Two schools, 12 miles apart, but on different planets socially and culturally. Have all students read the same two books, write penpal letters, and visit each other’s schools. What happens?
You go from complete segregation to an explosion of creative and interpersonal energy radiating from the students, connecting their common sense of community.
Community Partnership All School Read Program
Rockwern Academy, a Jewish Day School in the Cincinnati suburbs, and Hays Porter Elementary School, a Cincinnati Public School in one of the most distressed areas of the region, forged a partnership for the school year 2016-17, focused on having all students read and discuss books based on the theme: “Community.” The two schools are only 12 miles apart, yet are utterly segregated culturally, ethnically, and socio-economically.
An attorney associated with Rockwern had spent years tutoring students at Hays Porter and knew the school and its neighborhood well. He provided the introduction for the schools to get to know each other. With that, the Program Director (the school librarian) at Rockwern Academy reached out to teachers at Hays Porter to propose the program and school partnership.
Two recently published picture books were chosen for the 2016-17 All-School-Read that addressed the concept of “community.” “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm,” by LeVar Burton and Susan Bernardo with illustrations by Courtenay Fletcher, touches on the theme of how a community deals with trauma and supports each other. The second book, “The Last Stop on Market Street,” by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, tells a remarkable yet simple story about looking at one’s community with new eyes, seeing beauty in unexpected places and appreciating the people you meet along the way. (During the course of planning the program, Matt de la Peña became the first Hispanic author to win one of the most prestigious honors in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal. The book also won a Caldecott Honor Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor Award.)
The Education Reporter for WCPO wrote about the program three times. Here are two articles:
The theme of community was further explored during a faculty meeting. A Rockwern teacher posted a “Sticky Note Challenge,” asking her colleagues: “What is community? How do you build community? How do you strengthen community? How do we learn from other communities?”
Photo of Sticky Note Challenge:
The Program Director reached out to the school’s Development Department and Jewish community leaders, seeking the resources to give the program the greatest impact on both schools—and both communities. What if the authors of both books could visit both schools? What if the children could be bused to each others’ schools for each author event to both meet the authors and each other?
Article by the Education Reporter for WCPO covering the program:
For the first author visit, the lower school of Hays Porter went to Rockwern and the Rockwern middle school went to Hays Porter. For the second author visit, the groups switched so that all children got to be together at both schools. The children from both hosting schools suggested additional activities to get to know each other, have fun, and build community.
Throughout the year, all teachers at both schools led activities with their students, focusing on the community theme and the two books, with older students reading to and talking with the youngest students. Each teacher created his or her own program to complement the curriculum of each grade.
Article and photos of classroom activities:
Photos of students reading together:
Students in 1st to 4th grades wrote and exchanged pen-pal letters, in anticipation of visiting each other’s school. The children wrote to each other about their families, sports they are interested in, and subjects they like at school. When they met, they were like long lost friends, immediately talking about their letters, laughing, playing hand games together and then hugging when they had to part.
In the background, the scope of the program expanded. As Rockwern teachers visited Hays Porter and met with the teachers, Principal and Resource Coordinator, the stark circumstances of the students at Hays Porter became clearer. The program leaders learned that many of the students – some of them homeless – did not have a single book of their own outside of school, nor any safe access to a public library. Studies show that children who have more than 100 books in the home are at least a year ahead academically than those who don’t. Too many children at Hays Porter had no books in their homes altogether. It would not be enough to read about community, the Rockwern team decided; they had to help a community read.
Rockwern’s Program Director and Art teacher approached a parent who was also a professor at the College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati to discuss a “little library” project. He enlisted his architecture students to work together with older students at Rockwern and Hays Porter to design, build and paint little libraries to be installed in Hays Porter Elementary School and community centers around the school.
Photos of Rockwern Academy, Hays Porter Elementary School and University of Cincinnati DAAP students working on little libraries:
Rockwern students led a book drive to fill the libraries so Hays Porter students could take books home. Through that effort, plus a grant from an author’s private foundation, the school was able to deliver more than a thousand children’s books to Hays Porter.
Photos of students delivering books:
With the Rockwern Academy-Hays Porter Elementary School All-School-Read and partnership, the students learned that although their everyday lives were in different parts of town and different schools, they had many similarities and were thrilled when they met each other to talk about their common interests. From the books, they learned how communities come together when people need help, and how to develop communities by meeting the people who live there. And with the little libraries and book drive, the students and teachers at Rockwern Academy saw that, without fanfare, they could make a difference in the quality of life in a community they had come to know personally…only twelve miles away.
Photos of students visiting each other with authors:
Video created about the program:
Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Council blog about the program:
Lessons learned throughout the school year:
Students learned that they could become friends with people from different backgrounds and neighborhoods, as they met children they would never have otherwise encountered.
Students learned how to plan, organize and run an activity to make other students feel welcome and have fun getting to know more about each other.
Students learned about the needs of another community who does not have access to the same resources Rockwern does, and they were empowered to create an authentic solution to a real-world problem. They experienced the gratification of actively participating in a local, concrete Tikkun Olam project.
Students and teachers learned, with the encouragement of an author, it is okay to openly talk about race.
Students learned about the thought, planning, author’s and illustrator’s crafts, and immense amount of work that goes into creating a book.
Students had opportunities to teach and be role models for younger students.