All-School Read: Building Community & Promoting Understanding

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In the spring of 2017, our middle school experienced an eruption of racist slurs and hate speech, from swastikas drawn on the cheeks of unsuspecting students at lunch, to “KKK” mysteriously appearing on the Google image linked with our school’s website. And we were not the only ones. Newspaper headlines highlighting intolerance at schools were popping up all over the country.

Our school community felt broken, and we knew we needed to do something. One idea kept coming up: an all-school read, where every student, teacher, and staff member reads the same book at the same time. We already knew that stories help readers develop empathy. Having everyone read the same story at the same time seemed the perfect opportunity to build school community and promote understanding.

With only a couple months left in the school year, we set our sights on the fall of 2017.

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Finding the Right Story

I will always write back book cover imageWhich story would suit all readers? Finding the right book became our first challenge. We met with a couple of teachers and our principal to look at potential titles. We read dozens of books over several weekends and we researched authors who visit schools.

The winner was I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives, a non-fiction chronicle of the pen-pal friendship between Caitlin, a seventh-grade girl in suburban Pennsylvania, and Martin, a boy struggling to find tuition money in Zimbabwe. We loved the story for its accessibility to younger readers and real-world relevance for older readers. We found Caitlin lovable, humble, and real, and we were inspired by Martin’s heroic quest for an education.

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Meeting the Needs of All Readers

Despite the book’s universal appeal, we still needed to differentiate. We created an “Ambassador” program for the students who had already read the book and library passes for those who wanted or needed the support of a read-aloud. We also brainstormed connections to different content areas, like math and science.

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The First Annual All-School Read

Once the new school year started, we announced our first annual All-School Read during a parent assembly at Back-to-School Night. The following Monday, when the school bell rang at 8:40 a.m., teachers passed out books to their first period classes, some choosing to read aloud the first chapters, others reading silently with their students. Approximately 60 students headed to the library where the teacher-librarian read the book aloud each day, and office staff turned their phones off so they too could enjoy the book along with everyone else.

After that first day, we got great feedback. Students and teachers alike were loving the book. Reluctant readers couldn’t put it down. One staff member couldn’t remember when he’d last read a book and talked joyfully every day about the chapters he’d read the night before. Parents were reading along with their kids for the first time in years.

Thanks to our generous PTSA, who also paid for the books, we were able to bring author Caitlin Alifirenka to our school in November. She spoke to the entire school in three grade-level assemblies and further inspired students with her kindness and enthusiasm for connecting with others.

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Paying It Forward

No one ever assumed that reading one book would “fix” the problems with ignorance and intolerance that we are sad to see surfacing in our schools. But it was a promising first step. We couldn’t be happier with the many students eager to talk to classmates and staff about, “the part where…” and we feel especially fortunate to have found such inspirational people in the book’s authors.

We ended up sending 30 books to a small, neighboring middle school and hundreds more to another school district in Wisconsin, where they’re currently doing their first all-school read. We look forward to continuing to build connections within our school and outside as well.

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Lessons Learned

If you are considering doing an all-school read at your school, we have some lessons to share:

  • Baby Steps: One treasured piece of advice was to give ourselves years to arrive at the “platinum model.” We constantly reminded ourselves that our most ambitious ideas could wait for next year or the year after that.
  • Listen and Communicate: We knew that our cherished colleagues would make or break the program. We solicited ideas from Language Arts teachers first, and then as the plan crystallized, we asked the whole staff for feedback and suggestions.
  • Start early in the year before things get too crazy, and carve out time during the school day, rather than adding one more thing to everyone’s plates.

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Have you tried an All-School Read or would you like to explore this idea for your school? What ideas would you add? Let us know in the comments below.

Jonna Palmer and Trish Manwaring are colleagues in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jonna has been a teacher-librarian since 2002, and Trish has been teaching eighth grade Language Arts since 2008. Their middle school debuted its first All-School Read this fall with the book I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives, and they’re currently working on building the program for next year.

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