“Literacy empowers young people as readers and leaders, so that they’re prepared…and inspired to change the world.”

By Jarred Amato

Ask an English teacher to name the best part of summer break, and it’s likely that one answer will stand out above the rest: time to read!

Finally. No essays to grade. No lessons to plan. No copies to run. No parents to call. No faculty meetings to attend. Nothing left to stop us from getting lost in a great book (or a dozen).

When friends and colleagues reach out for recommendations, I usually start with The Hate U Give, Long Way Down and all of our Project LIT Book Club selections.

However, for those of you who are passionate about increasing book access and improving literacy outcomes among young people, I’d start with this article from The Atlantic, which I recall reading two years ago, almost to the day.

“Ultimately, giving kids access to books may be one of the overlooked solutions.”

A light bulb went off. I thought immediately of my Maplewood High School students in Metro Nashville, avid readers and writers, despite growing up in a book desert, or neighborhood with limited access to books.

When we returned to Room 220 a few weeks later, we read the article together and worked through our discussion questions:

Why are book deserts harmful? Why do you think book deserts exist? What can we do this year to solve this problem?

At this moment, Project LIT Community was born.

And over the past two years, our kind, creative, and courageous students have worked tirelessly to not simply eliminate book deserts, but to increase access to high-quality, culturally relevant books and promote a love of reading in schools everywhere.

How? One step, one book, and one conversation at time.

“We realized that here in Nashville, and in communities across the country, books are hard to come by,” Jakaylia, one of our student founders, wrote recently. “In some neighborhoods, there are more liquor stores than libraries, more bullets than books. And without books, how can we expect kids to love reading? How can we expect kids to become great readers and writers? How can we expect kids to reach their potential?”

Project LIT Community empowers young people as readers and leaders, so that they’re prepared to choose their path in life and inspired to change the world.

“Project LIT has helped me grow as a person and genuinely changed my perspective on reading,” wrote Kiara, a rising senior and one of our founders.

In addition to reading more than 20 books over the past two years, Kiara helps run our chapter’s Twitter account, stars in Project LIT videos, writes letters to community members, authors, and local businesses, designs and promotes Project LIT merchandise, leads our monthly community-wide book club and service events, reads to local elementary students, creates artwork inspired by our novels, and speaks publicly at all Project LIT events.

Although Project LIT Community is certainly about books, it is also about belonging. It’s about creating opportunities for Kiara and her classmates to contribute their unique strengths and talents while developing the literacy and leadership skills they’ll continue to apply in college and throughout their lives.

“Being a part of Project LIT has given me the space and confidence to share my opinions with others and listen to what they have to say,” wrote Jakaylia. “It’s helped me learn a lot about real-life issues and what we can do together to make a change.”

If we want our young people to be excited about reading (and we should), then we must be intentional about the texts we include in our classrooms and curriculum.

We have to be willing to challenge the status quo and to acknowledge that the way we’ve always done things, particularly in our English classrooms, has not worked for far too many of our students.

We have to be willing to listen to our young people and include them in the decision-making process. We have to be willing to block out the noise (there’s a lot of it these days) and remember why we got into the profession.

For me, that means providing my students with as many positive literacy experiences as possible and connecting them with books they can’t put down.

“We can see ourselves in the pages of these amazing books,” Jakaylia added. “Our Project LIT books show us that our voices, our stories, and our lives matter.”

What began as a class project has become a national grassroots movement that, as of July 2018, includes 400 Project LIT chapters in more than 40 states.

Each chapter is led by a team of passionate students and educators, many of whom convened in Nashville, TN, on June 16, 2018, for the inaugural Project LIT Summit, where they had a chance to hear from Jakaylia, Kiara, and other student leaders, as well as best-selling authors Kwame Alexander, Tiffany Jackson, Nic Stone, and Jeff Zentner.

The summit, which included more than 200 attendees from 27 states, allowed educators to learn more about our work, connect and collaborate with fellow chapters, and develop a game plan for the upcoming school year.

“The passion that everyone had at the summit was contagious,” wrote one educator. “This community feels like it will explode in the next couple years forcing not only curriculum to change but how we read for leisure.”

Another attendee added that “this movement is infectious and we have the power to impact and change lives of not only students, but adults as well.”

The best news is that this work is just getting started. We encourage educators to learn more about our community by following us on Twitter (@projectlitcomm) and joining our #ProjectLITchat on Sunday evenings. We also have a Project LIT chapter leader application for those who are interested in joining our team.

Ultimately, we’re looking for more educators who believe in the power and potential of our young people, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that their students have the literacy and leadership opportunities they deserve.

“Looking back, I’m extremely proud of what we’ve achieved and cannot wait to see what it’s in store in the future,” Jakaylia wrote. “Project LIT Community is going to change thousands of lives. It has already changed mine.”

Dr. Jarred Amato is a high school English teacher in Nashville, TN, and one of the founders of Project LIT Community, a grassroots literacy movement that empowers students as readers and leaders. An alumnus of the first cohort of Hope Street Group TN Teacher Fellows, he now serves on the organization’s national Teacher Advisory Council. Follow Jarred on Twitter @jarredamato, learn more about his work and the Project LIT Summit at https://jarredamato.wordpress.com/, and/or contact him directly at jarred.amato@gmail.com.