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Six Buses: The Quest for School-Wide Reading Begins!

by Mary Cotillo
November 20, 2012
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. The first installment offers a look into how the team made their book selection.

Last year, a dedicated group of literature lovers loaded four school buses with 224 impassioned middle schoolers and sallied forth to the local movie theatre. Our goal was greater than just simple movie-viewing; we were there to celebrate reading and the power of a good book.

In the weeks that followed, those 224 were joined by 36 additional readers, bringing participation to almost 50% of the total school population. Two hundred and sixty sixth, seventh, and eighth graders took part in competitions of mind (trivia), body (relay races), and spirit (talent show) to crown a victor in the 2012 Horace Mann Middle School Hunger Games.

Through circumstances outside of the Gamemakers’ control, two victors ended with the crown (how fitting!), and even before the feathers from Effie’s boa had been swept away, the questioning began: what book were we going to do next year?

The citizens of the Capital (a.k.a. the teachers who worked like crazy to pull of this insanely successful festival of literacy) were thrilled and exhausted at the same time. So, we did what all good exhausted teachers do: we asked the kids for help.

The boys in my homeroom told me I just HAD to read the Charlie Higson Enemy series. An eighth grade girl gushed about her excitement about the upcoming young adult novel Jodi Picoult wrote with her daughter Samantha Van Leer, BETWEEN THE LINES. The daughter of my daughter’s soccer coach recommended MATCHED by Ally Condie. The kids came to us with old favorites and future classics: Eric Morgenstern’s NIGHT CIRCUS and DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth made the list. My own 10-year-old daughter suggested Sharon Draper's OUT OF MY MIND and Kathryn Erskine’s MOCKINGBIRD. About the only recommended book we didn’t take into consideration was FIFTY SHADES OF GREY!

It took probably eight weeks for us to arrive at “the” book for our next reading initiative, and it wasn’t one that was on the original brainstorming list. See, here’s the thing. Some of the books were too violent. Some appealed too much to just girls or just boys. Some, while beautiful stories chock full of teachable moments, were written at a reading level perhaps not challenging enough for eighth grade.

We found ourselves devising a way to do a school-wide reading initiative without all of the kids reading the same book. We talked about working around the question “Where do you belong?” since the answer to that question could be tied to the plot and themes of BETWEEN THE LINES, DIVERGENT, OUT OF MY MIND, and MATCHED. We envisioned smaller, teacher-led book clubs in which students created ways to present their book to the others, leading to students switching groups and reading new titles. We could find a movie, not necessarily an adaptation of a book, dealing with the theme of the importance of finding where one belongs. While it didn’t feel like something that would draw in 50% of the school population, we decided it was an acceptable solution.

And then Erin, reading specialist extraordinaire, met with the principal.

They were there to discuss goals, and he had two words for her, words that have since become a sort of mantra for the teachers involved in the school-wide reading initiative: “Six buses.”

That goal, that challenge, was invigorating and instilled us with new direction. We couldn’t settle. We had to do more than just come up with a follow up to THE HUNGER GAMES; we had to eclipse THE HUNGER GAMES. No small task, indeed.

Given our marching orders, we began our search anew. We needed a story that lent itself to big, fun activities. We needed a book with a strong fan base and a movie with a lot of buzz to suck in readers, non-readers, and the kids who just love being involved in big, fun stuff.

In short, we needed THE HOBBIT.

Deciding on the title was the hard part. Our experiences last year gave us insight into motivating masses of middle schoolers. It turns out the way to middle schoolers’ hearts is to show them themselves on a TV screen. We started with a “Do You Remember?” video, aired over the school video team news, showing pictures of kids enjoying the movie and games last year. The three minute presentation prompted students to recall the fun they’d had and imagine the excitement in store. It ended with “Be Ready for Anything.”

Once the video was shown, we let the rumor mill take over for a day or two. Students could talk of little else. They interrupted class to ask if I knew the book. They grilled me in homeroom and in the halls.

“You have to tell A-period! We’re your favorite!”

“C’mon. Just tell me. I won’t tell anyone!”

We even had staff members asking to be let in on the secret. (We didn’t divulge. One leak and the surprise would be ruined. We didn’t make any new friends that way, but I’m pretty sure most folks understood.) One seventh-grade math teacher was so beleaguered by students who couldn’t stop debating the title of the mystery book long enough for her to teach her lesson that she gave in and allowed twenty minutes for debate. A poll was taken asking which title the kids thought most likely, the results graphed and posted in the hallway.

Two days after the video, Erin took her camera into the cafeteria and asked students to predict the title. The overwhelming majority thought we’d be reading CATCHING FIRE. Thankfully, they willfully ignored the handful of obsessive eighth grade girls who have the movie premiere date etched into their brains and would proclaim to anyone who would listen that the movie wouldn’t be in theaters until fall of 2013. Those interviews were made into another video that was aired for the whole school to watch, and it ended with the news that “The Reveal is Coming.”

That night, the walls of the school were mysteriously decorated with posters written in runes. They said things like, “Get ready for an adventure,” “Don’t be left behind!” and “Read the book, answer the riddles, see the movie.” As I stood in the hall outside my classroom, I heard conjecture: “Those are Greek letters! It has to be a Percy Jackson book.” My morning classes were all pretty convinced that we were either going to show THE LIGHTENING THIEF in the auditorium, or that SEA OF MONSTERS would be in theatres before the end of the school year.

But by mid-day I started to hear rumblings of THE HOBBIT: “Those are runes. I KNOW they’re runes. I’m gonna translate it when I get home. I bet it’s THE HOBBIT.” By the end of the day the tide had turned, and more students were guessing THE HOBBIT than ever, letting us know that the time for the reveal was upon us, if earlier than we’d originally planned.

The next day, Erin took to the airwaves and read the following:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea

Brave students of Horace Mann Middle School, you are invited to join in an adventure. The road is long, and the perils are many, but the rewards at the end are beyond measure. Join your classmates, teachers, and friends in reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s original adventure story, THE HOBBIT. Participants will need to prove their mettle, and only those deemed worthy will journey to a distant land to celebrate with a viewing of the feature film. Challenges, both physical and mental, await those sturdy enough to survive the journey there and back again.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

The kids reacted to the news with middle-school appropriate responses ranging from glee to skepticism. We are lucky this year; last year’s successes make it easier for us to get partners in crime. The local paper has already been to the school once. The local bookstore sent swag our way. The public library reserved all the copies of the book from in-network libraries, and our PCC bought copies to augment the school library. We’ve even been in contact with reps from Warner Brother’s films.

With all this support, our attention can be spent on keeping student interest high between now and December 14th. It’s too much for one post, but I’ll happily share it with you as we muddle along. Until then, best of luck plotting your school-wide reading adventure!

Mary Cotillo is an 8th grade ELA teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, MA. Mother to two children, she enjoys engaging in light saber battles and hanging out on soccer fields. She earned her National Board Certification in 2009.


© 2012 Mary Cotillo. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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