How 'One Story' Can Excite Students About Reading And Connecting With Community

Students read books as part of Waltham High School's 24-hour read-a-thon to select a book that the entire school will read together over the summer.  (Courtesy of Allyson McHugh)

Several years ago, Waltham High School educators were trying to think of some way to enliven summer reading. They had tried book lists and they had tried letting students just read what they wanted but they were missing a deeper level of student engagement.

“We felt like we needed something different that was more meaningful,” said English teacher Emilie Perna.

They wanted a reading program that would be fun, multidisciplinary and included the community so that students would learn that reading is a life-long adventure. The educators developed a "One School, One Story" program that gives students more voice in which book gets selected during the summer and continues the dialogue with authors and members of the community throughout the year.

The story selection process starts in the fall, when teachers from different departments come together to read books during Thanksgiving break. They narrow a list of about 100 books to 16.

In the spring, more than 60 students participate in the 24-hour read-a-thon in the school library, where they winnow down the selections, bracket-style, to four books. By the end of 24 hours, all the students vote on the best choice out of the four books.

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“We try to put as much responsibility in the students' hands as we can,” said Waltham High School English Language Arts director Allyson McHugh.

In doing so, educators have learned that what adults think students should be reading doesn't necessarily align with what the students think they should be reading, she added.

The first year, students picked “Left for Dead: A Young Man's Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis.” The book was about a young man who worked to exonerate the captain of the USS Indianapolis, who was unfairly court-martialed for the sinking of a ship in WWII.

They invited that young man, Hunter Scott, to school, and students were to able ”to see a story come to life,” said Perna. They also worked with a local veterans group so that students could meet with war veterans. “We had kids graduate last year who said that was some of the most meaningful discussions that they had in a high school setting,” said Perna.

Thanks to a fund from the Waltham Family Foundation they are able to buy about 1,800 copies of each year's book so all high school students, eighth-graders and faculty have a copy. They receive about $1,000 a year to buy the books and bring in speakers. Local businesses donate goods to help with various events.

“The fact that they had the book in their hands, that is huge,” said Perna.

The program has even allowed students to choose a podcast instead of a book. In their second year, students surprised everyone by picking the podcast “Serial.” But, again, the same ideas applied: Get people engaged in a conversation. When the fall came around, teachers connected the crime story told in “Serial” to other classes -- science teachers set up a forensics science scene and history teachers looked at how life for Muslims has changed since 1999 since the podcast is about a young Muslim convicted of a crime in that year. Even math teachers got involved by showing how to triangulate a person's location using cellphone towers. Even though people assume students are tech-savvy, many had never listened to a podcast before, so “Serial” was an opportunity to teach students how to access and listen to a whole other type of storytelling.

BUILDING COMMUNITY 

Rebekah Tierney started work as the Waltham High School librarian in January and was initially reluctant when she heard about “One School, One Story” because she usually is a proponent of letting kids choose their own book for the summer. But then she saw how focusing on one book connects the wider community -- the program went beyond catering to individual favorites and challenged readers to talk about a book, even they didn't like it. It forces students to look at issues from a different perspective, said Tierney.

Engagement and reading levels are at an all-time high for students at Waltham because this type of program starts conversations and kids can find relevance in their communities. For last year's “All American Boys,” (which delves into police brutality and racial profiling) they brought in the authors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. For many students, it was the first time they had seen a black author.

“Watching the students watch these two authors up on stage was one of the most fulfilling things as a teacher,” said Perna. “That was a moment, where as teacher, I was like, 'I can't top that, but I'll try.' ”

As part of the larger community discussion, Waltham educators worked closely with the town's police department for a workshop where officers led discussions about community policing with some 600 students, said Perna. Community members were nervous about tackling such a topics , but it's the students who are “really the ones pulling us along and saying it's time to have these difficult conversations,” said Perna.

This year's selection is also covering a difficult topic. The book committee of 64 students selected “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, a story in which an incident of rape factors into the plot. McHugh and other organizers are working with a student group called PAVE (Peers against Violence), a rape counseling center in Boston and a group that educates students on domestic violence and safe dating skills as an opportunity to bring the community in for important conversations.

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