Tuesday, July 11, 2017

All School Reads: A Summer Institute from the Association of Independent School Librarians (AISL)

By Laura Bishop 

Over two beautiful summer days in New York City--oh, yes, we were very lucky to welcome our out-of-towners with blue skies, bright sunshine and low humidity!--fourteen librarians from around the country met to engage in a supportive, intimate conversation about all-school-read programs. Some of us are currently the engines behind these programs, and some of us were very interested in spearheading them, thus creating new traditions and, hopefully, a re-imagining of the power and reach of literature within our communities.

All-School-Read programs, aka “Common Book”, “Common Read”, or “One Book” programs, have been steadily gaining in popularity in both K-12 schools and colleges and universities. Whether it is the desire of an institution to have its community focus on a specific topic or theme that connects all community members, or amplify the power of a book that resonates with multiple disciplinary terrains, the importance of this experience is gaining traction. Programs vary in form and focus depending on the institution. They may range from an entire school reading the same book and breaking out into discussion groups, to an entire division or grade reading the same book and steadily exploring its resonant themes through their curricula and special assemblies throughout the year. Then there are models like that seen at Horace Mann’s Book Day.

Each spring, the entire upper school division of Horace Mann (HM) comes together to devote an entire day to the exploration of a book which is chosen through a careful process of reading and debating numerous titles among a committee of students and faculty. Once the book is chosen, the end-result is an entire day of programs tied to the resonant themes and topics of that book. Students select (“conference-style”) the sessions they’d like to attend from a rich array of programming options. Book Day begins with opening ceremonies comprised of student performances (dance and music feature prominently) and a keynote address. It ends in a similar fashion with a performance and closing speaker. If you are interested in learning more about HM’s Book Day, read this blog post on Penguin Random House’s “Common Reads” resource site about HM’s 2017 installment for Ta Nehesi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Our Summer Institute host, Caroline Bartels, the Library Director at Horace Mann and the driving force behind Book Day, offered a great deal of insight into how the program works at HM.

Nancy Florio, Library Director at the Berkshire School, was a special guest speaker at the institute. Nancy is heavily involved with assisting in book selection and programming for her school’s common book experience. Coincidentally, Berkshire’s all school read selection for this past school year was also Coates’s book. It was very interesting to see how Nancy’s and Caroline’s programs differ in structure. Berkshire kicks off it’s common read experience with a keynote address, followed by book discussion groups, activities, and reflection in small groups. Rather than taking place over the course of one day, however, the all school read experience at Berkshire involves their school community with a series of speakers, workshops, and assemblies tied to the book and it’s themes throughout the year.

Several years back I was invited to attend one of HM’s Book Day events. I was so inspired that I modeled my school’s “all-school-read” program after their program. Now entering our third year at The Hun School of Princeton, we continue to reflect and improve upon our programming. For our first all school read event, our school read the first two books in the March trilogy by, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. For our second, we read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Our upcoming read for the 2017-2018 school year is Hillary St.John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

Over our two-day retreat of sorts, we delved into the varied dimensions of the all-school-read program, and dissected its many possibilities and essential components for success. What better place to hold this gathering than at Horace Mann, a school that, with an all-school-read-program entering its 24th consecutive year, serves as a model for innovation and inspiration?!

Below is a list of annotated topics we explored...

Topics Covered

  • Book selection process: How to select and run your committees; the benefits and challenges of student and faculty participation; what makes a good all school read title.
  • Budgeting for the day: Realistic assessments of the costs that go into a program of this scale; how to maximize dollars and support; lobbying administration for financial support.
  • Tapping into parent/alumni networks: The crucial task of tapping into the riches of school communities, most importantly, parent and alumni pools.
  • Finding outside presenters and negotiating their rates: It’s important to understand that, by and large, rates are negotiable; quite often the scale can slide significantly, especially with presenters who are not usually called upon to address student audiences. My school, for example, does not possess a large endowment. I explain to our presenters the deep meaning of this day, and that we are, in fact, a tuition-driven institution. We also discussed using speakers agencies.
  • Teacher and student buy-In: Involving students in the selection process; encouraging student presentations; making sure sessions are engaging and hands-on; incentivizing participation; Also, see the next item below!
  • Importance of upper administrative support: The importance of this can not be stressed enough. With the many hats worn by teachers at independent schools and the myriad of responsibilities students juggle during the race to college, adding “another thing” to the curriculum requirements can make obtaining buy-in to the Book Day experience a tough sell. Though teacher allies do help, a top down approach whereby assessments and discussion are mandated by administration is critical. Ideally, this means lessons attached to the book are required in all classes across the curriculum.
  • Structuring the day: The importance of building in reflection time; scheduling challenges; the importance of opening and closing ceremonies.
  • Promoting the program: This can take the form of video promotions, emails to your parent community, tweets, preview performances related to the book and book trailers, among other strategies.
  • Testimonies from Faculty and Students: Two HM administrators spoke about their experience with and appreciation for Book Day at HM. They shared some valuable insights with us pertaining to selling an all-school-read program to administration that are either on the fence or gun-shy about implementing an all-school-read program.
  • Key selling points included: Tie the purpose or goals of the program to your school’s mission statement; if you (and a few supporting colleagues in your corner wouldn’t hurt!) can demonstrate how this program is the embodiment of the school’s mission, you will have better luck selling it to your admin. Secondly, stress the program’s potential for empowering your student body. No doubt, if you are involving students in either your selection process or the programming for the day, they have a significant role to play. In the case of the HM model, students are able to break free of their “student role” and take on a leadership position that enables them to build on and share their passion and knowledge of a subject, flipping the classroom in a whole new sense. Lastly, all-school-read programs pack a huge interdisciplinary punch. It is the embodiment of interdisciplinary learning, and a signature program your school can use to distinguish itself among peer institutions.

The Summer Institute was a supportive and thought provoking experience. I gained a new perspective on my program, as well as a lot of great ideas that I plan on implementing as I promote and shape its future. If you ever have a chance to attend one of AISL’s Institutes, I highly recommend it! They provide a rich, yet informal atmosphere in which to learn and grow.

Special thanks to Caroline Bartels for putting together an excellent experience!

Laura Bishop has been "librarian-ing" for thirteen years now. Previously she has been a Senior Children's Librarian for The New York Public Library, and the Middle and Upper School Librarian at LĂ©man Manhattan Prep. Laura is currently entering her fourth year as the Director of the Library and Media Center of The Hun School of Princeton, where she is fortunate to activate her passions for social justice, travel, and cultural competency work through the Cultural Competency Committee, advisement of the gender equity group, and chaperoning global immersion trips abroad.