Thursday, May 10, 2012

What We Have in Common

Choosing a Common Book 

Sometimes I struggle to find commonality with my students. For one thing, they are all boys, and so in some essential ways we will always be a complete mystery to each other. Their interests seem to revolve wholly around either screens or sports; their humor is at its apex when talking about farts, and their musical tastes... well, there's nothing I can add to the well documented critique of auto-tune.

This lack of likeness certainly contributes to my vehement passion for our all-school summer Common Book program, in which every student entering grades 8-12, all members of the faculty and staff, as well as the board of Trustees are asked to read one book in common. There are challenges a plenty, and let's get real, I know not everyone actually reads it, but even so: the simple fact of sharing one experience with all members of my school community feels pretty darn good.

Our 2009 choice, and one of my favorite all-time books.
The boys couldn't believe they were required to read something so funny and "easy."

A lot of schools require or suggest a common book, and programs vary widely. At the recent HVLA Roundtable meeting, we chatted about trials and errors, uncommon books, and teacher sponsored choice reads (where various faculty members will pitch a book and students are asked to choose between them). My only experience with programs like these comes from my time at Browning, where I have been the (sometimes unofficial, sometimes official) head of the Common Book committee for the last few years. I'll outline what we have done, and I hope to hear about similar programs and challenges in the comments section.

The Process

  • Towards the end of winter I send out an email to faculty and staff asking for volunteers to sit on the committee to choose, promote and provide programming ideas for our next summer Common Book. My goal in assembling a group is variety. This year's committee included teachers from English, Art, Math and Science departments as well as our Upper School Head, Learning Specialists, and all three members of the Library staff. The members are expected to attend a handful of meetings, read a bunch of books, and comment on them.
  • Committee members provide suggestions, sometimes with a prompt (i.e., fiction, nonfiction), sometimes without. We also take suggestions from readers who don't feel they have time (or patience) to join the committee. These books form our long list.
  • Each member agrees to read someone else's suggestion(s), and we go from there, whittling the list down to four or five that all or most of us agree fit the following criteria:
    • The book should not be a burden. Browning’s students have considerable assigned reading over the summer, and if they view the Common Book as a laborious read, they will likely skip it.
    2010 Common Book
    • The book should be developmentally appropriate for and have appeal to students in grades 8-12.
    • Whether fiction or nonfiction, the book should explore themes that enrich our understanding of the world.
    • The book should be well written, and in the case of nonfiction, well researched.
  • There is no scientific method to choosing one book from the short list, but there tends to be a clear frontrunner. Something emerges that committee members feel compelled to share, something they can clearly imagine a teenaged boy tolerating, maybe even enjoying.
  • By mid-May we present our first choice to the Head of School, complete with supporting materials like lists of awards, book reviews, comments from the committee. We always have a second choice ready to go, just in case.
  • In the past, students were expected to purchase their own copies, but faculty, staff and trustees were given a copy. This made no sense to me. We were already struggling to get students to follow through on the reading (more on that in a bit), so it seemed logical that forcing it into their hands made it at least a little more likely that they'd open it up. Dealing directly with publishers, I've been able to get good deals on a bulk order, and the money comes from the library budget. I could also imagine funding coming from a parent donation through the book fair or even through our benefit auction.

The Promotion

We could choose the greatest, least burdensome, most mind-blowing book of all time, but it's not worth a damn if nobody reads it. At our school, there are no assessments related to the Common Book. If I had to wager, I'd bet that in an average year, 80-90% of the 8th graders read it, and about 15% of seniors do. Over the years they figure out that skipping the Common Book is the thing least likely to get them in trouble. 

Another challenge is getting the faculty to read it. It seems as though adults are even less enthusiastic about being told what to do with their summer than kids are! Go figure. 

A year ago, we spent a lot of time discussing whether we should even bother to continue the Common Book tradition. In 2010, we brought Dave Eggers's Zeitoun to our community, patting ourselves on the back for choosing such an awesome story, such a hard hitting look at our own country. And indeed, a handful of 8th and 9th graders seemed genuinely moved by the book, asking questions of themselves and their fellow citizens that had not occurred to them before. But really, in the end hardly anybody read it. Maybe if we had successfully lured Mr. Eggers to the East Coast things would have been better.   Maybe if our follow up discussions had been more spirited and less preachy... Maybe if we could have withheld college recs until seniors produced a thoughtful review/podcast/multimedia art project inspired by the Common Book... 

2011 Common Book
When in Spring 2011 we made the decision to go with Wes Moore's The Other Wes Moore, we knew that we had to do a better job getting our community to buy in, and we decided to start with the faculty. It seemed preposterous to demand more from our students than we did from our colleagues. We made a few simple changes. Instead of letting everyone know the books were available for pick-up, the committee hand delivered each copy at a faculty meeting.  During our faculty work days before school began in September, we assigned them to small break-out groups to discuss the book (rather than what we had done in the past: forcing them to listen to a panel of the enthusiastic few speak for 45 minutes on the book's many virtues). And, we made a video that managed to be both self-deprecating and self-important in an attempt to amuse and guilt-trip our colleagues. (If you can bear the amateur stylings and silly inside jokes, the password to view it is zeitoun.)

What Follows

The biggest change in 2011 was that we were successful in getting the Common Book author to visit Browning. Wes Moore is a New Yorker, and though he is in high demand he makes a real effort to visit schools. He came to ours in October. By that time, it was clear that many of the boys had read the book, in some cases because their teachers had incorporated it into curriculum and classroom discussions more than they had in the past. Students who hadn't read it by the time Mr. Moore made his presentation, were quick to come and see me for a copy once they had met him. 

