Teacher Reflects As Student Founders of ProjectLIT Prepare to Graduate

High school English teacher Jarred Amato has guided his Nashville students and helped create a national, student-led, grassroots literacy and community service movement around middle grade and YA titles by authors including Kwame Alexander, Nic Stone, and Jason Reynolds.

Nic. Kwame. Jason. 

High school English teacher Jarred Amato is on a first-name basis with big-name authors. It's not anything he could have imaged three years ago when he read a news article about book deserts to his two sophomore English classes at Maplewood High School in Nashville. The students decided to do something about the issue, a little community project, collect and distribute some books. That was the plan.

They did thatamassing about 15,000 booksonly to realize that having books wasn’t enough. Kids need quality, culturally relevant books they want to read; books that provide mirrors and windows, spark conversations, promote empathy, kindness, and community. And these books need to be discussed and celebrated in the classroom and beyond.

And so those 50 students and Amato decided to create a community book club. They loved Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and felt it was accessible to everyone. With the title selected, they got to work. Discussion topics, promotion, outreach. It was the humble beginning of ProjectLIT.

With the founding members of the ProjectLIT Community—which has grown into a national, student-led, grassroots literacy and community service movement—graduating this month, Amato can look back on the last three years and reflect on what they have created together.

Jarred Amato (second row, left), Kwame Alexander (center with basketball) and founding members of ProjectLIT.

“When we started, we didn’t know there would be a second book,” he says. “It was just that this was a book that we loved that could be enjoyed by a lot of people, not just in our classroom, but in our community. We created this shared experience, and it worked.

"Students were writing poetry and creating videos that we just happened to share online with Kwame. We didn’t know him at the time. You just keep doing the work. What we’ve learned is the power of persistence, the power of passion.”

There was not only a second book, there has been one book club every month ever since. Some students have transferred or graduated early. Those 50 have dwindled to 35, who do the work each month, sharing responsibilities as their schedules allow. There are no titles. There no hierarchy, but there is no shortage of tasks. 

Running a #ProjectLIT Community

Students led and planned the monthly book clubs, including coming up with book club and trivia questions, handling promotions, marketing, social media, event planning, performing, and public speaking. They engaged in community service, setting up mini-libraries of the book selections across the city, reading to elementary students, developing a mentorLIT buddies program with the high school’s feeder middle school, and took field trips to college campuses to connect with college students about books. They also fundraised, wrote grants, and reflected on their progress. Last summer, ProjectLIT had its first national summit. The students ran it, facilitating panels, presenting, and introducing authors. Finally, of course, they read and connected with additional authors.

The Maplewood H.S. group also became the model for a national network, opening their classroom to show more than 800 ProjectLIT chapters around the country how it can be done. The community is committed to four tenets: empowering students and educators to be leaders and change agents in their communities; connecting passionate students and educators who support and inspire one another; celebrating reading every day in as many classrooms, schools, and communities as possible; and improving literacy attitudes and outcomes, one book and one conversation at a time.

In late April and early May, as the founding chapter rolled out the 40 titles—20 middle grade and 20 YA—for the 2019-20 ProjectLIT Book Club selections, chapter members and authors waited anxiously to see what would come next. Prominent authors tweeted appreciation when their books appear on the list.

The rollout was capped off with a video reveal of the new cover of Nic Stone’s forthcoming release Jackpot, All Bet$ Are Off. Books are getting into the hands of kids, but it's about more than the reading. And it’s led by the students.

“It’s about creating one positive experience after another and you just keep doing it over and over again and figure it out with your kids,” says Amato. “At the end of the day, the reading identity is there. We are readers, and that’s really important. We are making a difference, in whatever way, whether it’s local or within a school or within a community, but the idea that you are empowering students to know not only that they can, but they should be the ones driving this work.”

To see the impact ProjectLIT has made, he doesn’t only have to look back, he can also look to the future.

“A lot of students plan to start chapters on their college campuses,” he says. “They are becoming writers and poets. They are aspiring English majors and English teachers. They are looking to social media work and entrepreneurship.”

The books

“Without the books, none of this happens,” Amato says. "There's no magic."

It’s where it all began, after all. Access to books. The part he never even imagined was access to authors and interaction with a national community of readers and writers.

“If we’re not reading Dear Martin, I don’t become friends with Nic,” he says. “If we didn’t have The Crossover in our room, we won’t ever meet Kwame. There’s no poetry to share with him.”

But it takes Alexander responding to the poetry he saw online, wanting that interaction. Two years later, the student who wrote one of those poems was on stage reciting a poem as part of his introduction of Alexander at the ProjectLIT Summit. It doesn’t work if the authors don’t notice and don’t care. Alexander, Stone, Jason Reynolds, and many others have embraced the movement and helped build the excitement around it.

“Just the process of engaging and not being afraid to share—with student permission—the joy that those books bring to us,” says Amato. “The authors, that’s why they write it. They love seeing that.…I think the most exciting part is they know the ProjectLIT students are going to be reading their books. A lot of the middle grade and YA authors today love that and recognize the work of our students and our educators to make sure we’re getting these books into our schools, into our classrooms, into our curriculum. It’s just really exciting.”

Amato will always share this legacy with this core group of students, and he admits it is scary for all of them to enter the unknown, a future without day-to-day contact among the founders of this national literacy movement.

“They’re the most selfless, amazing people that I’ve ever had the privilege to be around for a long period of time,” he says.

The next chapter

Now, Amato’s mission is as much motivating and modeling to other educators as managing his chapter and students.

“I see myself having the responsibility to help the other educators in our community do this important work,” he says. “This work is really not that complicated. I think a lot of adults in education try to make literacy and reading more complicated than it needs to be.”

He wants other teachers to know that everyone has stressful and challenging obstacles. He is fighting through a stricter curriculum this year and doesn't have all of the books on his own list in his classroom yet.

"Teachers and librarians should not feel like they are breaking the rules to do good work," he says. "This is a way our community helps show that the adults that make decisions, 'You should get behind this and you should support your teachers and you should find money in the budget to buy books for kids.' It’s not even a lot of money. If every school just supported their teachers and librarians and found a little room in their budget for books that our kids are excited to read, it would open up so many possibilities."

But ProjectLIT is proof that it’s worth putting in the work even before the decision-makers get on board.

“Often teachers or librarians will say, ‘Yeah that sounds great, but…,’” says Amato. “We’re trying to get rid of that ‘but.’ We hear you. We’re dealing with the same challenges of strict curriculum and racism and adults in power who are pushing oppressive policies and practices that make it almost impossible for a lot of our students to become readers. That’s real and we’ll continue to challenge and question and advocate, but let’s also do this while we’re pushing back. We can still also do this fun, exciting, inspiring work that as an educator brings me a lot of joy.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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