“One School, One Book” by Gary Harker
Lethbridge Living Magazine –
Lethbridge Living Online
One School, One Book
by Gary Harker
Some might say it was an epiphany.
In the fall of 2007 Teacher Michelle Dimnik, while skimming through Reading Today, an American bi-monthly newspaper for literacy professionals, chanced upon an article with a four-word headline: “One School, One Book.” She read the story and had a sudden realization. She took the newspaper and a proposal to her Principal, Bill Bartlett of Dr. Gerald B. Probe Elementary School. He signed on, and the school has not been the same since.
Probe Elementary was the first Canadian school to launch a One School, One Book project. In the ensuing two years all students at Probe Elementary have twice united in reading their personal copy of a single book together. Not in school, but at home. Not on their own, but in most cases with their mother or father reading to them, and to any brothers or sisters within earshot. At school there is a trivia quiz every morning on the previous evening’s reading assignment. “The teachers and staff keep it going, planning activities, fuelling the fire, peaking the curiosity and interest. But the reading happens at home,” Michelle explains.
This past fall has seen the search for book number three. “The hardest part of the One School, One Book project is choosing the right book to read,” Michelle says. It must be a book that engages both the first grader and the students in Grade 5. Kindergarten students can decide whether or not they want to be involved. Most do.
A book search committee of teachers and parents read and prepared proposals for several weeks, while students and their parents anxiously await the announcement of the new book. By early November the choices had been narrowed to four, and the selected book will be announced at a school assembly in mid-January; until then, no hints, no premature announcements. This is to be a surprise.
The choices for 2008 and 2009 surprised many readers. Neither were plucked from a current list of bestsellers. First the school read Shiloh, a Newbery book award winner that explored the trials of a beagle, the victim of abuse. The following year Probe students were introduced to a very posh rabbit in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
Since the inception of the One School, One Book program there have been some noticeable changes and the school hasn’t been the same. Dogs have been allowed to run the halls; “A neighbour in the community called us up,” Michelle recalls. “He said, ‘I have three beagles. Can I bring them to the school? I want to show the kids that beagles aren’t easy dogs to have as pets.’” And at one assembly the students were introduced to some working dogs, whose handlers explained about the border patrol and search and rescue teams.
The students and teachers haven’t been the same.
The students take the initiative. In one instance, according to third grade Teacher Christy Martens, “They came to school really excited, ready to share their ideas. Usually there was a discussion first thing in the morning, right after we’d finished the trivia thing. I never planned the discussion. It was all the kids, they pretty much led it. I enjoyed it along with them.” She adds that, “Some of the kids…made a giant Plasticine Edward Tulane. The Grade Fives seized a leadership opportunity. They took to putting on skits for our assemblies. They did a lot for the little ones in the school. That was a bit unexpected.”
The staff members haven’t been the same. Library Facilitator Beverley Ryner says the projects have generated a real sense of community within the school, “It is fun to be able to discuss the book together. One School, One Book encourages discussion in the home as well as reading together. I think that is the value.” Bill adds, “In the morning the first voices I heard were telling me, ‘Mr. Bartlett, we read last night’s chapter!’ The conversation was off again.”
The parents haven’t been the same. Helena Danyk’s family has been reading for years but she says it was different to participate in something the whole school was reading, “We heard every day about what they had done, what had happened. What the trivia questions were. Particularly with Edward Tulane. My girls brought a stuffed bunny home and he joined us for a couple of evenings of reading. He was pretty quiet.”
And the community hasn’t been the same. When Shiloh’s story explored animal abuse, the school contacted the local humane society, and an assembly was visited by a border collie named Red; a real rescue dog. The society told the students Red’s story, and the school raised money for the society. Edward Tulane prompted a search of thrift stores for stuffed bunnies to take home to be washed-up, and the school purchased some brand new bunnies that were donated to the hospital program and landed in the arms of sick children. “Both times previously, and certainly in our next project, we want to involve the community. We want to teach our students about giving back to the community,” says Michelle.
It’s easy to see how these projects are worth it. Responses from students to last year’s reading say it all: “Edward taught us to share love with other people. To never give up on hope;” and “Edward taught me to love myself, my Mom and my Dad. Edward taught me to love my baby sister too.”