Reading & Literacy

A Novel Idea: Joining City Reading Programs

By Marianne D. Hurst — April 03, 2002 5 min read
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In Los Angeles, they’re handing out free copies of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451 and encouraging 9th and 10th grade students to write essays or produce artwork depicting crucial scenes in the book.

In Seattle, school district officials purchased and are passing out more than 16,000 copies of Lewis Sachar’s quirky, award-winning novel Holes to students in the 4th through 8th grades and encouraging them to participate in discussion groups, theater performances, and meetings with the author.

And in Chicago, thousands of 8th graders are poring over Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical novel Night about the Holocaust, even as tens of thousands of adults in the Windy City are being encouraged to read the same book.

The three school districts all have linked up with community reading programs, a phenomenon that has spread rapidly from city to city in recent months. The reading initiatives, which encourage residents of entire cities to all read the same book at the same time, are designed to boost literacy.

For the most part, such efforts have been spearheaded by public libraries and have been geared toward adult readers. But in several cities across the country schools have gotten in on the act, too.

Judith L. Irwin, a professor of education at Florida State University in Tallahassee, said that community reading programs can be good motivational tools for students. “One of the things that struggling readers often lack,” she said, “is a positive adult role model who reads.”

The Prologue

The idea to create a citywide book club originated in Seattle in 1998, when the Seattle Public Library system’s Washington Center for the Book started a project called “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book.”

The program, now financed by a three-year, $175,000 grant from the New York City-based Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, was intended to promote literacy and deepen appreciation for literature by encouraging the city’s adult residents to join book clubs and discussion groups.

The library system earlier this year launched a spinoff program called “What If All Kids Read the Same Book?” Library officials are using nearly $500,000 in funds from public, private, and corporate sources to promote their effort to have as many students as possible read Holes.

Some of that money was also used to create a study guide for the book that meets state curriculum standards. More than 75,000 students are expected to participate.

Chance Hunt, the children’s services manager for the Seattle library, says that the city’s six-month program has been specifically designed to support the teaching of literature in schools.

“We worked with a reading-specialist team [that] wrote the study guides according to state standards,” Mr. Hunt said. “We wanted things to be in there that would reflect school goals and actually be used.”

In Los Angeles, even the mayor has gotten involved. Mayor James K. Kahn has encouraged schools to make Fahrenheit 451 available to 9th and 10th graders to bolster student interest in literature and provide educators with a new teaching tool.

To encourage student participation and assist schools, the book’s publisher—Ballantine—donated 500 copies to Los Angeles high schools. In addition, city libraries are passing out free copies of the book.

The Critique

Not all of the increasingly popular community reading initiatives include such school-oriented planning, however. And critics contend that if the programs don’t contain a strong link to schools’ curriculum, educational goals can get lost amid community hype.

In Chicago, an adult reading program called “One Book, One Chicago” that started last August began with a bang when library officials selected the often-banned Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. But because the book also appears on the reading lists of many high school literature courses, Chicago educators quickly grabbed onto the coattails of the city-supported project.

Still, the success of the program to get all Chicagoans to read To Kill a Mockingbird might be the exception rather than the rule, said Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who oversees reading programs for the Chicago public schools.

“Some schools here made a real effort to link the book with their school curriculum,” Mr. Shanahan said. “That was a natural with To Kill a Mockingbird, but it might not be with some other works.”

Mr. Shanahan also said that future books selected by libraries for citywide reading programs might not be appropriate for students, and that some associated activities and discussions could detract from public schools’ educational goals.

A larger issue, he noted, is the possibility that teachers, eager to be part of community reading programs, might attempt to have students read books that are not appropriate for their grade levels.

The Subtext

Suzanne Suposnick, an 8th grade teacher at Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School in Chicago, has used the book Night in her class for several years, so she was pleased that it was chosen as the second book for the citywide reading program.

Despite its dark subject matter, Ms. Suposnick said that students, who are taught about the Holocaust when they reach the 8th grade, seem to enjoy the book. “There are some books that just grab the imagination, and Night is one of those because it’s both horrifying and true,” she said.

The book also lends a human face to a historical event, Ms. Suposnick said, adding that students can easily relate to the main character because he is not much older than they are.

Having the rest of the Chicago community focus on the book, she said, gives her students an added incentive to understand the book’s lessons.

“The year [for teaching] is short,” she said. “You try and look for books that are well written and accessible to students, [but] you’re also looking to get kids to see that this work is relevant to the world. If our particular community is reading the book, then students get a better sense of its importance.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Novel Idea: Joining City Reading Programs

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