“One of the most important things for students, as they explore their reading options, is to make sure they are reading something that they are interested in,” said Science Hill Freshman English teacher Rhiannon Dunn, who applied for the #ProjectLit chapter and was approved.
“In the classroom we have certain books that we have to read, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t help expose students to high-quality books that they find to be culturally relevant and can see themselves in.”
That is why Dunn and other Science Hill teachers are excited that they have been given the green light to start their own #ProjectLit chapter at Science Hill. #ProjectLit is a national grassroots organization that was started by a teacher from Nashville named Jared Amato.
He came across an article in The Atlantic, which described the immediate and longer-term effects of growing up in a “book desert,” or community with limited access to books.
Amato said that he soon realized that the problem wasn’t just access to books, but it was to increase access to books that allow all students to see themselves in the page. That is how #ProjectLit was born.
The program’s goal is to empower students as readers and leaders in their school and communities, by exposing them to high-quality and culturally relevant books. Currently there are now more than 300 Project LIT chapters in 40 states across the country.
“So many students just don’t like reading and it’s because they haven’t been exposed to the right stuff,” Dunn said. “I try to tell them that, but until you expose them to things that they like, they aren’t going to believe you. And I can’t blame them.”
Johnson City Schools performed over the state average with 50.6 percent of students that scored on track or mastered the English Language Arts test compared to the state average of 32.8 percent.
Although, looking deeper into the statistics showed that Johnson City Schools students of color (which the Tennessee Department of Education defines as black, Hispanic and native American) performed at 33.6 percent, while economically disadvantaged students performed below that at 30 percent and English learners averaged 27.1 percent.
All of those numbers were well above the state average of 19.4 percent for students of color, 18.4 percent for economically disadvantaged and 18.3 percent for English Learners, but Dunn and others admit they find those statistics troubling.
Celia Street is an English teacher at Science Hill who deals with students with special needs. She said that she and her students are very excited about #ProjectLit starting at Science Hill.
“To have them excited about something they are able to read and that they can see themselves in, that takes every student’s background and every race, ethnicity and situation that they may not want to share with us and they can see themselves in it, it’s amazing,” she said.
Street said that she and her class went over some of the book’s descriptions and her students were eager to go find the books immediately. Those reactions underlined the purpose of the program for Street, she said.
“They’re not going to improve their reading if they don’t like what they’re reading,” Street said.
The program is still being developed at Science Hill, but Dunn said that she is planning to invite students and their families to the #ProjectLit sessions.
“Because I think a change in the community as a whole is what we need, not just the students,” Dunn said. “But they can go back and be readers and leaders in their community and we can see a rise, not only in growth and achievement for our school, but also their behavior, their attitude, their willingness to work in school and just that they’re valued and to validate their experiences.”
The group also allows the students to lead the events by having them come up with questions to ask about the book and lead the discussion about the book. They also allow students to drive the conversation in order to teach the students more about service learning.
Anyone in the community that would like to get involved in #ProjectLit can email Dunn at [email protected]