• Teaching Tips

The Quest, Part 2: Monday Morning Hobbit-Backing

by Erin O'Leary
November 27, 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. Part I focused on how the team made this year’s book selection. In Part II, Erin O’Leary offers a look into how they encouraged and sustained the enthusiasm of their middle school students.

With last year’s read-a-thon in our rear-view mirror, and THE HOBBIT unveiled at last, it was time to analyze some of the priceless takeaways only experience can offer as we started our journey over the Misty Mountains. You’ve heard of Monday morning quarterbacking? Call this Monday morning Hobbit-backing.

Publicity. We knew we needed good publicity right from the beginning. Citing last year’s success, we contacted our local newspaper as soon as we scheduled “the big reveal.” Just having the newspaper take notice made this more exciting for the kids. We were blessed to have a terrific reporter—and rabid Tolkien fan—assigned to our story. He spent over an hour at our school on Reveal Day walking the halls, talking to staff and interviewing students.

Teachers are notoriously humble—we don’t like to toot our own horns. Well, for the sake of your students, get over it. No one is going to make this connection for you. Be prepared to gush about your fantastic school, your dedicated colleagues, and your enthusiastic and supportive principal. Keep in touch—let them know how many kids have committed to reading the book, or which classroom is performing that famous Gollum scene. People like good news, and it doesn’t get much better than a school-full of kids reading.

Plus, parents buy papers and lots of ’em—including parents of thirty-something-year-old reading specialists.

Keep the conversation going. Middle-school students are deliciously divergent, their tastes changing on a dime; thankfully, you can usually use this to your advantage. They will be your best salesmen, your supporters, and your angels on the days you need them most. As distractible as they are excitable, they will also let you know what is working and what is not.

After a few weeks, the initial buzz of Reveal Day had dissipated. Although my concern was met with “That’s okay—they’re reading!” we knew the students needed something. Not since Michelle Kwan took the ice has my sign-making cheerleader-self come out in such force. Have enough enthusiasm and blind faith for everyone. Keep the halls decorated, take pictures of students reading, pose teachers with the book, cut out news articles, record teacher testimonials, and show that movie trailer one more time!

When in doubt, pit them against each other in competition. In one day, we launched a “Get Caught Reading” campaign: If your photo is “captured’ by an “elf,” you’ll receive part of Smaug’s Treasure (a $5 gift card and a pencil). I still have students who tote their copies of THE HOBBIT to the bathroom, just in case.

If you have to deal with an unexpected hurricane or snow day, have a contest for who can read the most. We even tossed around the idea of a faculty “beard-a-thon,” but if you want to keep your friends, the competitions are better left to the kids.

The major benefit to choosing THE HOBBIT was the visibility of the book itself. We knew there’d be a Hollywood premiere, magazine articles, TV commercials, and paraphernalia for sale. There’s a “Hobbit Second Breakfast” menu at Denny’s, and a Tolkien display at our local bookstore. On this, you can’t put a price. When students feel as if they are part of something bigger than themselves and sharing a common experience, they buy in, and they remember.

Don’t be intimidated. During one of my crazier moments, I emailed the folks at Warner Brothers. You know, one of those comments@ addresses. To my complete surprise, I received a response from one of their local reps. Now I have a name and a phone number, and before too long, boxes of insanely cool Hollywood swag—all for free.

Don’t tell the kids, but there is talk of tickets to the premiere. Even more surprising is that they want to work with us. They think we are doing a phenomenal job. They think we are doing them a favor.

We are so much cooler than we think we are.

The Peeps. Surround yourself with people who are as crazy as you are and have just as much blind faith in the read-a-thon’s potential. When you are one person trying to pull this off, you’re an easy target for the demons of doubt and negativity. You are an anomaly, exhausted and probably a little nuts. When you are a literary posse, you are a movement (though still exhausted and a little nuts).

You will need their different opinions—the logical one telling you that you can’t buy t-shirts for the entire school, the creative one who peppers the hallways with posters delineating Rivendell and Mirkwood, the savvy one who reminds you of early and often teacher communication, and the literacy soul mate—the one who shrieks and cheers when she spots that Galadriel costume on sale. Ebb and flow with each other’s insight, excitement and concern. As long as no two people throw their hands up and cry at the same time, your read-a-thon will be just fine.

Be flexible. Last year, we had a relatively new dystopian bestseller on our hands, threw together a read-a-thon in six weeks, and ended up with half of the school at the movies on a sunny Monday in March. We didn’t have the luxury of planning for what-ifs; instead, we were forced to make decisions as we went, which is not always a bad thing.

A year ago we didn’t have a clear vision, and end-game, time to worry, or a budget. We also didn’t have a precedent. Now we do. Dripping with the kind of symbolism only English teachers can appreciate, we found ourselves with some reluctant participants. They were pretty sure they wanted to go on this adventure (“The movie is during school, right?” “Will Ms. Cotillo dress up again?”), but “The book is just so long, and I really don’t understand it, and there are words I don’t know…I kind of just want to go back to my little hobbit hole.”

Okay, so maybe they didn’t mention that last part, but the hobbit-ness of their responses was profound. Quite frankly, they need a Gandalf to inspire them, and a mob of dwarves to encourage them right along the trail. Now is not the time to doubt the integrity of your choice; however, be open to what they need—be it YouTube links, audio books, chapter summaries, book discussions after school, or timelines and quotes lining the hallways.

Remember, in THE HOBBIT, Gandalf leaves. He does not solve every problem—he trusts Bilbo. We need to trust our kids. They will rise to your high expectations. Let go and have faith. Every year, every book, every child is different; it is up to us to see the brilliance of its potential, even when no one else is looking.

Erin O’Leary received her B.S. in Elementary Education and English from Framingham State University and her M.S.Ed. in Language and Literacy from Simmons College. Currently enjoying her eighth year teaching, she channels her inner Gandalf while working as a reading specialist at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Massachusetts, and looks for any opportunity to combine a good book with crazy kids and lavish costumes.

© 2012 Erin O'Leary. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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