When I read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds for the first time last year, I was completely overwhelmed–this story was about my students! So many of them have lost family and friends due to gun violence, and many of them have been faced with similar emotional tragedies in their lives. So I wanted them to see that their feelings and experiences are valid by reading a book written by a man who looks like them and understands them and IS them. But being a Title 1 school means funds are tight, and purchasing class sets of books (especially enough for all classes to read at the same time) is just not in our budget without help. YALSA’s Teen Read Week Grant is that help, and I am incredibly grateful.     

When I saw that the Teen Read Week Grant was open for applications in May, I immediately texted my reading teacher and asked her what she thought about the potential of doing a school-wide read next year with a Jason Reynolds book. She responded with a resounding “YES” and I filled out the application. And then we were selected, and the brainstorming began.  

But how do you plan a reading program for students who are reluctant readers? You make it relevant!

Choosing Long Way Down is a very strategic choice for a couple of reasons. One, it reflects the realities of my students’ every day lives. Two, it is a novel in verse, which makes it a quick read but also a rhythmic read–the verse will allow my students to connect and engage with the text in ways that are familiar to them. And three, Jason Reynolds reads the audiobook, which means they can hear the author’s voice and hear the author’s intention for the sound of the verse. Plus the audiobook, which clocks in at 1 hour and 43 minutes, can easily be listened to and discussed in just a couple of class periods.

But what could we do that was more than just reading a book together as a community? Because, yes, that in and of itself could be enough. But I wanted to challenge them to engage deeper, to connect personally, and to share their creativity. So we came up with a culminating activity that my students would enjoy and would also allow them to engage with the text in a different way. For anyone that has already read Long Way Down, you know that the ending is intentionally ambiguous. So together, in collaboration with my Reading and English teachers, we have come up with a TRW culminating competition–a Poetry Slam/Rap Battle. The week after Teen Read Week, classroom teachers will help students craft their own poem/rap that responds to the text in some way–a continuation of the story, a personal reflection, a different perspective, etc.

In an effort to expand my students’ experiences to reach outside of the community that they rarely get to leave, we are going to make our contest virtual. The “top ranked” poem/rap for each class period (as voted on by the students in that class) will be video recorded and put online for not only students, parents, teachers, and community members to vote on, but also for people beyond Tarrant to vote on, too! I want my students to see how far their voices can reach, and how people outside of their neighborhood care about what they have to say.  So the world will vote for the best response by grade level, and the winning class will receive a celebration ceremony. I will be making a Google Site and asking my fellow librarians and educators to share it with their communities and encourage them to vote. Because not only do I want my students to connect with a text that is relevant to their lives, I also want their creative voices to be heard far beyond the streets of Tarrant, AL.

I still have a lot of lesson planning ahead, but I am excited about how this School-Wide Read project can affect our school community. And I am grateful to YALSA and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation for the opportunity to let my students connect to relevant literature and share their voices with the world beyond their neighborhood.

To follow this project, you can follow Jennifer on Twitter @Powells_Library and the Tarrant High School Library on Twitter @Tarrant_Library and Instagram @tarranthslibrary.

Jennifer Powell is the Library Media Specialist at Tarrant High School in Birmingham, AL.

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