Much has been said about the importance of reading at grade-level by 3rd grade on future educational achievement. But for many students in impoverished areas nationwide, "book deserts" hinder their ability to build and practice those crucial literacy skills. In a book desert, residents don't have print books immediately available via public libraries or bookstores for a couple of miles or much more.
In Nashville, Maplewood High School English teacher Jarred Amato set out to solve this problem with Project Lit, an initiative that began as a class project to deliver books to areas lacking access via converted newsstands and has since grown to include book club programs with chapters nationwide.
Education Dive recently caught up with Amato to learn more about Project Lit's growth, how success is being measured, and what's next for the program.
INDUSTRY DIVE: How did Project Lit come about?
JARRED AMATO: We started as, really, a classroom project. I teach at Maplewood High School in Nashville, and in the fall of 2016, I had a group of sophomores I had taught the year before. There was an article that summer in The Atlantic, “Where Books Are All But Nonexistent,” about book deserts and how when you’re a child in a community with limited book access, the chances of you becoming an avid reader are really slim.
Long story short, I read that article with my students in the fall, that first week back in school, and said, “Hey, how do we want to solve this problem here in Nashville? How do we want to eliminate book deserts?”
Initially, the idea was a class project that would maybe last a month or a semester, and it’s evolved into something much bigger.
How many of the boxes of books have you all placed around the city?
AMATO: The initial goal was more about the book access piece. We collected, that first semester, probably 15,000 books. We placed about 10 converted newsstands, but we realized that was hard for us to do as a teacher and a group of students — especially because a lot of the books we had donated of those 15,000, as you can imagine, were used and were not very high quality.
We realized that book access was obviously a huge problem and remains a huge problem, but we weren’t going to be able to solve that as a class. What we could solve was bringing people together around books and around culturally relevant books. So our focus shifted to Project Lit book club, which we started six months in, around January 2017. Our focus has been more on empowering our students to bring communities together through books.
How do you ensure the converted newsstands stay regularly stocked with books?
AMOTO: The biggest part with the newsstands is they've got to be a community effort. There are people who visit those locations — most of them are community centers and YMCAs, so they’re employees or just regular visitors who are there checking on the newsstands. Personally, we’ve not made that one of our primary focuses. It’s been a community effort there.
The beauty of it is it was part of the process to get us where we are now, so there’s the value of seeing kids taking books from those newsstands and reading them and their initial excitement. We hear anecdotal things all the time about that. Eventually, with more support from our city and community, we’d absolutely love to develop a plan to expand. We have more stands ready, and we’d love to make this bigger and measure it. But at this point, we’re focused more on connecting teachers and students across the country.
What we’ve done is created a model where teachers and students can sign up to join our community and create their own Project Lit chapter. That’s what we’re measuring right now.
How are you measuring results?
AMATO: There are two things we’re focused on: If you increase access to culturally relevant books and you improve students’ reading attitudes, we’ll see better reading outcomes. It’s going to take communities investing in that, so that’s what we’re looking to do next: Work together to create excitement about this so school districts and communities can help support teachers to make sure they have really vibrant classroom libraries.
When educators are considering launching their own chapter, what are some of the first steps they should take?
AMATO: The first thing is ... teachers need to believe in students and what it takes to create readers. There are a few things that we’re all about: One is giving kids time to read. The second thing is giving kids choice in what they read. I think a lot of times, adults make decisions for students and don’t trust students to find books they can see themselves in or that they want to read. So time, choice and relevance — finding texts and books that are relevant to students, that they care about.
And then access. I think all of our teachers believe in increasing access, not just to books in general, but to books that provide mirrors and windows into students’ lives. All our teachers are big on helping increase access within our school to these great books.
Lastly would be community — making reading, which can be a very solitary thing, a shared one and celebrating reading all the time. We’re in about 110 schools in more than 30 states — urban, rural, suburban, elementary, middle and high school.
We’re unified by that belief that all children will become passionate, proficient readers if given the opportunity. It’s really grassroots right now [and] we’re connecting mostly through social media. But it’s been really fun to see teachers and students connect across the country through great books.
What else is on the horizon for Project Lit?
AMATO: We’re planning our first conference. It is Project Lit Summit June 16 in Nashville. Kwame Alexander and Nick Stone, two best-selling authors, will be there. It’s going to be a chance for our Project Lit teachers and students to come together for a day of celebration and connecting and sharing strategies and inspiring one another. We’re going to share successes, and also give new chapters the skills and resources they need to get started for the following school year.