Feb. 6, 2017 -- You know that feeling you get when you discover that someone you know is reading a book you really love? How you’re so eager to talk about it, you excitedly swap thoughts about what just happened as well as predictions for what might happen next.
Anyone who’s had that experience knows that books can build community. They can bring readers together in a common purpose, as they share a common experience, even if it’s one lived vicariously.
This is what’s happening at Roxboro Elementary, where every member of the school community – from the principal to the security officer, from the highest achieving fifth grader to the kindergartner still learning his letters and sounds, and from the youngest sibling to the busiest parent – is all reading the same book.
It all started last spring, when first grade teacher Liz McKinley, who sits on the Board of Education in Nordonia Hills, listened to a presentation about the One School, One Book program spearheaded a decade ago by the national Read to Them organization. She was so impressed, she brought the idea to Roxboro’s principal Michael Jenkins.
Meanwhile, Roxboro’s PTA president Clare Taft was searching online for ideas to build school community and happened upon a story about One School, One Book. She brought the idea to Principal Jenkins the day after McKinley had.
It was quickly obvious that this was an idea to run with; Jenkins formed a committee of parents and teachers to lead the effort.
Over the summer, the group – consisting of McKinley, Jenkins, Title I teacher Candace Summers, parents Taft, Mary Pat Jolivette and Katie Plesac, – read two of the books available through the OSOB program. They ultimately chose Kenny and the Dragon, a fantasy by Tony DiTerlizzi, about a boy rabbit trying to protect his friend Grahame, a dragon widely believed to be a danger to their village.
“We chose that book because it was accessible to all,” said Summers. “Most of our second through fifth graders can read it independently, and the story of friendship is universal enough for all ages to appreciate.”
The school paid for the program using Title I funds and received enough copies of the book for every student, teacher and staff person, from the secretaries to the lunch aides, to have their own. The Read to Them foundation also provides ideas, sample activities and materials for schools to use.
Roxboro kicked off the project with an all-school assembly on Monday, January 23, under the leadership of parent Nicole Tugeau. She invited special guest Lynn Maragliano, a retired teacher well-known and well-loved by Rox’s students, to announce the program. Maragliano was joined by Cleveland Heights Mayor Cheryl Stephens, who spoke about the importance of reading and announced the book title. Mayor Stephens was then joined onstage by a giant dragon puppet, on loan from Talespinners Children’s Theater.
Fifth grade students read the first chapter aloud to the assembled school, while parent volunteers quickly placed a brand new book and bookmark on every child’s desk. When students returned to their classrooms, they were shocked and overjoyed. “For us?” “We get to keep it?’ they asked their teachers.
One thing that distinguishes OSOB from other reading initiatives is its focus on reading aloud. Their website lists numerous research studies that show the importance of family literacy and of listening to and engaging with books as a family unit. According to the website: “Studies have shown that reading to children helps them to listen better and longer, to build bigger vocabularies, to understand concepts better, to feel positive about both books and learning – and much more.”
Roxboro has been promoting the idea by inviting in guest readers, including Superintendent Dr. Talisa Dixon, Mayor Stephens, Cleveland Heights Police Chief Annette Mecklenberg, and CH-UH School Board President Ron Register to read chapters aloud to classrooms. Roxboro Security Officer Leon Napier read aloud to a second grade class.
“That was fun,” he said of the unique experience. “I used my grandpa voice.”
Parents reported that their children choose for this book to be read to them or with them, even those who are capable of reading it independently.
“We already love books as a family,” said parent Molly Jones, “but this is pretty special.” Her third grade son was wowed that his gym teacher, Vince Nemeth, is reading the book. ”How cool is that?” he asked his mother when Nemeth mentioned the story one day after school.
The OSOB team also ran a very well-attended Literacy Night on Thursday, January 26, complete with dinner, activities, crafts, and the distribution of One School, One Book Passports for students to bring to local businesses.
Jolivette and Taft arranged with 20 businesses and non-profits in the Cedar-Fairmount and Coventry districts to participate in a scavenger hunt. Students and their families have two weeks to visit each business and search for a hidden picture of a dragon or a knight. Once found, the students earn a stamp, which will qualify them for free cookies at either Zoss Bakery or Luna.
This component “encourages families to visit our small businesses and maybe spend some money there. And it also allows for business owners and employees to get to know our students in a more personal way,” said Jolivette.
The project will culminate with another assembly on Thursday, February 9. Classrooms will win prizes for the door decorating contest and students will earn their scavenger hunt coupons. Parent Lara Troyer, a local musician, has written an original song about the book, which will be performed by students.
The entire experience has brought the school together around a common theme, creating a true sense of community. Principal Jenkins says he works to stay at least one chapter ahead of his students. “That way, when I see them in the hallway, I can stop with a quick question or ask for a prediction. It connects us all around the act of reading.”
Father Kerry Howard agrees. He attended Literacy Night with his first grade son Kerrion “to spend quality time together. This brings everyone – parents and the community – together. It’s a very good thing.”