PROJECT LIT

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Founded by high school teacher Jarred Amato, Project Lit is a national, grassroots LITeracy movement, a network of dedicated teachers and students who are committed to increasing access to culturally relevant books and promoting a love of reading in our schools and communities. What originally started as a book drive has morphed into a monthly book club for students, teachers and community members to come together in a culture of shared reading.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

Jared, thanks for calling in from Nashville. I'm speaking with Jared Amato- the head or founder of Project Lit who is busy in last-minute school preparations, so thanks for your time today.

 

Jared Amato

Thanks for having me; I’m excited.

 

Molly Ness

So, Jared, I’ve come across your work with Project Lit as somebody who's pretty active on social media but start by telling us the story of how your work came to be. I know you are really student-driven and your work with overcoming book deserts is unique in that you really have student perspective much more than many organizations. Tell us how you got started.

 

Jared Amato

So, I think when you- you introduced me as the founder- I'm one of many founders of Project Lit community. I'm getting ready to start my 11th year in the classroom here in Nashville as a middle and now high school English teacher and I guess three years ago right about this time, I was getting ready for another school year, reading an article about book deserts and the importance of book access in schools and in communities and my brain sort of got going and I started getting excited and I said to myself and to people on Twitter how cool would it be for my students and I to go about solving this problem in East Nashville where we are in a book desert, where it's hard to find book stores or libraries... So I went back into the classroom in the Fall of 2016 with an amazing group of sophomores that I had actually taught the year before- who were already just an amazing group of readers already in the previous year just developing that love of reading and we read about book deserts in August. Normally back to school when you're figuring out names and where people are as readers or writers and all that, we hit the ground running and it was alright let’s talk about this problem. Let’s ask big questions about why book access is important? Why do you think our community is in a book desert? The intentionality behind that and what happens when students don't grow up with books? And why reading is important to them and then we started Project Lit community- as a group of students and a teacher initially with a big, crazy goal of eliminating book deserts in Nashville and that was the start in August of 2016. Students wrote a mission and a vision, designed a logo and we just started to tackle that problem one step at a time, and we'll get into the whole story, but that's how it began. It was really our goal to increase access in Nashville and spread a love of reading and of course it has evolved and changed a little bit over the past 3 years but at its core, Project Lit is about students- empowering students as readers and as writers to go about increasing access and improving attitudes and really just letting them lead the way in this fun work.

 

Molly Ness

So, we always talk about project-based learning and obviously the work that you and your students... do really exemplifies the power of students identifying a problem lead or guided by the teacher but really addressing that problem through action, through learning. Can you give me a sense of what your students reactions were when they read about book deserts and when they started to think about their community as a book desert itself?

 

Jared Amato

Yeah, I mean we were fired up and angry to recognize that we're fortunate to grow up around books and some were not and I think looking at their peers, looking at their siblings, looking at really in a lot of ways...our school was forgotten. The kids were forgotten...is overlooked and neglected by our district in a lot of ways, so I think just initially anger, but then also excitement to give back and to be part of something and you mentioned project-based learning. Our district at a time- PBL was a buzzword. They were throwing it around and for us rather than just putting together a... presentation and presenting at a- I don't know those little expos and give you a ribbon or a sticker or whatever like the nonsense we do in schools. We actually- when I bought it in a real way and continue to do that well beyond the quarter or a semester or for a grade and when you think about how many hours- hundreds, thousands of hours that our students have poured into this community and into this work over the past three years. It's so inspiring for me to share, lead, and support and champion their work and kind of do some of the things behind the scenes to support. Again, if students weren’t into it or didn't care or didn't see the value in this kind of project, we wouldn't have done it when we started the project in August of 2016. None of us knew where it would go, but it has been- it's been wonderful to see like getting out of the way and letting them guide and lead the process...how far we've been able to accomplish.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I certainly want to hear about your impact and your goals for the future but let me hold off on asking you about that and ask you instead to tell us what Project Lit looks like. How it runs? What are your logistics? And I will say that one of my favorite things about Project Lit is that it is addressing book deserts not just by flooding kids with books, but about really trying to stimulate reading culture and conversation, so make sure you tell us about that work as well.

 