Wes Moore, being awesome
Wes Moore is a solid writer, and the book is certainly worth a read. But he is a spectacular presenter. I guess you could say I'm easily moved, so it's no big thing for me to cry when a skilled speaker addresses a crowd, but I saw some seriously cynical teachers wiping their eyes when he encouraged our students to find something, anything that they truly cared about and to actually go out and do something about it. I had seen Mr. Moore speak before, and I knew he'd be great, but he exceeded my expectations by tailoring his delivery perfectly to each audience (he presented separately for parents, Upper School boys, and Middle School boys.) He signs off his emails with "elevate," and that seems an apt farewell; he certainly left us all feeling a little lifted. He also made me a bit of a hero. Colleagues and administrators, parents and even students went out of their way to thank me for helping to organize the event. Any thoughts I had had the spring before about ditching the Common Book completely evaporated.

But the fact is, we won't be able to get every author (and not every author is a rock star). Should a book be disqualified from contention if there's no hope of booking its creator? We've done our best to create interesting programming around each book, but there is no doubt that having the author helps generate enthusiasm, and perhaps more importantly, dampers push-back from faculty who are tired of having their classes canceled for assemblies, etc.

I would love to hear about what other schools are doing to help make a Common Book experience integrated into the life of the school. Student presentations? Small book groups and lit circles? Volunteer opportunities?

Our Summer of Love and Fallout

2012 Common Book
There were two issues I hoped to address with the selection of the 2012 Common Book. First, all of the books in our recent past were stories about men, penned by men. We're a boys' school, so there was nothing overly shameful in that, but I felt it might be time to include a woman. Second, it's the year 20freaking12; we're living in the future, and everywhere I look I see that print is dead or dying. I thought perhaps we could choose a book to help answer the question, "why make a book at all?" 

I got all of my wishes. Our next Common Book is Lauren Redniss's gorgeous Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. It's an illustrated biography of the Curies, and it's a reflection on progress, technology, warfare, love, history and art. It is a librarian's dream. Redniss created it while she was a fellow at New York Public Library, and it is a stunning example of how research can come alive if you just dig a little deeper. She created the typeface to resemble title pages of manuscripts at NYPL. Primary sources are evident throughout. The cover glows (glow-in-the-dark paint), and so do the reviews.  Ms. Redniss is local (she teaches at Parsons), so I have every hope of bringing her in next fall. 

What We Gain and Why it Matters

Accepting that 100% participation is never going to happen, I still believe that having a book in common matters. It's a point of reference that we can all make. It's a shorthand for the summers as they pass ("oh, that was the Zeitoun year.") It's a statement about what we value. We value the written word enough to celebrate it, question it, and argue about it. Together. 

Our school is very tiny, so it's impossible for all of us to meet in one room. Our school wide meeting places must either be off campus or virtual. I'd like to think that every summer we have a meeting of the minds. Maybe on one July evening, a science teacher, a phys ed coach and a sophomore will all be doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, learning the same thing, looking at the same picture, and no doubt having three entirely different responses. I admit that this view is somewhat sentimental, but something short of total fantasy; I think it could happen. I think, anyway, that it's a worth a try.

Posted by Sarah Murphy


  1. Caroline BartelsMay 10, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    Sarah, loved this as we are currently in the process for choosing our Book Day selection for next year and I am more than a bit annoyed with my committee, which actually consists mostly of students, only really caring about reading a "fun book." I don't know if it is a product of the times or if I'm jaded after having organized our day for 15 years, but I had to say to a bunch of the kids the other day -- "hey guys, it was a group of students who chose Brecht's Galileo and it was students who chose Prison Writing in 20th Century America and students who chose Angels in America. None of those was a 'fun book.' But everyone agreed they made excellent Book Days." Reading your own struggles helps put everything a bit in perspective for me. So thanks! Onward to my 16th Book Day selection process and our 19th Book Day!

    1. Caroline, it's terrific that your selection committee is made up of so many students. I can certainly imagine the frustration caused by that, but it's great that they have such ownership over the choice. Can't wait to hear what you all choose for next year's Book Day!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Sarah. Very helpful and totally makes me want to steal some of your ideas! Good luck with "Radioactive"--what a fantastic choice.

  3. Dear Sarah,

    How clearly you write of the experience. Brearley finally dropped their common book when not enough people were buying in. It had until recently been a project (for over fifteen years) sponsored by the Diversity Committee, and with a very strong History Department advisor, usually picked books that detailed experiences of people whose stories were under-represented with some historical perspective. Some examples: 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Dreams of Trespass. A Raisin in the Sun. M. Butterfly. Nickel and Dimed in America. Cosmopolitanism. Holy Days.

    The book was assigned over the summer, and students and faculty were given copies to read. On returning in the fall, students met to discuss in small groups usually in late September.

    Faculty had their own meeting to discuss the book.

    Because there is so much assigned work for the summer already, the common book became unpopular and resented. Some of us urged that we have a common movie when we all might meet and watch together and then discuss it. Watching a movie together at the same time is not homework or an extra assignment.

    The first common movie was adopted last year, but because of scheduling constraints, a common viewing was not possible. Everyone was given a certificate to Amazon to either buy or download the movie, Waiting for Superman.

    The discussion in school included a visit with one of the producers of the movie.

    This summer we are seeking a common movie with the theme of sexual identity.
    Everyone is invited to suggest titles. The decision will be made in the next few weeks, and I hope that in the fall we all get to watch it together!

    Sorry I missed the discussion at the meeting, and sorry that this comment is so long!

    Patty Aakre
    Brearley School

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Patty, resentment is the worst possible way to go into reading a book. Sounds like you've come up with a good alternative. Let us know what movie is picked!