Report from Louisiana: Books in the Mail!

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – It has been about ten days since I launched my Classroom Library Project in an effort to build a new classroom library for the purpose of encouraging my high school students to fall in love with reading again, and in those ten days I have now received over 60 books donated from my Amazon Wish List.

That’s simply amazing to me.  It reaffirms my faith in humanity that people will donate to a project like this.

To recap, our state has adopted its own version of Common Core and is now fully invested in pushing this curriculum across the board.  As far as ELA goes, it has stripped complete novels from the syllabus with the explanation that “if students want to read the entire book they can do it on their own.”  Meanwhile, students are required to read non-fiction articles and complete endless graphic organizers analyzing claim, rhetoric, proofs, as well as endlessly annotating through one “close read” passage after another.  In one case we read the same twenty-one-page speech three times, each time looking for something new.  No wonder kids hate reading these days.

As these books from my Wish List have been coming into the classroom, my students curiously eyeball me as I open boxes and envelopes, log in the accompanying notes so I can send thank-you notes, enter each book into a data base, and then I stick a pocket and sign out card into the back of each book.  Each book jacket gets laminated for protection.  I read each new arrival if it is something I’ve never read before.  I want to be able to talk about these books with my students. My kids are watching these books stack up and I can literally see their brains start to fire up.  They’re anxious to start reading!

One of the books that arrived (an anonymous donation) was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  I’ve seen a lot of buzz about this book on social media and now there is a movie coming out based on the book.  I’d never read it and in fact when I read the dust jacket my initial reaction was “ugh…another propaganda piece” because it is about a black teenager who gets shot by a white policeman.  The narrator of the book is a girl, his best friend, who was in the car when the incident occurred.

Despite my hesitation, the book has drawn me in and I can’t put it down.  I’ve already encouraged my students to check it out of their local library and read it and we have had long conversations about it.  The book never tries to preach one way or another, never bashes police officers, never takes sides; what it does though is open the door for dialogue. Reading gives us the opportunity to “rehearse” real life situations and talk about them, whatever the subject matter. The writing is engaging, and the characters are excellently drawn.  I can see a teenager picking this book up and not putting it down until the end, and that’s what I want to see.

I’m going to continue to build my little library over the summer through my Wish List and by combing thrift stores and garage sales.  I’ve also started a Donor’s Choose project to help get funding, and I’m applying for a couple of local grants.

I’ll teach the curriculum because it’s in my contract but I’ll bend over backwards to ensure that Common Core doesn’t kill the love of reading for my students.  If I have to work harder and spend more of my own money to do it, then so be it because I think it’s that important for kids to be readers and to love reading.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation (Oct. ‘18/LSU Press).  Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.