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Reading Is LIT: How a Classroom Project Can Impact an Entire Community

As a school librarian, I strongly believe in the importance of books as mirrors and windows for students, especially with so many divisive things happening in our society. Using these sorts of books in the classroom helps to start tough dialogue that's necessary for educators and students alike. That doesn't happen all the time with the required reading we've stuck with for ages. One place I’ve seen it in action is in my own state of Tennessee. I've been following the Project LIT Community initiative in Nashville since its inception in 2016.

It was a summer day when Nashville English teacher Jarred Amato happened upon an article in The Atlantic that hit home for him. The topic: book deserts, areas with limited access to print literature. He realized his own community wasn’t exempt from this serious problem, and decided he wanted to become a part of the solution.

In the fall, Amato and his Maplewood High School students — voracious readers who care about their community — began working to eliminate book deserts in East Nashville. The mission of Project LIT [Libraries In The] Community is to provide books to children while making reading contagious. Who is responsible for all the work? The students themselves. (Amato sees his role as more of a facilitator.) They do everything from scouting locations for little libraries and filling them, to managing the social media, to leading book discussions, and visiting elementary schools to spread the love for reading.

The Project LIT Community students with their repurposed take-1-leave-1 little libraries. All photos courtesy of Jarred Amato.

When the group of fifty students started the project, they “had no idea where it would go...we just had a goal of collecting a thousand books,” stated Amato. The students obtained old USA Today newspaper stands and repurposed them into take-1-leave-1 little libraries. Meanwhile, donations to fill the little libraries were solicited. Before they knew it, over ten thousand books had been donated. With over ten of these little libraries up and running throughout the East Nashville community — in YMCAs, community centers, and businesses — and more ready to be distributed, Project LIT Community is determined to eliminate book deserts. It also goes a step beyond.

The students with Kwame Alexander (center)

The students are passionate about “bringing the community together and teaching people that reading is important,” according to sophomore Travares Springer. De’Sean Bigham, also a sophomore, sees Project LIT Community as a means to “spread literature around, starting with Nashville, bringing it to new levels across the country.” He likes the project because it allows the students to be hands-on and meet new people through their book club. Students at Maplewood and other community members gather together for roundtable discussions during school day. Most recently, they have read Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and Booked and John Lewis’s March: Book One. To facilitate dialogue in such a large group — of seventy-plus students and adults — Project LIT students divide themselves amongst the larger group to lead multiple table discussions. Each small group has the same list of guiding questions, but every group's discussion is different.

Facilitating book discussion

Bigham says Project LIT Community has changed his opinion of reading. “At first, I didn’t really like to read. It’s improved my vocabulary, too,” says Bigham. Springer agrees, “I didn’t like reading either because it wasn’t one of my strong suits, but Project LIT taught me there’s so many books out there, there’s got to be a book for you. That was probably the problem. I didn’t have the right book. But if you find the right book, I’ll read it.” Hearing his students say this makes Amato proud. “A lot of schools are using the same books in those tubs in the back of classrooms, teaching them because maybe they read them as a kid, because maybe that’s how English class is 'supposed' to look. But what that’s doing is killing kids’ love of reading. It’s not working. Hopefully this project will show schools and teachers that if you make an effort to find books kids will enjoy, can see themselves in, and will love, it will work. It will get kids excited about reading. It will empower them,” Amato said. And that is what Project LIT Community is all about—empowering students through a culture of reading. Their lineup for next year’s book club, which includes Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, is sure to continue the movement. And the students will continue putting books into their community with more little libraries, because reading is LIT.

To learn more about Project LIT Community, follow their movement on Twitter @ProjectLITComm.

For more from The Horn Book about social justice and activism -- and about people Making a Difference -- visit our Making a Difference resource page.

Erika Long
Erika Long
Erika Long is a school librarian in Tennessee. She was named a finalist in AASL's first year of Social Media Superstar Recognitions. She is an advocate of books as mirrors and windows and empowers students to use their voice to impact social justice change. You can connect with her on Twitter @erikaslong.

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