In the spring of 2012, a group of English Language Arts educators from Franklin, Massachusetts launched a highly successful middle school reading program around THE HUNGER GAMES. In this five-part special series, the teachers who orchestrated the whole-school read will detail, step-by-step, this year’s initiative. Parts I and 2 focused on how the team made this year’s book selection, THE HOBBIT, and encouraged student participation. Part 3 looked at some unexpected pitfalls the group faced based on book selection, while Part 4 recounted how the group decided which readers would get to see the film adaptation. In the final installment of this five-part series, Mary Cotillo and Erin O’Leary recap this year’s program, and talk about attending the Boston premiere of the movie.
“All good stories deserve embellishment.” —Gandalf
We don’t know if that line is in the novel THE HOBBIT, but when Ian McKellan muttered it in his signature Gandalf growl in the film, we looked at each other over our 3D glasses. All good stories deserve embellishment, indeed.
On Monday, December 10th, 40 lucky Horace Mann Middle School students assembled in small groups outside of the auditorium. Girls, excitedly fingering their hair, complimented each other’s holiday dresses; boys nodded in acknowledgement, straightening their neckties. There were a few hobbits. One bearded wizard. A bunch of parents, eager to see us off, held cameras and phones aloft.
At 5 PM sharp, our perfectly motley crew exited the school and into the winter twilight. As we loaded the students onto the waiting coach bus, whispers of “Is this for us?” caught our ears, and we began to understand. They felt special. They felt exclusive. They were excited to be singled out for special attention and proud that they had earned it.
Warner Brothers gifted us 50 tickets to the Boston premiere of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. They treated our kids to reserved seats, pins, bookmarks, and words of praise. As the theater darkened and the title emerged on the screen, you could hear the shrieks, giggles and spontaneous applause. Our eyes filled with tears as we heard our cherubs whisper the opening lines right along with the movie, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
During the three-hour epic, it was hard to pay attention; at times, living this through their eyes was too distracting. Besides, every time a vocabulary word was used in dialogue, Ms. Cotillo was summoned in the darkness and flashed a two-fingered V. “Vocab!” they mouthed. We knew how memorable this experience was going to be, but we didn’t anticipate the change we felt in our kids. They had been raised up. The smiles didn’t leave their faces for the remainder of the week, and neither did ours.
The night was magical and amazing and fantastic and memorable. But instead of focusing on the reward for the reading and the hard work, we have a different plan for this, the final installment documenting our Hobbit journey.
Bilbo Baggins had a million reasons not to embark on his adventure. He didn’t have anything to prove. He didn’t have anything missing in his life. He didn’t need adventure; it wasn’t his thing. He had never done it before. His days were already filled. He liked things just as they were.
Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “I have too much on my plate,” or “I already encourage literacy in my students, why do I need to do any more?” Or even this: “You want me to take hundreds of kids to the movies? Are you joking?”
We hear you. We get it. And we promise we won’t think any less of you if you decide to return to your hobbit hole and your second breakfast. But just in case you, like Bilbo, feel the Took stirring inside of you, allow us to share with you our incentive (or 11) for sacrificing all of our free time and most of our sanity to the literacy gods.
It happens when you least expect it. Usually on the day you come to school over-tired, tapped for ideas, and a little zany; questioning why you were crazy enough to sign up for this adventure. Frustrated over one more complaint, one more request, or one more email you just can’t answer. And then… No. 1
: A beaming 7th grader stops you in the hallway, “I couldn’t put it down! I read all day Friday and Saturday until I finished. Omigosh, I loved
it! I read it in two days. I’ve never done that before!” No. 2:
You check your voicemail and hear, “Miss O’Leary, I just needed to tell you. Alex finished THE HOBBIT last night. He read for over two hours and wouldn’t stop, even though it was way past his bedtime. I’ve never seen him more proud of himself. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you.” No. 3:
Upon returning his borrowed (and completely read) copy of THE HOBBIT, a struggling reader chooses a new book and says, “I feel like I can read this one. It looked so hard to me before. There were so many words on the page. But now I think I can do it.” No. 4:
You step into a sub-separate classroom to lead a read-aloud, and become audience to Gollum and Bilbo riddling each other, complete with accents, blocking, props, costumes, and scenery. No. 5:
You hear stories (and field chaperone requests from) families who are reading the book together. Fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents all get in on the act. No. 6:
A student gazes upon their hard won permission slip to attend the movie, earned after successfully answering the riddling questions, and quietly marvels, “I get to go. I did it.” No. 7:
Despite the cautions of their Wilson instructor as to the complexity of Lord of the Rings trilogy, a recently initiated member of the Tolkien fan club retorts, “I don’t care if they’re hard. I can do it.” (One day later he was on page 25). No. 8:
The A period class is joyfully hijacked by an overzealous eighth grade boy who desperately wants to sing his rendition of the Misty Mountain song. When you acquiesce, his is spontaneously accompanied by his peers singing harmony. No. 9:
Students begin to recognize allusions to Tolkien in other places—DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, ORIGAMI YODA, even FAMILY GUY—and can’t wait to tell you. No. 10:
Your principal, still slightly shell shocked from last year’s reading bonanza, dons a Gandalf hat and agrees to bigger and better plans because “at least we’re reading something cool this year.” No. 11:
You stand at the front of a bus and gaze upon students clad in prom dresses, tiaras, cloaks, breeches, beards, and bellies, radiating an aura of confidence and pride. You will never see early adolescents carry themselves with such poise.
It happens. The tales above are absolutely true stories, free from any embellishment. You will be brought to your knees by the stories of the struggling readers who now, perhaps for the very first time, can add “finishing a book” to their list of accomplishments. Talk about an unexpected journey.
We shed our tears the Friday before the book was “due,” when our dream of one hundred little hobbits was realized. By the time we put our handkerchiefs away, we’d added 85 more to our party. 185 students read Tolkien. Voluntarily. (If you’re a numbers person, that’s 37% of the entire student body.)
Never underestimate your students. To those wise, credentialed, professional adults who challenged our choice, insisting it was too difficult for our students—“Kids today don’t appreciate complex text,” they decried—the numbers spoke for themselves. A full two-thirds of the sixth grade—the youngest children in the school—accompanied us on our journey.
We opened the door and our hobbits proceeded to kick it down. They were confident and self-assured. They were chosen. And on at least one magical night in December, they held their heads just a bit higher. All because they were readers
That’s why we did it last year.
This is why we’ll do it again. Mary Cotillo and Erin O’Leary both teach at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Massachusetts.
© 2012 Mary Cotillo and Erin O'Leary. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. The Quest, Part 4: Some Shall Not Pass The Quest, Part 3: Goblin Caves and Spider Webs The Quest, Part 2: Monday Morning Hobbit-Backing Six Buses: The Quest for School-Wide Reading Begins!