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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The all-school read: five keys to an unforgettable project

This month’s School Library Journal has an article, “One School Reads United Students and Staff.” The piece leads with this quote from middle-school librarian Terri Gaussoin in Albuquerque: “I believed before covid-19 — and still do today — that reading and books can unite us, and we need that now more than ever.”

I’ve been a witness to how true that can be, and I hope it’ll be useful to share the best of what I’ve learned. I wrote a middle-school novel called The Revealers, which deals with bullying and has, to my ongoing amazement, been the focus of reading and discussion projects in over 1,000 schools. Most were all-school reads, usually the first time a school had tried one, and often I got to visit as part of the project’s culmination. Here are five lessons that, for me, stood out the most:

1. The most powerful schoolwide reads engage everyone in the building, not just students and teachers. To students this says, “We’re a community, we’re in this together, and we’re going to talk about it.”

2. A project comes to life when teachers and students bring their own creativity to engaging readers. At Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, I joined the students in the auditorium to watch a hilarious “Family Feud” created and performed by the Drama Club. With questions drawn from a schoolwide bullying survey, it pitted the “Girl Gang” against the “Nerds” and came down to a final, tie-breaking question. The show kept us laughing — and got us thinking.

3. There’s real impact in engaging the community beyond school. Thompson Intermediate School in Houston recruited participation from the local newspaper, school board, community college, sheriff's department, churches, Chamber of Commerce, and the 1-149th Attack Helicopter Battalion. On the big celebration night I joined a bank vice president, college soccer coach, newspaper owner, college dean, army colonel, judge, school principal, and local ministers in a panel and audience Q&A on bullying. What the kids saw was that their whole community cared about the choices they made.

4. Recruiting students to help make a project possible gives them a stake in it. At Discovery Middle School in Granger, Indiana, the first thing students shared with me was that they’d been told the schoolwide read could only happen if they could raise the money — so they did. This had become not an assignment, but an achievement.

5. Students are empowered when they can follow up. During a reading project in the wake of a student’s bullying-related suicide, eighth graders at the Albert D. Lawton Middle School in Essex, Vt., designed and carried out a schoolwide survey on bullying — then presented their findings, some of them eye-opening, to the faculty and administration.

I’d like to think an all-school read is do-able even in a year like this. I certainly agree with Terri in Albuquerque — reading and books can unite us. And that’s something we surely do need. (More on these stories and many others is at

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