Build community through all-school reading programs

In August, when schools in my area of Washington announced a remote start to the school year, I was most concerned about how we would create a community of readers without students in the building. Amid the start-the-year flurry of “what-ifs,” a colleague approached me with the idea to do a One School, One Book program. These programs, also known as “all-school reads” or “community-wide reads” unite an entire school or community around a single title to promote literacy and conversation.

Remote learning seemed to provide the perfect opportunity for a program like this. First, it allowed our school community to unite around a common goal, creating a sense of togetherness even though we weren’t physically together. Second, it gave families a time to have all learners do the same thing — a read-aloud of the same book — making managing remote learning a little bit easier for parents with multiple students. Finally, it provided an hour of learning each week that classroom teachers would otherwise have had to fill (and they did appreciate that!).

Find the right book

We started by choosing a book. We needed something that would capture the interest of all our K-5 readers. We also wanted a book that created opportunities for social-emotional learning lessons. We chose A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold. The book, which focuses on a 3rd grade boy, Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat) and his quest to keep a skunk kit, Thor, rescued by his veterinarian mother, allowed discussion of neurodiversity (Bat is on the Autism spectrum), divorce, sibling rivalry, and friendship. We were delighted to discover that the book is available in Epic School, a free digital library for educators and librarians and their students. This meant that readers who preferred to read the text themselves would have access to the e-book and it freed up funds we would have needed for providing book copies for a virtual author visit.

Teachers were a little nervous about how the program would work and their role in facilitating conversations around neurodiversity, so we shared a resource document with a reading schedule, link to our read-aloud website, and resources they could choose to use that supported both English-language Arts standards, SEL topics and conversations around neurodiversity. We tried to be clear about what was required (putting links to the read-alouds into their schedules twice a week) and what was optional (doing additional activities or conversations during their class time). There was initial concern about how we would monitor student participation, but once we explained that this was a celebration of literature and not meant to be punitive, most were on board.

Keep it simple

Making things easy and consistent was a priority. We created a Google Site that would house all read-aloud videos and links to trivia contest forms, which students could enter to win small prizes. We also created a “choice” menu of activities and extensions based on the book for our weekly “on demand” activity menu. Many of those activities involved books or videos available in Epic on a variety of themes, from kindness to skunks to autism and neurodiversity. All students were encouraged to watch the videos, participate in the trivia challenges, and complete choice menu activities, but we did not monitor or grade that participation. On average, 120 students entered our twice-weekly trivia contests (of around 400 students).

Each two-chapter recording was read by a different adult from our campus, ranging from classified staff to administration to teachers. Students commented that they liked having different readers and getting to see staff they don’t see in their daily Zoom classes. Every Tuesday and Friday, I posted a new read-aloud video on the site. Past videos were left up, so that students could go back and re-read or catch up if something prevented them from listening. Trivia forms were open for 24 hours, and winners were announced on our daily video news program.

Skunk Day

When we finished the book, it was time for our virtual author visits. We declared the day of the visit “Skunk Day” and encouraged students to wear black and white. Earlier that week, students were provided a menu of wrap-up activities to choose from, and some of our upper-grade classrooms participated in a virtual “escape room” experience, where students solved puzzles based on the book to unlock a google form and earn a virtual badge. Most of our activities were taken from a fantastic HypeDoc created by Bobbi Hopkins.

Students loved Bat and Thor and really looked forward to the read-alouds. When the program ended, many students commented that they liked having everyone read the same book because they could listen with their siblings and talk to friends about the book. It was such a hit that we just kept going — we are currently in the middle of book two and may continue with book three. The most common suggestion for improvement was to have more or longer read-aloud videos.

This was such a fun and easy way to bring my entire school together. When a student commented that by reading the same book, “it seemed like everyone was together,” I knew that running this program during remote learning was worth the effort. I wanted to create a sense of community while we serve students remotely, and this program more than met that goal.