How do you get your principal who hates rocking the boat to sign on to controversial YA Lit book clubs? Well, let me tell you a story…
My principal and I have known each other for almost ten years. He knows that I love to try new things, from flexible seating to taking students to hear a Holocaust survivor in the final year of his life. He also knows that he’s gotten parent complaints about the new things I’ve tried, like the year I tried to flip my classroom instruction. And he hates parent complaints with a passion.
So when I heard about Project Lit Community and its philosophy I knew two things up front.
- My students desperately need to know what the world outside is like. Their parents and grandparents fled Appalachia for the factory rich town we live in, and those factory jobs have dried up. Even though almost all the staff I work with grew up here, our students can’t stay here. Not and have a high paying, satisfying job, that is.
- My principal is worried that exposing them to the outside world, with its diverse cultures, would upset parents.
I did what any rebel teacher would do. I did it anyway. And I held my breath, to see if anyone would push back. They didn’t.
It helped I started small, with five books for my dual enrollment Intro to Literature class to choose from: Beloved, The Other Wes Moore, and three modern, controversial books: Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, and Long Way Down. The students got to pick. They discussed their choice in small groups, in the last three weeks of school. I listened in, and when they needed some help making connections, I helped them with comments in their required written reflections.
And then I went to Project Lit Summit 18. And I knew I wanted more for my students.
Today was my first day back. And he asked me how the conference went. The perfect time to ask.
His first comment? “Just be careful which books you pick. You don’t want any controversy.”
Well, if you know anything about Project Lit Community, you’d know that they deal with the lives of kids today. That means there are books about LGBTQ kiddos, Pakastani kiddos, Latinx kiddos, African American kiddos, kiddos in poverty, and all kinds of folks my principal would say is controversial. So I knew I work to do.
Luckily, before the summit we had talked about a book I recently read, The 57 Bus. I had talked to him about how rich the informational text was, mixing a strong narrative with LGBTQ concepts. And thanks to the wonderful advice from Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, I knew what to say.
“John,” I said, “you know some of our students are gender fluid. It’s really important that they see themselves in the books they read. They need to know that their stories are important, too. Remember the book I talked to you about? Project Lit books reflect more than the world they know. Our students need to know what the real world is like. And besides, if their parents object, they can just skip the book for that month.”
It was enough. He agreed! And now, for the planning, the fundraising, the work. And I don’t have to fly under the radar anymore.