Jared Amato

Yeah, so I think the origin story is important, but we learned a lot over that first year. So, initially, it was students writing letters to local communities, to community organizations and businesses asking for book donations, and then it was taking little libraries that we actually got newsstands donated from USA Today and we got together and painted them with our logo and then we reached out to local community centers and YMCAs and we set up a dozen little libraries in East Nashville and we were delivering books to elementary schools and we were really flooding our community with books and so it was really exciting, but we realized that a lot of the books that we were flooding our neighborhood schools with were of poor quality. They were books that had been donated, that had been discarded and it's actually disrespectful to flood communities with crappy books and we saw that and it was really depressing for us to go to a community center and to fill up a bin... filled with books that we wouldn't want to read. And so, we realized that when we’re talking about changing reading culture and changing reading attitudes, the books have to be great. They have to be meaningful. They have to matter. They have to be high quality, culture sustaining. And so we started a book club- right- and book clubs- they're not a unique thing, but we started Project Lit Book Club and the book club took place at our high school and we invited community members in to read and discuss and celebrate great books that our students wanted to read and talk about. And so, we did. The Crossover was our first book club- it took place in January of 2017 and we hosted a book club every month after that, so January was The Crossover and then March by John Lewis and Ghost by Jason Reynolds and The Hate U Give and Dear Martin and Long Way Down and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, I can go on. So, essentially what we created was a model Project Lit chapter and what that means- it's a group of students who are leading the work, who are organizing book clubs, who are leading service activities, who are serving as role models for younger students, who are just creating this awesome reading culture in their schools, in their community and the teachers, librarians, educators- the adults are just supporting the students in that work because we shared all of that work on social media, we realized that other teachers and schools wanted to be part of that- that movement too and so over the past two years, I have worked behind the scenes to essentially connect onboard and support educators across the country to start their own Project Lit chapters and so as we get ready for this 2019-2020 school year, there are approximately 1,000 schools across the country who are part of Project Lit- who are empowering their students to address issues and needs in their own community and we have a beautiful book list that brings us together and connects us.

 

Molly Ness

So, tell us about that book list because I've looked at it- certainly some of the middle-grade and young-adult books that I love to read and the authors that are on my list. They’re certainly featured on that list. Where does it come from? Do students choose it?

 

Jared Amato

Yes, it is driven by students. The initial list if you look back again- the first full year of Project Lit- the 2017-2018 school year, that book list was driven entirely by our students at Maplewood High School- the founding students. We take books that we were excited to read and we rank them and talk about them and we put out that list and say hey, if you want to read these books with us and talk about them with us, then join up and do the same kind of work. And it was wonderful and as our community grew, we opened up the selection process to our entire community, so now students and teachers in our community are nominating books throughout the year. We're getting together online and in person when we can, to discuss and look through the nominations, sending a list back out to students and chapters to vote on and so when we talk about our book list for middle grade which really ranges- I know sometimes people get thrown off by the MG label, but really we’re talking 3rd and 4th grade through 7th and 8th grade, but in all honesty, our high schoolers- we love the books too so I hate to kind of put books into boxes but the middle grades, we have our Y for 7th and 8th grade and high schoolers and some colleges have got on board and, so right now, we have 85 books that have been selected by students and teachers to read, discuss, and celebrate in our classroom, in our schools, and in our communities. And having a list that is beautiful and exciting and our goal is to really flood our communities with the right kind of books, and it's been wonderful to see how many students and educators have been energized by readers. The idea that we're trying to make reading fun and cool and exciting and meaningful and great books do that.

 

Molly Ness

And we will certainly share the amazing list of titles that you guys compiled over the years with our listeners because they really are not only current, relevant, inclusive. We always talk about getting the right book to the right reader at the right time and clearly the work that your students do to identify those books is incredibly powerful. So, you've talked a little bit about your expansion just in sheer numbers, but can you talk to us about sort of the ripple effect that you’re seeing from what started just as a small classroom inquiry project and now has morphed into this nationwide movement. What has been unexpected for you? And what are you seeing in terms of impact?

 

Jared Amato

That's a tough one- it's a really good question. I feel like there's just a tremendous need. I feel like as much progress as we've made, it’s really hard for teachers and students to have this opportunity to re-discuss books that matter, to have access to great books, and so we've actually- what I've seen is that teachers and educators and students are incredible. They're rallying communities. They're standing up for what they believe in and for what we know is right for kids and they're advocating and they’re championing students and authors and doing all these wonderful things and were still facing a ton of resistance from the school level and the district level, and I think it’s hard, but I feel like when you have people, they might not be in your school or even in your community, but you know they’re people out there in this country who believe in the same thing who can encourage you to keep going and to keep at it, that has been really exciting. For my personal challenges, my number one job is a classroom teacher. I’m teaching full time and so that responsibility now to our community to ensure that our chapters feel supported and our chapters are embodying our values, to ensure that our chapters are doing the right thing by kids, that's also an enormous challenge and I quite haven't figured it out yet to be honest. I'm trying to figure out a balance for myself and juggling all of these things because we didn't know- we didn't set out to expand to a thousand schools. That wasn't the goal. And we're talking about books. I feel like it's quality over quantity, so it's never been about the number of chapters, but it's exciting to know that we have a team of educators and students- a family of amazing humans who are trying to make the world a little bit better and the way that we can do that is through books and I know there are a lot of different ways- it’s a depressing time, my father passed away in June unexpectedly. We feel powerless at times and so for me, this community gives me hope. It gives me strength and it gives me- I don't know- just gives me the energy to keep going and to keep at it and to keep doing this work for the rest of my life and I feel like what I do- you asked me a good question that people ask all the time. Teacher goals and vision and all that and we'll get there, but I think trying to enjoy the moment and trying to enjoy each book club and each student and do that- all those little things will add up over time to something really special and really powerful and I was looking forward to doing a bit more reflecting and responding over the summer, but that didn't happen and I feel like being organic and being grassroots and allowing us to figure it out together is really fun and exciting.

