How to Design a School-Wide Read

McIntosh High School’s Implementation of a School-Wide Read
The purpose of the school-wide read is for students to see that learning is not
departmentalized; the strategies for learning new ideas in science, math, or social studies
are not that different than strategies applied in the language arts classroom. If students see
all teachers using the same theme in their classrooms, then students will realize that the
various departments are not in competition with each other, but support each other in
reaching one goal—to educate all students into becoming thinking, productive citizens.
The language arts department tried a school-wide read in the past, but it was difficult to get
all departments to “buy into” the idea. We decided the best strategy was to ask faculty
members in other departments to suggest novel titles. We asked suggestions that
influenced them when they were in middle school or high school. We received quite a few
suggestions. Here are few of the titles: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Life Of Pi,
Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, various books by Dave Eggers, Ender’s Game, and The
Pearl. We chose The Pearl by John Steinbeck because it’s accessible enough for rising
eighth graders to understand, but rich enough for AP Literature students to discuss.
The English department then needed to decide upon the school theme. After
much discussion, we decided upon the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau:
“The question is not what you look at but what you see.”
Now the true planning began. We wanted a nonfiction component and decided to use
“Pearls Before Breakfast,” A Washington Post article by Gene Weingarten about
Joshua Bell’s ignored violin performance in a Washington D.C. subway. Our movie
selection? Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. Art selection? A contrast of Edgar
Degas’s The Rehearsal and Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers.
Now that we decided on the foundation of the 2014-15 school year, English teachers
needed a dramatic presentation to excite the other faculty members. We volunteered
to host the end-of-year faculty luncheon and created a setting full of pearls and
elegance. One of the McIntosh counselors volunteered to bake ivory cupcakes
decorated with pearls and she also baked pearl-looking cake pops. We decorated
tables with swaths of black, silver, and turquoise and then covered the fabric in pearls
that we purchased at Michael’s. The finishing touch was postcards of the assigned art
work printed (for free!) by our graphic arts department. It’s important to use faculty
members’ strengths. The English/art history major in our department presented the art
work to the faculty. Another member actually knows Gene Weingarten personally and
provided information about the nonfiction piece. The science teacher who initially
recommended reading The Pearl shared why she still remembers this novella after
twenty years. By involving many departments and using individuals’ strengths, the
“opening” of the school-wide read was successful. Next year teachers will receive prizes
at faculty meetings if they share how they’re using the theme/read in their classroom.
All students must read The Pearl and “Pearls Before Breakfast” over the summer.
Most high school students can read the novella with no problem, but the worry is
incoming eighth graders from our feeder school. We sent emails about the schoolwide read to parents and not the students themselves. Eighth graders joined an
Edmodo group where they can visit the site, ask questions, and read comments from
other eighth graders. Two ninth-grade teachers are frequently visiting the site and
starting conversations. We’ve also set up two “coffeehouses” at Starbucks, where
eighth graders can visit and talk to teachers about either the newspaper article or the
Steinbeck story. Eighth graders should enter halls of McIntosh the first day of school
with confidence, ready to talk to any of their teachers about the importance of noticing
one’s surroundings.
Each semester, the language arts department will sponsor a free movie night. Students
and parents are both invited to watch and discuss a film related to Thoreau’s quote.
First semester we’ll watch either Notorious or Suspicion (we want students to see that
older, black and white films are not boring) and second semester we’ll watch Life Is
Beautiful (we want students to realize foreign films don’t have to be “artsy” or
intimidating). Again, it’s important to use people’s strengths. One of the English
teachers took film courses while working on her masters. Of course, she’ll lead the
movie discussions during intermission and at the end of each of the movies.
Each day faculty members present their best, polished pearls, to their students.
Students have opportunities for a rich education if they’re willing to listen and use the
knowledge presented to them. If science, math, social studies, and English teachers
encourage students to truly see whatever they’re studying, students can graduate from
high school with a treasure of information.