too often, is a solitary experience. Our Project LIT Book Club makes it a shared one. Our first pick, back in January 2017, was a class favorite: “The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander (perfect for March Madness this month). As we read and celebrated the book in class, we encouraged the Nashville community to join us for donuts, discussion, and a trivia competition.

We haven’t let up since, hosting approximately 16 Project LIT book clubs over the past two-plus years. As one of our founding students wrote last summer: “Project LIT is like another family to me. It’s a comfort blanket. We have created a warm, welcoming environment for everyone involved. It’s escape from the harsh reality that many of us experience every day. Project LIT helps us overcome the challenges that we face here in school and at home, and I am so proud to be a part of this organization.”

As of March 2019, there are more than 650 educators nationwide who have joined our grassroots movement and empowered their students to read and celebrate our Project LIT titles. We have checklists and resources to help educators get started, and a chapter leader application for those interested in joining this spring or next school year.

7. Put students before the “classics.” Young people do not have to read (or most likely, fake read) “The Scarlet Letter” or “Lord of the Flies” to become successful readers and writers. (And please check your privilege if that statement offends you.)

In fact, schools’ obsession with “classic” or “approved” texts is one of the reasons so many of our students, particularly our most vulnerable students, continue to graduate without the desire or ability to read. Instead of slogging through four traditional, whole-class novels a year (or following a scripted program that replaces novels with a heavy dose of “complex” texts), we prioritized our students and our Project LIT texts..

We designed curriculum for Nic Stone’s Dear Martin to “teach” to local 8th-graders at our feeder middle school. We crafted our college essays and personal statements as we listened to Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime.” We re-wrote “A Long Walk to Water” in verse after reading Kwame Alexander’s “Solo.”

Put simply, we dramatically increased the volume of reading and writing (essential for college-readiness) by including our students in the text-selection process.

8. There is power in looping, or “moving up,” with students. Especially in a school like ours, where half of our English department turns over every year, this practice has been a win-win for students and teachers.

9. Celebrate reading all the time. Not just at the annual “Literacy Night,” and definitely not at a “Test Prep Rally,” commit to celebrate books and reading every single day of the year. In our hallways, on the announcements and in our classrooms, we commit to championing our readers the same way many of our schools glorify our athletes.

10. Educators must be reading role models. We cannot expect our students to read if we are not willing to do the same.

11. Know your “why.” Because of the focus on test scores, many educators have forgotten why they got into the profession; they have lost their passion and purpose. Let’s not lose sight of what this whole teaching thing should be about. Instead, let’s take time to reflect and re-evaluate our values, beliefs and practices. Let’s ask, “What it’s like being a student in my class? In my school?”

12. Make school and reading funSchool should be a joyful place for students and educators. We need to stop policing our students’ reading and start supporting them. We need to stop blaming our students and start believing in them. We need to stop talking at students and start listening to them.

13. Be willing to ask, “What if?”

What if all students could see themselves in books?

What if we celebrated and cheered on readers the same way we champion our athletes?

What if we flooded all schools & communities with great books?

What if we truly trusted and empowered our teachers? Our students?

What if we stopped policing kids’ reading?

What if we acknowledged that just because a certain book “worked” for you, or for me, it doesn’t mean that it needs to be read by ALL?

What if we recognized that a text is not rigorous if no one reads it?

What if every school made their love of reading visible to students and families?

What if all children in K-12 received a brand new book of their choice every single month?

What if the books on our shelves were as diverse as the students in our classrooms?

And what if teachers didn’t have to buy those books?

Jarred Amato is an English teacher at Maplewood High School in Nashville, Tennessee, who launched Project LIT, an initiative that began as a class project to deliver books to areas lacking access via converted newsstands and has since grown to include book club programs with chapters nationwide. Jarred’s post was originally posted on Education Dive.

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Jarred Amato

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