A new virtual book club at Mountain View Elementary is helping bring the school together during online classes.
A team of teachers worked together to plan the school-wide book club, known as Colts Cares, which will run all year. The books were picked to reflect the school’s diversity and help students learn different character traits from confidence and leadership to courage and empathy.
Jeff Handler, a teacher at Mountain View and one of the book club’s organizers, said club organizers chose to tie the books to character traits, so that everyone could relate and feel part of the conversations.
“This is something that we can be really unified around so that when we get to the other traits that maybe might be a little more uncomfortable,” Handler said. “We do have books that talk more explicitly about race. We do have books that talk about the civil rights movement. We really want all our pre-K through five students to feel equipped to have these conversations and to not be afraid or feel like it’s something that they can’t understand and engage with.”
October was the first month of the project. Students and teachers read “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” by Derrick Barnes, which is about the almost magical power of a good haircut to boost a boy’s confidence, and discussed it in a virtual forum last week.
The book club is supported by a $15,000 grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. That money is going toward buying books for the school’s library, classrooms and community groups such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Virginia.
“But we’re also hoping that in doing publicity if there’s any mysterious donors that would love to add to our pile,” Handler said. “Because I think that the ultimate [goal] is to give these books to our families.”
Chiaka Chuks, another organizer, said she’s heard from families interested in making donations to help purchase more books.
“This feels like we’re just getting a plane off the ground,” Handler said before the first forum. “We’ve been thinking about and talking about this since July.”
In November, students can read two books — “Julián is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love and “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson — to learn about open mindedness.
“Julián is a Mermaid” tells the story of a young boy who dons his own mermaid costume after seeing three women on the subway similarly dressed. “The Other Side” is about two girls who become friends while sitting on the fence dividing their segregated neighborhoods.
The club has reached out to both authors to see if they can attend the monthly event. Woodson was outside too expensive, as they expected, but as of last week, the club hadn’t yet heard back from Love.
The book club is open to all students in the school.
“The best thing about any books or any alouds is that all kids can connect to any story,” said Marian McCullough, a talent development teacher at Mountain View. “When you present a read-aloud to kids, you’re essentially taking away that barrier of making sense of what’s going on because the way that teachers read and do read aloud is so interactive.”
Teachers developed the idea over the summer as a way to unify the school community and to address the events such as protests over racial injustice.
Chuks said she’s hoping the book club can expand to other schools in the division.
“Our hope is that it can be something that can transform, not just within Mountain View, but within our division of Albemarle and beyond,” she said.
So far, she said the book club has encouraged other schools to dive in deeper with their students.
Chuks said that reading “Crown” with her students morphed into conversations about how students can have confidence in every aspect of daily life.
With books featuring diverse characters and experiences, teachers hope that the books can serve as windows and mirrors for students.
“The idea is that students will be able to experience both this idea of having a mirror of someone who looks like them or shares an experience with them that is similar, which is so rare in classrooms and for students sometimes,” McCullough said. “And then this idea of having a window into a diverse life … or perspective that’s unlike their own, and being able to benefit and gain from, both is really the idea we’re going with.”
McCullough said she’s most excited to read “The Proudest Blue” by Ibtihaj Muhammad with students.
The book, with a central theme of resilience, is about the first day of school for two sisters, one of whom is wearing a hijab for the first time and has to endure hurtful words.
Handler and Chuks did a good job with the book list to take into account how different student groups are represented in the text, McCullough said.
“When you think about things that you hear about underrepresented groups, sometimes you often focus on the struggles, but we tried to focus really also on the assets of each group,” she said.
The list of books is not set in stone, though the character traits are. The teachers are seeking approval for the different titles on a monthly basis.
“We don’t want to just [send] families these books and say, like, this is what it is,” Chuks said. “Getting them approved every month gives us an opportunity to hear from them and change titles or add things as need be.”
Handler is excited to read “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” by Meena Harris in December when the trait is leadership. The book, inspired by the story of vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris is about two sisters who work to create a playground in their apartment courtyard.
Handler did acknowledge that it was hard to narrow the list of books to one or two per month.
Chuks is excited to talk with her students about courage and read “Let the Children March” by Monica Clark-Robison, which is about children who decided to march after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
The book is one of her favorites, and she said she wants to get students excited and willing to talk about the social injustices happening within communities.
“This talks about the power of children and the power of their voices, which really just speaks to this whole project, that there’s power in children’s voices,” she said.