How The Flu, Nashville’s Reading Crisis, and A Single Question Ordered My Steps to 2018

Like everything else 2017 has had a hand in, this year’s flu strain showed up with a side of Satan. For nine days, I battled the worse flu of my life with rolls of tissue, too many doses of Theraflu, gallons of Hot Toddy, a rescue inhaler doubling as a crutch, and hours upon hours of Hallmark Christmas Movies and Gilmore Girls (yes, them). Oh, and hubs was sick, too. It was not a pretty scene in Hawkins house. 

For six of those days, I did not participate in social media in order to avoid triggers that could impede the healing process. The devil-flu stole my energy, so I was often too weak to sit at the computer or even pick up a book. So in the time between the stories of unrequited mistletoe love and trying to decode the dialogue between the speed-talking mom/daughter duo, I had time to think. 

My top three flu-addled thoughts:

  1. Literacy in Nashville
  2. Nashville’s Literacy Crisis
  3. Flipping the Script on Nashville’s Reading Scores

Real talk. I’m obsessed.

As I regained my strength, I was able to honor a couple of commitments on my calendar, a holiday open house and podcast interview. Even at a party replete with fancy champagne flutes and hard to pronounce hors d’oeuvres, I found a target to share Nashville’s literacy woes. The listener was in search of contacts to education organizations doing great work for kids and I was happy to oblige. But really I was just happy to take advantage of the captive audience.  I dropped a few reading statistics and watched as her eyes widened and mouth the stats in disbelief. Then she asked, “so what do you plan to do about it?

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I decided to move to another room. Didn’t she know I had been sick for an entire week and too weak to change the world? Admittedly, the question impacted me deeply.

With “the question” coloring my every thought, I wasn’t sure how to prepare for the podcast. How could I possibly continue to beat the drum of our literacy crisis without a plan to do my part? I mean, look at Jarred Amato. Here’s a teacher who saw a need in the community in which he teaches and did something about it. A year later it’s a movement. And there are hundreds of organizations in Nashville that began with a decision after recognizing a need. So, what’s up, Vesia?

I decided to diss the naysaying voices in my head and continue my mission to take in as much literacy information as possible and raise awareness.

Podcast with Linda

I’m grateful for the discussion with Education Conversations podcast host Linda Dunnavant. She is a gracious host who cares deeply about children and the Nashville education community. Whatever philosophical differences we may have had before I entered her space, disappeared under the weight of our love of kids and concern for families. Further, this experience helped me work through “the question.”

My answer: I will continue to research and raise awareness. And stay tuned…

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.

In Times of Upheaval, Teachers and Spiritual Leaders Calm Minds and Feed Souls

Exactly twenty-eight days ago, filled with anger and a hint of disgust at the display of hatred and depravity at Charlottesville, VA., I tweeted out:

Classroom and The Pulpit

As I wrangled with the events at and surrounding Charlottesville, I couldn’t help but think about today’s youth entering classrooms to learn about the various battles during civil wars when there is no shortage of history-making battles occurring just outside the schoolhouse steps. Since it was Sunday morning, my mind shifted to adults looking to their spiritual leaders for two-thousand-year old answers to modern-day mysteries.

In my mind, the classroom and the pulpit are the most influential platforms in our lives -save for media. Teachers and spiritual leaders have captive, pliable audiences ready and willing to receive instruction and wisdom. These trusted public servants help us think critically about the world in which we live and equip us with the tools to navigate toward a better tomorrow.

I’ve heard from teachers instructed not to mention the events at Charlottesville to students and witnessed teachers on social media working creatively to integrate current events into lesson plans in a valiant effort to satisfy both state and moral obligations.

Thankfully, in the four weeks since that tweet, I’ve been fortunate to experience answers to my questions.

Teaching and Preaching

Last Friday, I joined the ProjectLIT book club at Maplewood High School, where the LIT teacher Jarred Amato leads discussions on the book of the month, books relevant to current day issues and to the students he teaches. Two days later, I visited a church whose theme for September is “Timeless Principles for Perilous Times” and the sermon for the day was “Silence is Not an Option.” The unvarnished, powerfully delivered sermon offered by Pastor John Faison, Sr. of Watson Grove Missionary Baptist Church is one for the ages and just the tea the nation needs right now. In the words of Pastor Faison, “silence recycles injustice.” Amen.

Amato and Faison are not the lone agents of courage and compassion who have accepted the enormous and unpopular responsibility of influencing social justice change through their respective platforms. And since Charlottesville our country was again shaken, this time by the president’s announcement to dissolve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), removing protections for undocumented youth.

In response to the DACA debacle, I’m reminded of a group of teachers, the DREAM keepers, and the strong message widely distributed defending their current and former DACA students. I also think of Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin courageously tweeting statements of unconditional love for DACA recipients and denouncing actions against them.

 

I am grateful for these acts of love for our sisters and brothers by protesting injustice through teaching and sharing. We need more of it.

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There’s a (Project)LIT Movement Spreading Like Wildfire and I’m Here For It

For several months now I’ve been following Jarred Amato’s crazy book club antics on Twitter. Like, this dude had the wild idea of setting up a book club introducing books relevant to the students he teaches at Maplewood High School. Further, he opened up the club to members of the community who are afforded rare opportunities to interact with students  eager to share their points of view. 

If that’s not wild enough for you, Mr. Amato collects thousands of donated books and sets up little libraries around Nashville’s most distressed communities. Sounds silly, right?

Mr. Amato is white male teacher serving a population of mostly students of color and  has made reading popular through the study of books with modern-day social justice themes. Merging the importance of reading and offering a platform to make sense of the world many students find themselves, Mr. Amato has launched a movement. 

A movement wonderfully named ProjectLIT. Obviously, LIT is a play on words by using today’s “lit” when referring to something incredible or on fire while evoking the word “literature.” (“Lit” chart by generation: 90’s babies think “da bomb”; 80’s peeps think “fye” or “rad”, 70’s cats think “dynomite!”)

Mr. Amato downplays his brilliance in kickstarting this reading revolution by saying “it’s just so easy!” Yet, this easy little project has spread (dare I say ‘like wildfire’) to other Nashville schools and Tennessee school districts. 

I’m wildly impressed with the work of Jarred Amato and ProjectLIT community. I just had to meet him and check out their monthly book club this morning at Maplewood. This month’s book was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. 

While I did not participate as a book club member but rather as a spectator, I was so inspired by the students that I’m signing on and will be back in October!

Next month’s book is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and I’m there for it! The young ladies in my group expressed their excitement about getting started on this book which is not at all surprising because after all the author probably reminds them of someone. That person they see in the mirror. Beautiful. 

I look forward to sharing more information about ProjectLIT and Mr. Amato soon! In the meantime, I’ll be somewhere reading a ProjectLIT book club-approved book. 

NOTE for educators: follow and participate in #ProjectLITChat Sundays at 6pm CST.

The fearless leader of the most LIT book club in the state!

My new LIT TRIBE! We made a pact to read every single page of the next month’s book club pick The Hate U Give.
We’re ready for October!