A Best-Selling Author Called Maplewood’s Jarred Amato The Truth and We Agree

Jarred Amato is no stranger to this blog-space. I first learned of the Maplewood High School teacher through Twitter and noticed the work he was producing outside the classroom. At the time of my introduction, Mr. Amato was collecting books to outfit book bins in book deserts for the community to access through his organization Project LIT Community. Soon after, I learned about the monthly book club open to the community and held at the school during school hours to ensure student attendance.

Since then I have attended two book club meetings where students and community members break off into groups for discussion that ultimately, transforms into teams for the contest portion of the meeting. The books chosen for the book club are stories and characters students at Maplewood might find relatable. Mr. Amato, a white teacher from Boston, believes his students should see themselves in books. And this is why national organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Penguin Random House, and best-selling authors love him.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with the deeply passionate teacher prior to an early-morning meeting — standing in the cold. He remarked that he was a little tired from staying up late working on a grant that would allow him to purchase more books, but his excitement about Project Lit Community masked any hint of exhaustion. Mr. Amato is no stranger to these applications or the resulting awards as his ask is simple – more books, please.

The man is serious about getting relevant books into the hands of his students and others like them and “relevant” is the million-dollar word. During our conversation, he referred to a quote by best-selling author Jason Reynolds who told the Washington Post, “The Teacher was like, Read this book about this man chasing a whale,’ and I’m like, bruh…I don’t know if I can connect to a man chasing a whale when I’ve never seen a whale.” Mr. Reynolds did not read a book until he was seventeen years old.

Mr. Amato refuses to be that teacher and is determined students have access to relevant books and the earlier in their learning the better. In his mind, Project LIT Community is as important as state-mandated curriculum. With the support of his administrative leadership and some serious time-management skills, Mr. Amato provides students opportunities to see themselves and take a few books home in the process.

Penguin Random House Teacher of the Year

This passion-turned-LIT movement sparked a flame spreading to middle schools around Nashville, a few more schools throughout Tennessee, and to an additional TWENTY states. So, it’s no surprise to learn that Jarred Amato was recently named Penguin Random House’s 2017 Teacher of the Year at the NCTE annual convention. Oh, and that comes with a $10,000 check that he will use to purchase –more books.

And the accolades don’t stop there. New York Times best-selling author Kwame Alexander had a little something to offer:

Yep, Kwame Alexander, the 2015 Newbery Medal recipient (highest distinction for children’s books) for The Crossover called Mr. Amato – The Truth.

I couldn’t agree more.

But What Does the School District Think?

During a time when 75 percent or more of any group of students (pick one) in our school district does not read at grade level, I would expect to see top-level administration clamoring to get to teachers like Mr. Amato to replicate this work in an authentic attempt to flip the script. I asked Mr. Amato if the district has expressed interest in his work, hesitant to respond (because, you know, trust), he opted instead to share his appreciation for the support of his principal and assistant principal. Message received. I’m puzzled by the lack of district-level support.

We are fortunate to have Mr. Amato and we need to act like it.

Congratulations, Jarred Amato! If you don’t hear it from anyone else, thank you for recognizing the importance of culturally-affirming books and finding a way to get them into the hands and homes of students. You are the truth.

“What We Are Doing With Reading and Literacy Is Replicable In Any School”

I’ll do you a solid and spare you a long introductory paragraph explaining Nashville’s literacy crisis. Instead, I’ll lead with this:

Seventeen percent of Nashville’s black and brown children read at grade level or above. We are failing our children by doing what we’ve always done and not accepting responsibility for the failure. I don’t care to hear excuses. My singular interest is in finding solutions and spotlighting those successful at flipping the script.

What is #flipthescript? It is turning upside down the tragic narrative that says 82.5 percent of our poor, black and brown students do not meet reading standards but with more funding, less school choice, the eradication of poverty, and more parent engagement we just might be able to get these kids to read. Do better.

Enter Nashville Classical

“What we are doing with reading and literacy is replicable in any school” – The Incredible Charlie Friedman.

Nashville Classical is a five-year-old charter school located in an old East Nashville school building, founded and led by the highly energetic Charlie Friedman. I’ve watched the hipster-uniformed school leader call out the names of every student in the building in the span of about 45 seconds.  I exaggerate… a little. Jokes aside, the man knows how to lead and the love for the little people under his watch isn’t hard to detect.

Sure, such attributes are typical of a school leader, but few are blasting the narrative that we’ve become uncomfortably comfortable accepting as the norm for poor and children of color.

“Nashville Classical’s results show it has made significant headway in closing achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students and students of color. Not a single economically disadvantaged student at Nashville Classical performed below state standards in reading, while 44 percent of economically disadvantaged students across MNPS and 35 percent across the state are achieving below standards. Similarly, nearly all minority students at Nashville Classical are mastered, on-track or at least approaching state standards.

ON REPEAT: Similarly, nearly all minority students at Nashville Classical are mastered, on-track or at least approaching state standards.

FB economically disadvantaged below standards comparison chart

“We start by believing that all students can achieve.”

I believe in the #beliefgap. It’s as real and present as the bifocals hanging off my dad’s nose that happens to be on my face. Unlike the achievement gap or even the opportunity gap (access to opportunities), the belief gap is one of those things that is difficult to quantify. How can you actually prove that principals and teachers believe in their students? Ask Charlie Friedman.

When you BELIEVE that ALL students can ACHIEVE students will work to prove you right. Students subjected to mediocre-to-low expectations will meet those, too. Mr. Friedman’s statement about believing in his students speak volumes and the takeaways gleaned from his school’s testing outcomes support this assertion. More importantly, Friedman & Team has formed a new narrative. One where the script with which we’ve become so familiar has been flipped and forced upon us are high expectations and the knowledge that yes, success can be achieved with poor and minority children and with finite resources.

FB minority averages comparison chart

I know, I know– if belief was the Great Fixer thousands more of our children would be bound for at least a twenty-one on the ACT. But as Mr. Friedman said, the school starts with believing all children can achieve while the other ingredients include data-driven practices, structure, and brutally difficult work.

The success Nashville Classical is seeing in reading results comes from prioritizing instructional time and the quality of instruction through a variety of approaches:

  • More Time – Nashville Classical has an extended school day, similar to the district’s other Title I schools. The longer day allows for students to receive 3.5 hours of reading instruction daily, with literacy embedded in the teaching of other subjects such as science, social studies and math, as well.

  • Text Selection –  Students in all grade levels read from a collection of great literary works, intended to enrich their vocabulary, cultural awareness, and background knowledge.

  • Professional Development – Teachers at Nashville Classical spend 15 days on professional development before the start of each school year and participate in weekly professional development sessions, practicing lessons, studying video, and analyzing student work.

  • Joyful Rigor – Every classroom features its own library with more than 300 books for students to bring home each evening and teachers use songs, chants, and dramatic read-alouds to keep students on the edge of their seats.

  • Direct Instruction – In early grades, students receive individualized phonics instruction through a centers-based, small group instruction model. Students study sounds first and then letters, building phonemic and phonetic awareness.

  • Data Driven Instruction – Student performance and growth is closely monitored throughout the year, using a variety of rigorous monitoring tools. Students who are falling behind or transfer into the school mid-year receive immediate interventions and support.

 

And they are not stingy with their best practices!

Congratulations Mr. Friedman and all the teachers, staff members, and families of Nashville Classical! For more information on Nashville Classical and its testing results, go to their social media sites by clicking →→→ Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

And, finally, the best illustration of #flipthescript…

NC Founding Class

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.