As the sun beamed down on the assembled school community, a kindergartner flew a tissue-paper kite across the field, while a freshman pushed third graders down the hill in a cardboard multiuse sled. In the midst of it all, a man from Malawi posed for photographs and autographed copies of his book for admirers. It was the culmination of our first all-school read, and it was, as we say at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, VA, “A great day to be a saint!”
To celebrate and deepen this shared experience across our K–12 community, we created an Innovation Celebration, a day to meet the author and put the book’s themes of innovation and resilience into action by engaging in a variety of cross-divisional maker-style challenges. It was a massive undertaking requiring hard work, collaboration, and trust. Here’s how it all came together.
Finding the right read
Wanting to tap into the energy around STEM, sustainability, and globalization, I had planned to use the newly released young reader’s edition of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as the middle school summer reading title. The book tells the story of William Kamkwamba, a teenager who, faced with famine and unable to afford schooling, used his local library to learn about electricity and built a windmill to bring power and running water to his village in Malawi. When I realized that, in addition to the YR edition and the standard version, a picture book existed, a lightbulb went on. Our entire school community, from junior kindergartners to 12th graders, faculty and staff, alumni, and parents, could participate. It would be an all-school read!
I was fortunate enough to receive enthusiastic administrative support for the creation of an all-school read. The compatibility of the book selection with curricular goals and our school’s mission inclined faculty to invest in this new idea. A committee of staff and faculty from each of our three divisions (lower, middle, and upper school) was formed to identify, modify, and create age-appropriate resources and determine additional activities to support and celebrate the event. From this committee, the idea for an Innovation Celebration was born.
The Planning process
The celebration became a full-day community event that provided opportunities for discussion and hands-on exploration of the book’s themes. Our vision included a visit from the boy (now a man) and engagement in designing activities that would harken back to Kamkwamba’s experience of building a windmill. Some challenges particular to our school were the wide age range of students (four to 18), a lack of indoor facilities to accommodate the more than 1,400 participants, an insufficient budget, and timing, since we wanted the celebration to cap off the summer read and set the tone for the coming school year. To be successful, we would need to draw upon a variety of internal resources and external relationships, including the generosity of faculty and staff to take time from summer break to plan the details.
Given the enormity of the undertaking and the lack of a regular budget fund to support such an endeavor, I appealed to our association of parents and teachers for a grant to cover speaking fees, event production, catering, and transportation. While the amount of the request was unprecedented, I was astonished and grateful to receive funding. This, combined with an additional funding commitment from our head of school to ensure coverage of related expenses—including staff overtime—enabled this initially unfunded event to succeed.
It took a village
The Innovation Celebration relied on the strength of partnerships within and outside our school community. Internally, nearly all school departments coordinated efforts to achieve a successful event, involving setup/takedown, food service, and waste management. Faculty participated by leading student book discussions and facilitating group design challenges. Parents donated supplies, organized materials, and sorted leftovers. External partners included HarperCollins, which coordinated Kamkwamba’s visit, sold books at a discount, and provided a reading guide that we used to develop leveled discussion guides. A local independent bookstore offered a book discount and hosted an evening author visit for parents and alumni. We also worked with a production company to turn our acoustically challenged gymnasium into the perfect venue for Kamkwamba’s presentation at a fraction of their usual fee.
The design challenges
We wanted the students to engage in a making activity that would bring together all grade levels and simulate the process that Kamkwamba went through in building his windmill. To achieve this, the committee came up with a variety of team-based, hands-on challenges. Relying almost exclusively on donated materials scavenged from recycling bins and cupboards, student groups would design and build a prototype in response to a prompt. The student body was divided into 100 12-student, mixed-age groups; one or two faculty/staff members were assigned as facilitators. Each group received a brown paper bag of supplies (tape, scissors, cardboard, plastic bottle caps, string, plastic straws, etc.) and a design brief that outlined its challenge.
Among the 10 design challenges were a balloon-powered car, a multiuse sled, “something” that moves with the wind, and a collapsible kite. Each challenge came with criteria for success, specifics on features necessary in the finished product (e.g., must move with wind), and a general set of guidelines (ideas must be voted on; everyone must contribute). Guiding questions such as “What parts should your design include?” and “Will you need additional materials? If so, why?” were provided to encourage critical thinking and stimulate discussion of ideas. Groups were given an hour to brainstorm, build, test, and rework their designs. We also planned for groups with the same challenges to be next to one another to facilitate collaboration between groups.
It’s party time!
The long-awaited day arrived, and it was more than we hoped for. Excited to meet Kamkwamba and engage him in conversation, students asked thoughtful questions in between posing for selfies and offering up their books to be signed. Additionally, the design challenges brought us together and forged relationships between our youngest and oldest students. While the group projects we worked on that day will eventually gather dust or make their way to the recycling bin, the all-school read and Innovation Celebration united us as a community of readers and thinkers, something on which we will continue to build.
Alicia Blowers is the middle school librarian and library department chair at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, VA.
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