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.