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One Book, One School,
One Community:
A Singular Experience


Driven by the desire to enhance literacy skills and bring generations together, many schools are not just taking part in community reading activities but organizing them. Known as "One Book" programs, the projects engage community members, students, and their families in reading one literary selection. The unique benefits of the experience surface when the varied "readers" -- whether age 8 or 80 -- discuss the insights they have gathered from the book. A One Book program might be perfect for your school. Included: Read about One Book programs in three schools. Plus tips for choosing the right literary selection for a community read.

"From the research I have done, most One Book efforts are organized by public libraries, but I see no reason that a school library shouldn't be an active participant or even run it," says Julia Jorgensen, a librarian at Cape Central High School.

"A city's promotion of literacy is an effort in which everyone should be involved. It is good for the older citizens to see teenagers in a leadership role and hear their thoughts; the teens benefit greatly from the maturity of others. I have yet to hear a negative remark from an intergenerational discussion."


Seven years ago, Jorgensen discovered a "One Book" reading promotion project that involved Chicago residents, and it spurred the creation of "United We Read," a month-long, citywide literacy effort held each February in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The Cape Central High School Library provides organization for the event by selecting a book title, creating bookmarks and T-shirts, and writing guides for discussion leaders. Students offer their input throughout the process.

"I have been surprised by how willing the students are to share their reflections [based on the readings] with total strangers in the group or with members of their family sitting with them," Jorgensen observed. "Those who volunteer to help are organized and skilled, so although I am always impressed, I know the level of work they are capable of producing. I am always grateful that they recognize that this is our high school's opportunity to give back to our community and shine -- and they do!"

When Cape Girardeau read A Painted House by John Grisham, a participant from the community brought a cotton sack that he had used when he had picked cotton. The length and weight of it amazed the students. Jorgensen says that the visuals shared by community members during discussions are invaluable.

"The insights that 80-year-old readers and 18-year-old readers bring to the table are diverse and charming. The generations learn from each other," she stated. "When we read Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom, a Central alumnus shared his struggle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis [ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease]."

Book Selection

In choosing a topic for the United We Read program, Julia Jorgensen looks for material she will be comfortable "living with" for 30 days. She avoids language that may be deemed inappropriate and seeks books that deal with non-controversial issues. It is important, she believes, to steer clear of controversy so that participants are encouraged to attend discussions without an "ax to grind," especially in the early stages of a program.

If guests have not read the selection, Jorgensen welcomes them to book meetings anyway, in the hope that they will choose to read it after hearing the discussion. Her goal is to keep discussions fun and lively.

"Discussions should last no more than one hour and convene in a variety of venues," she adds. "A school library might not be a comfortable place for everyone. We have held them in grocery stores, church parlors, and deck side by the indoor pool [to focus on the water allusions in A Painted House]. We have even served meals based on food mentioned in a book."

Three authors who have joined the readers for discussions have provided writing inspiration and reading tips. According to Jorgensen, their participation has added depth and credibility and sustained interest in the program. Students create the Web site for the discussions and maintain it for the month, adding pictures and notes as events unfold.

"A discussion leaders' guide is helpful in getting a variety of people to lead a group; without one, many would be intimidated," Jorgensen told Education World. "As coordinator, I recognize that each discussion will take on a life of its own, depending on the group. That is what you want to accomplish, but you do hope for a little consistency."


"We had not had a formal summer reading program in over a decade," Nicole Afanasiw recalled. "We figured that to build enthusiasm, we could pitch summer reading as a whole community endeavor. Plus, our middle school had recently found success with a school-year One Book program using James Patterson's Maximum Ride."

Afanasiw and her colleagues in the English department at Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, Massachusetts, investigated books read by other schools and communities. They learned that two other nearby schools had successfully read The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian.

"With a local author and interdisciplinary potential, we decided to give it a go," said Afanasiw. "I had my senior Advanced Placement class read it after the AP test in May, and they provided feedback and created activities for us to use. Getting real-live students involved was a boon to the process."

Prior to the summer reading activity, there were lunchtime book giveaways; and public service announcements produced by students appeared in school and on local television. The project was promoted in newspapers, and letters were sent to the students' families. Students and parents were also contacted by phone during the summer. When class resumed, most of the English teachers gave an opening essay assignment that related to The Gospel According to Larry.

On the first Friday of the school year, students were randomly assigned to "Larry Day" groups that were facilitated by two teachers. Each student received a bookmark with discussion questions and responded with his or her Larry Day group for 30 minutes. A school-wide writing contest was sponsored by the PTO, and winners received a certificate, a signed copy of the novel's sequel, and an invitation to lunch with the author. On the third Friday of school, Tashjian visited, had lunch with the lucky winners, and gave presentations for the English classes.

A voluntary committee of teachers helped with the program. Donations provided 100 copies of the book that were tactfully given to students who took part in the free lunch program and to others who were randomly selected. One book store discounted the book for program participants, and local libraries were advised to stock up. Students were also encouraged to share their copies. The publishing company offered a substantial discount for pre-summer sales, so about 200 students bought their books at school before summer vacation.

"We have learned to communicate often and well -- with the students, parents and the community. If you promote a program like this, the students will join in the excitement!" Afanasiw advised. "Our posters, video, and lunch giveaways prior to summer vacation got the word out in a positive way."


The faculty of Saklan Valley School in Moraga, California, has a long-standing custom of reading a book over the summer for professional development, but a new initiative by Head of School Jonathan Martin prompted all of its middle schoolers and their families to read one book during summer break.

"For our first summer read, we chose Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki and James Houston," Martin stated. "This book is about the Japanese American internment camp experience -- an important event in American, and Californian, history -- and a story about what it means to be an American and a member of a minority group in the United States."

Selections for Saklan Valley's summer reading program must impart information about an historical event, a different culture, character, perseverance, or how others handle difficult and/or different situations. Farewell to Manzanar was an ideal choice, says school librarian Kim Moebius. Although many of the students and their parents were familiar with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, most were not familiar with the aftermath -- the internment of Japanese Americans, the conditions under which they were held, and length of time they were imprisoned.

During this school year, students will immerse themselves in activities that correspond to their summer reading. Moebius explained, "The students are participating in discussions about what it would have been like to be notified of the evacuation and within days have to sell, store, or somehow get rid of all belongings -- from property [farms, homes, furniture, cars] to smaller items such as household items and clothing. Was it fair?"

Among the simulations the students will explore are packing a vintage suitcase to see what little could be carried by internees and examining a horse stall like those used to house some internees at Tanforan Race Track before they were moved to permanent locations. Delphine Hirasuna, author of The Art of Gaman, will visit the school to share history and art made by Japanese internees in captivity. An Internment Camp Class Kit borrowed from the National Japanese American Historical Society will allow the students to experience the time period through photographs with text and interpretative display items of the evacuation, the camps, camp life, and its after-effects.

"As with all first experiences, this program has been challenging," shared Moebius. "However, the students' enthusiasm and interest outweigh any difficulties, and we will reevaluate at the end of the school year."


Local/Community Resources
Scroll down the page for an archive of One Book Projects around the nation. Get ideas for books to read. Each project includes contact information.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 11/12/2007
Last updated 11/26/2009