 

Molly Ness

Well and clearly this was something that took on a life of its own in a positive way and that you started small-scale with identifying a problem; having your students think about it and look what the results have been. And so, it must be somewhat surprising to look back and even just to look back a couple of years and say wow look at all of this and what has happened. I feel the outrage that your students felt two or three years ago about book deserts and the fact that they still exist in 2019 is inexcusable and to overcome book deserts is a solvable problem. And that is the reason that I'm doing this podcast is to showcase all of these different innovative people and programs that are really literacy activists and your students clearly are at the top of the list of literacy activists.

 

Jared Amato

Thank you; thank you so much. So, you did say something that isn't said enough and that is very simple like what we're doing with Project Lit is not complicated and that's by design, right. The idea that if we increase access to great books and work to improve reading attitudes, we will see better reading outcomes. It's not complicated- the work that we're doing. Our students 30, 35, 40, 45 I don't know the exact number of our high schoolers who are now off to college because they had access to great books because there was an awesome reading community that we built together. 12 or 13 actually received full rides to Belmont University partly through all the amazing work they did with Project Lit and this idea that readers read and you can't become a reader if you don't have great books around you and we know how access accesses us for everything and in districts, we talked about all the test prep in this and that, but let's just do the easy stuff first and then if that doesn't work and if you're not convinced then we'll talk about why it didn't work, but let's do the easy things first. And you're right, it's one of those things that- I don't know, I've got honestly- I get worked up a lot because I'm passionate about it. And here in Nashville, some people have been super supportive and some people don't want to listen to it and so they continue to spend money on- I don't know on a test prep and whatever other nonsense, but it's not that complicated and it just drives me crazy.

 

Molly Ness

Well, if you’re a listener out there who’s listened to previous episodes of this podcast, you will probably be rolling your eyes as you hear me say this again, but every time I have conversations about book access, I go back to the famous line from the Field of Dreams “if you build it they will come.” Meaning if we give kids access to books that matter, books that are relevant, books that are current, books that are engaging, they will become readers and the ripple effect of that we will see long into the future. They will be more likely to impart a reading culture on the children that they are parenting, so it's pretty powerful stuff starting with the simple idea of let's overcome book deserts by just increasing access in these many different ways and different programs. So, as we wrap up let me ask you a question that I ask all of my guests and I ask this question because my belief is that overcoming book deserts takes more than just actual flooding of books and certainly that's a great start but we always want to be mindful of creating cultures and conversations that embrace reading and that showcase us as readers. So, Project Lit has done an amazing job of getting books that matter to hands, but let me ask you to reflect on a book that has mattered to you; a book that has changed you as a reader or as a person and it can be a book in your past or present. What's that one title and I absolutely know it’s impossible to choose one. What's that title that just really shaped you in some way?

 

Jared Amato

So, if you're looking at why...there's too many- like you said- it's impossible, so I'll give you the one that is the reason I'm a teacher which is Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol...

 

Molly Ness

That’s my book too…

 

Jared Amato

Really? I didn’t know. I wasn’t trying to cheat or anything. I didn’t know that. 

 

Molly Ness

I know that forever changed and influenced why I went into education and why I'm still in this however many years later.

 

Jared Amato

No, I was in college and I took Dr…. course and I took a course as a freshman...sports, race in American culture as a freshman seminar course and loved it, so I took every course of Dr…. and one was on the achievement gap and educational inequity in America read Savage Inequalities during my junior year of college and that was the moment that I knew. But it's funny- you know I mentioned my dad passed away. I was looking through my old journal from elementary school and found a letter that I had written to my second-grade teacher and it said, dear second-grade teacher, my name is Jared Amato. I'm 7 years old. My brother is Zach. I love basketball, baseball, reading, and writing. And it was just pretty cool that even then, I identified as a reader and a writer and my love of sports and I became a coach and a teacher and I think it was meant to be- it just took me a little bit longer to realize that myself.

 

Molly Ness

Well, clearly you have chosen the right path and you are helping your students and students all across the country identify themselves as readers and writers. What I love about Savage Inequalities is that what we used to call the achievement gap, we have now sort of renamed it and rethink of it as the opportunity gap. And when we talk about book deserts, we are talking about an opportunity gap. Well, Jared, I could talk to you forever. We have barely even skimmed the surface about books that we clearly have in common, but let's meet face-to-face sometime. We will all continue to follow the amazing work that Project Lit is doing and kudos to you and to your students for ending book deserts both in your community and starting to look at the problem nationwide. Thank you so much for your time. It's been such a pleasure to speak with you and good luck. We’ll look forward to hearing more about your work.

 

Jared Amato

Thank you so much for having me. Happy reading everybody!

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