Leigh Cooksey, deputy director of educator engagement, chats with Jarred Amato, who teaches English at Maplewood High School in Nashville. Jarred and his students recently founded Project LIT Community, which aims to spread a love of reading and eliminate book deserts in Nashville.
Where did you get the idea for Project LIT Community?
Over the summer, I came across this article in The Atlantic, which described the immediate and longer-term effects of growing up in a “book desert.” We know that children who grow up in communities with limited access to books are far less likely to become avid readers and writers. While book deserts are a nationwide problem, I realized that Nashville is no exception. Fortunately, I also knew that my talented sophomores at Maplewood High School, voracious readers who deeply understand the joy and value of reading, would be eager to tackle this problem head-on.
Why was it important to you for Project LIT Community to be student-driven?
Today’s students often get a bad rap, but my experience in the classroom suggests otherwise. It is my kind and empathetic students who give me hope for the future, and I knew that they would take this idea and run with it. In addition to addressing a real need in their community, students are also gaining a number of valuable real-world skills that will prepare them for college and career success: social responsibility, fundraising, logistics, communication, social media and marketing, graphic design, engineering, problem-solving, teamwork, creativity, and of course, literacy.
How have you students made you proud during this process? Are there any particular moments that stand out?
Wow! There are so many. One highlight was when we realized that we had reached our ambitious goal of collecting 5,000 books by Thanksgiving. The class erupted in cheers. We were so proud to accomplish something that many didn’t believe was possible. As of November 30, we have received 7,426 books and are confident that we will reach our next goal of 10,000 books by winter break.
I’m also really proud of the fact that nearly 60 students, teachers, parents and community members came together for six hours on a Saturday last month to count and sort thousands of books, and utilize their art skills to convert a dozen USA Today newsstands into beautiful little libraries.
Finally, I would just say that because of our project, every day has become a celebration of reading. How cool is it that high school students get excited to open a box of books?
What advice would you give to other teachers who want to engage students in a community service project?
A few things:
Empower your students to identify actual needs or problems in your community in order to create buy-in. For example, don’t be afraid to ask students: what would you like to change or improve in your community?
Develop an action plan with short-term and long-term goals. Don’t feel like it has to fit into one quarter or one unit.
Be sure to update the community about your progress and accomplishments. There are a lot of great people out there who are willing to help – as long as you have a clear ask!
Celebrate the small victories along the way.