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Fairfax Creates Magical Moments With One School, One Book Celebration
Apr. 17, 2024 --  It is the Year of the Dragon. And Fairfax is taking that to heart.

The entire school building has been overrun by dragons for their One School, One Book celebration. It all began the week before Spring Break, when students were given a sheet that featured the covers of twenty beloved children’s books. Everything from “The World According to Humphrey” to “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” to “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” were featured as possible books that the school might be reading.

With the help of five video clues from “Norah Newsworthy” and her special correspondent “Wilderness Detective Sheila Wallaby” – both characters played by Spanish teacher and improv actor Maggie McPhee, the students worked to eliminate incorrect books from their sheet each day. On the final day before Break, they were tasked with searching for clues hidden right inside their building. And indeed, all day long, students from kindergarten through 5th grade excitedly discovered tiny plastic dragons in Ziploc bags, hiding in plants or on desks, taped to walls and perched on bathroom sinks. 

That afternoon, at a schoolwide assembly, their book was revealed: “Dragons in a Bag” by Zetta Elliot. This fantastical chapter book features both real world struggles, including a boy in Brooklyn whose mother is fighting their eviction, and wildly magical adventures, as he partners up with the strange old lady Ma, while she works to transport three dragons from Madagascar to a realm where magic still thrives. 

When students returned from Spring Break, they each discovered their own copy of the book on their desk, with a bookmark featuring the QR code to the website where all One School, One Book activities would be available, including read-alouds of each chapter recorded by Fairfax teachers. A series of activities organized by Title I Literacy Lead Kristen Kephart and Title I Instructional Specialist Lauren Houk will engage students and their families for the entire month of April. 

Weekly trivia questions, with one version for grades K through 2 and another for grades 3 though 5, offer students and their families the opportunity to dive a little deeper after reading each chapter. The answers to the questions often require some outside research, all doable with a smartphone, as students learn more about Brooklyn landmarks, the island of Madagascar, or the invention of the rotary phone. A graph in the main hallway recording the percentage of correct answers for each grade level lends a sense of friendly competition (and a little math instruction) to the reading process.

A favorite for students and teachers alike is the magical moment that occurs several times each week when, following a surprise announcement, everyone in the school stops whatever they’re doing and reads the same chapter all at the same time. Even in gym or art classes, students will gather around their teacher to learn what’s happening next in main character Jax’s great adventure. The shared experience casts its own kind of magic throughout the school, which was built in the 1970s without traditional walls, allowing the many voices reading the same pages to waft through the air.

“Even the kindergarten kids follow along in their books,” said Kephart. “They may not know how to read at that level but they watch their teacher closely and turn the page whenever she does. It makes them feel like big kids.” Houk agreed, describing it as “A good challenge for the youngest kids to connect with a book like this.”  

Kephart and Houk have also arranged for every classroom to have a guest reader, usually someone from district administration like Assistant Superintendent Felisha Gould or school board member Malia Lewis, whose children attended Fairfax. They’ve placed guest readers strategically, having Roxboro Middle School Principal Rebekah Sharpe read to the 5th grade classes so they’d get to know their future building leader. 

Students are also participating in a community scavenger hunt, visiting certain locations around town and completing specific tasks to earn dragon stickers in their Dragon Passports. Some of the locations students can visit on their own, like the Lee Road Library, where their task is to sign up for a library card if they don’t already have one and then check out a book. Other locations require an adult, such as Tommy’s Restaurant and Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry. They’re not required to spend any money but instead have to do things like figure out the cost of their favorite milkshake flavor or check the marquee of the Cedar Lee Theatre to find a movie they’d like to see. 

The very first stop in the scavenger hunt was the hands-down favorite: a visit to Ma’s House, the location in Brooklyn where main character Jax spends much of the story. The teachers and custodial staff recreated Ma’s House in an empty classroom, building a structure out of two canopy tents, complete with very specific items from the book. The clock on the wall is stopped at 11:20, just like in Ma’s House; a teacher brought in a purple velour housecoat, just like Ma wears; a stranger on Facebook Marketplace donated a metal breadbox just for the duration of the project, with Kephart planning to return it before the school year ends.

On Friday, April 12, each class got to visit Ma’s House where they were delighted and surprised to find Ma herself! Principal Dr. Andrea Walker got into character in a gray wig and house shoes, greeting each class just as Ma would have. The student reactions included squeals of delight mixed in with some eagle-eyed sleuths claiming, “You look like Dr. Walker!”

The house will remain in place, with teachers signing up for slots so they can read their chapter within the space or challenge the students to find all the specific details mentioned in the book. They’ll also be able to bring their family members to see Ma’s House on Thursday, May 9 at the PTA-run Literacy Night, which is being planned around a dragon theme. The book’s author is preparing a special video that will be shown that night.

Even Fairfax’s Field Day, scheduled for May 28, will be all about dragons, with a dragon egg toss, two-headed dragon tug-of-war, and the like. Kephart and Houk, who plan to participate in One School, One Book every other year, feel like they’ve created and refined a template that will work for future books as well. “I know if I was in elementary school, I would be obsessed with this,” said Houk.

“The kids are so invested,” added Kephart. They both hope that investment carries over and inspires Fairfax students and families to read any of the five additional books in the Dragons in a Bag series, noting that the first conveniently ends on a cliffhanger.