Building Community and Extending the Conversation Beyond the Classroom
and Lainie Schuster
Many schools have a required all-school read, whether for faculty, grade level, grade bands, parents, or any combination of these. At Fay School, One School, One Book (OSOB) is a different type of all-school read. During the winter term, all faculty, students, and parents in grades three through six (the Lower School) read one book. Students wait all fall in anticipation of the announcement of the chosen book. Throughout the fall term, students inundate the head of the Lower School, Lainie Schuster, with requests to know the title of the year’s book. Clues are given during family-style lunch, and, in the weeks leading up to the unveiling of each year’s title, students in grades three through six have a hard time refraining from entering her office to inquire, “What is this year’s OSOB?”
Lainie spends countless hours during the summer months searching for and reading books that will be contenders for the One School, One Book. This is a thoughtful process that incorporates the school theme of the year as well as areas of focus we are working on as a K-9 school, such as inclusivity, respect, kindness, and perspective-taking. Throughout the summer months, Lainie engages in enthusiastic conversation with other members of the faculty about books she is considering for next year’s One School, One Book. To say that she is passionate about finding the “right” book for each year would be an understatement.
One of the biggest challenges is finding a book that is accessible to seven-year-olds and 12-year-olds, as well as young parents and guardians, both from an appropriate reading level and the developmental level of the readers. As a school, we strive to be intentional about our choices, and we strive to provide the historical or social background, scaffolding, and frontloading necessary to set students, families, and faculty up for success as they engage in meaningful and authentic conversation while reading the chosen story.
Every author has a story to tell as does every child and adult in the Lower School community. Titles are chosen that encourage personal connections to the lives and experiences of those reading the book together. Stories are told that focus on topics that are important in building a foundation for our students regarding current issues in the world. Stories are told at the lunch tables, in homerooms, in reading class, and in the hallways. One year a child was conversing with a parent on FaceTime at morning drop-off about the previous night’s reading because the parent was out of town—and the child had a story to tell!
Once the book is chosen, other members of the community are fully engaged in the planning. For example, take the chosen book for 2018-2019, Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper. The choice of this story and the collaboration that ensued demonstrated the importance of collaboration and passion about our work in independent schools. It was time for the story of Stella in the Lower School. It was time for the students to be introduced to North Carolina in 1932. It was time for a story to be told of a young girl living in a world of racism, discrimination, and hate. It was also time for a story to be told about love, support, and hope. And everyone heard Stella’s story.
So, what is different about One School, One Book? Let’s examine the 2019 reading of Stella by Starlight to explain. When Stella by Starlight was chosen, some faculty expressed concern about how to engage children—ages 7-12 in the Northeast—in discussions about a book that opened with a scene involving Stella and her brother, the KKK, and 1932 rural North Carolina. So how did we prepare and provide the necessary historical and social context for this story to be told?
We did our homework and planned lessons for the adults as well as the children. We were all learners who benefited from differentiated instruction. Providing resources in print, video, and discussion, we offered the necessary instruction for those who were comfortable and knowledgeable about this time period and the topics explored in the book as well as for those who were not as comfortable with the material. We invited an outside professional to meet with the Lower School faculty to engage us in conversation focused on “why not tell this story?” and “how to read this story together.” We then invited parents for a discussion with the head of Lower School, the director of the educational program, and the chair of the English Department. Members of the Social Studies Department created developmentally appropriate presentations and activities to engage the students in the time period, location, and historical context of the day. The conversations that followed focused on connecting Stella’s story to the lives of the community and the country today. One School, One Book is not a book report or just a collaborative reading of a book. It is much more.
When the One School, One Book program was initially rolled out, there was some concern about requiring families to read together each night. But we presented a nightly syllabus, and we had discussions after lunch every day about the chapters read the night before. The Lower School faculty and the administration were astounded at the support families offered for this family read even in its first year.
Although all the research reminds us how important it is to read out loud with children, families rarely read with their children in the evenings as their children move out of first and second grade. Many families chose to listen to the Audible version of Stella by Starlight because of the narration. Older siblings who had come up through the Lower School were also enticed by Stella’s story and spent time with their younger siblings and family in the evening listening to and discussing the assigned chapters.
The inaugural year of Fay Lower School’s One School, One Book was in September 2011. The first community read was A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. Betty Birney’s The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs followed in September 2012. And The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester by Barbara O’Connor rounded out the September rollouts in 2013.
One School, One Book was initially intended to bring the Lower School community together at the beginning of the school year with a common focus, common language, and common experience at home and in school. The faculty began to question the timing of the read. Would the community be better served if One School, One Book was moved to January? The reading habits and levels of the third graders would have progressed and might offer better book options with their increased reading, thinking, and talking skills. The faculty agreed to move the reading of Sharon Creech’s The Boy on the Porch to January 2015. The decision was a good one, and the One School, One Book rollout has been permanently moved to January. Rain, Reign by Ann M. Martin was read in January 2016. Pax by Sara Pennypacker followed in 2017, and Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder in 2018.
The Lower School faculty have developed routines and practices that support the annual community read. Reading teachers have the children blog and journal about themes, plot, predictions, and questions they have about the reading. Social studies teachers create lessons on the importance of setting—geographic and historical. The previous night’s reading is discussed daily at lunch. General announcements following the school’s family-style, sit-down lunches are curtailed so that a discussion can ensue. At Fay School, the lunch tables are composed of mixed-age-level students with one adult at each table. The head of Lower School may pose a question, share a quote, or explore vocabulary. Hands shoot up around the dining room as the students engage with the topic and move the conversation and reflection forward. Every day, one or two particular students drive the conversations. They may have a particular passion for the reading’s theme, or a personal connection to the protagonist, or an appreciation of the author’s language. The discussion soon becomes a conversation between students. The adults in the dining room witness and delight in the marriage and magic of a carefully chosen and beautifully written book.
Parent engagement is critical to the success of the read. A parent-only roundtable discussion is offered one morning after drop-off. Parents are also invited to a student-parent event that varies from year to year. The event may be roundtable discussions in third, fourth, and fifth grade homerooms led by the sixth graders. Stella by Starlight elicited an event exploring Sharon Draper’s use of color imagery throughout the novel—something even the author herself was unaware of until she came to present to the Lower School. Now that was an amazing conversation and realization!
The Lower School has had the great fortune of having many of the authors of the selected reads present to the community. Once a title is chosen, contact is made with the author to inquire about availability for a school visit. Sharon Creech, Laurel Snyder, Barbara O’Connor, Sara Pennypacker, and Sharon Draper have all spent time with the Lower School community. The authors have spoken about their craft, the writing of the shared read, and, very often, their experiences with writing as children. Laurel Snyder had the students and parents spellbound as she explained how writing helped channel her feelings of loneliness after she moved away from her best friend as a child. The sixth graders wanted to welcome Sharon Creech with hallways lined with shoes referencing John and Marta’s collection in The Boy on the Porch, and the Lower School did just that. The excitement and anticipation are palpable on an author visit day. There is a shared language, shared experience, and a community reverence for the author that happens at no other event during the school year.
One School, One Book is not a shared reading that focuses on a summary of a story—it is more than that. It is an authentic program that focuses on deep engagement in reading stories—those that mirror the reader as well as those that provide a window into the lives of others. We are building empathy through sharing stories. We are engaging in difficult conversations. We are developing collaboration among colleagues and with families. We are building community.