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TPTE Doctoral Students’ Project LIT Success

Written by Anthony Pellegrino, associate professor of social science education

Last year, Theory and Practice in Teacher Education (TPTE) doctoral students Amanda Rigell and Arianna Drossopoulos started a Knox County chapter of Project LIT at South-Doyle Middle School. Project LIT is a grassroots “social movement” which “aims to increase access to diverse books and promote a love of reading in schools and communities across the country” (Project LIT, 2019).

Their efforts with the South-Doyle students have already resulted in some interesting insights about the program and its effects on young readers. Amanda and Arianna, who are interested in research on reading motivation, engagement, and reader identity development, are considering using their work with Project LIT in their dissertation research.

As Arianna was preparing for her wedding and unable to meet, Anthony Pellegrino, associate professor of social science education, spoke with Amanda to better understand the project.

The work you’ve been doing with students at South-Doyle Middle School sounds really powerful. Can you describe what Project LIT is, and provide some background information about it?

Project community logoProject LIT is a national grassroots movement started by Jarred Amato, a Nashville educator. Its purpose is to have kids reading culturally relevant young adult literature, and talking about these books with caring adults.  Each chapter ideally has three adult mentors. At this point, there are nearly 800 chapters in almost every state. In many chapters, it is very student driven, particularly at the high school level. There’s a nationwide network of teachers who vet and vote for the middle school and high school texts of the year. So, for example, there are twenty books selected for middle grades for 2019-2020. In each Project LIT chapter, the students pick which ones they are going to read. Here is the link to the selected books from recent years:

Initially, Project LIT chapters were supposed to have a service component that addresses book deserts. The clubs were going to be providing books in certain communities. The chapter that started in Nashville, for example, began filling up converted newsstands with books. Some chapters also have partnerships between high school students and younger kids. So, in the original chapter and in many chapters around the country, there is a strong service component to it.

There’s also a summit every summer in Nashville where chapters and participants share their work. L

ast summer, children’s fiction writer Kwame Alexander was the keynote speaker.

Are there certain requirements to start a chapter?

There is an application to complete. The founder is managing all of it, as far as I know, which is pretty remarkable. At this point, it’s pretty open. You’re on this list serve and receive information about things like the summer summit and the books that chapter leaders voted for this year. We also receive encouragement, like “Have fun!” But the application also has some specific questions, like “Can you have at least three adults to work consistently in the Project LIT chapter?” “Can you commit to reading at least one of these books?”

How did you start the Project LIT chapter at South-Doyle Middle School?

In my final year of teaching at South Doyle Middle School, we read The Outsiders as well as The Crossover by Kwame Alexander in my classes. My students responded so strongly to young adult literature (YAL). We had great discussions about it. So, it seemed interesting to me to have a book club with this really specific focus.  I learned about Project LIT through Twitter, and thought, “I’m starting a chapter next year.” Then I started the PhD program at University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), and thought maybe I couldn’t. But there is a really great librarian, Tiffany Fluharty, at South Doyle Middle School that I was a close colleague with before starting the doctoral program. Also, Arianna and I discovered we were strong collaborators, and we have fun cosponsoring the club. We all love YAL and middle-schoolers. So we just show up once a week, talk about books, and help them get access to books. With Tiffany, we have that in-school connection and anchor mentor whom the kids know, trust, and love. That really helps a lot.

How do chapters get access to the books?

In the fall, we did a social media drive for copies of this book called Amal Unbound. We got forty copies of it donated, just from our college roommates, other teachers that are our friends, and our parents. We do lots of fundraising through social media. Because it’s a really social media-heavy movement – that’s the language the founder uses – the authors of the books communicate with the Project LIT Twitter account and with individual chapters. So, for example, when we were reading Amal Unbound, I tweeted about it and tagged the author. She responded to the tweet. So, that author knows we’re reading her books. And we’re seeing that in real time.

Are you sharing that with the students?

Yes, but we were much more excited about it than the students!

Do you have authors come in and talk with the students, maybe via video conference?

We haven’t tried that yet. We saw this year as a pilot. Hopefully, we’ll build more and more each year. We’d like to add some kind of service component and be more connected with the authors of the texts. A third goal is to restructure the pre- and post-survey to measure student engagement more purposefully.  Finally, we’d like to have more structure for each meeting planned, every week that builds on each other. Those are our overarching goals.

We meet in the library on Wednesdays during homeroom. It’s only half an hour, which is really limited, but it’s impossible to meet after school because of transportation. So, all of the kids get as special pass to come to the library during homeroom, and they read independently. We don’t generally read at the meetings. Although occasionally, we read the first chapter of a book together at first just to help them get their feet wet. But generally, they are reading independently and we discuss the text at the meeting.

What has been your role in the project and how has it changed?

I interviewed Arianna about this for a paper in my EDPY 559, Introduction to Qualitative Research course.   I asked her specifically about her role and how it changed. She said, “I’ve moved from stranger to mentor”. And even though I had taught at that school, I was a stranger as well because all of my students had moved on to high school. So, “mentor” is the vocabulary we’ve been using. We’re not their teacher. We’re not disciplining them, or testing them, or questioning them. And we’ve tried hard to not make it “schooly,” but focus instead on “Let’s talk about books the way that people talk about books when they love to read.” So, “reading mentor” is what we’ve come to use to describe ourselves.

What impact has Project LIT had on the students?

One really cool thing happened recently when Arianna went to South-Doyle Middle School’s Arts and Academic night. Tiffany and Arianna had a booth set up to advertise Project LIT, and some of the regulars from the club staffed the booth with her. One of them kept referring to potential new club members as “customers,” as in, “Oh look, we have a new customer.”  I’m really intrigued by the idea that she was using this language of ownership to describe the club and her part in it.

For a while we joked about having “snack kids” – kids who only come for the snacks. Or they might come just to cause trouble. We have a “snack kid” who definitely wasn’t reading anything at all at first. But he showed up every week. We gave them a book to read right before spring break, and when we met again, he said, “I’ve been reading that book.” He recreated a scene from the book to prove to use that he had been reading it!

Also, the ESL classroom is housed in the library, and I had no idea that several of our club members are ESL students. Initially, we asked for teacher recommendations. We targeted specifically kids who were getting overlooked when it comes to literacy – those who were falling through the cracks a little bit and didn’t need intensive intervention necessarily, but needed someone to support them and their literacy. So that’s who we asked them to send us initially. I specifically talked with the ESL teacher about it to let her know, but I didn’t know who those kids were because I’m not teaching at that school anymore. So, to me, I think it’s really cool that there are those kids reading in their second language. They’re engaged, and they’re liking the books.

What do you hope to do next with the project?

Arianna is specifically interested in tracking engagement. The language around engagement and motivation is tricky, so we’ll say motivation/engagement through culturally relevant YA Literature. I’m interested in tracking reading engagement and motivation around communities of practice and social interaction. I’m also interested in reader identity and the evolution of reader identity.

Together, these TPTE doctoral students are helping to re-shape the way many young people at South Doyle Middle School perceive reading. Their work to expand and study this project will surely be worthwhile to inform teachers, researchers, and other stakeholders in the field.