By LESLIE COLLINS
October 9, 2013
For six years, Kansas City Public Library has participated in the Big Read, and now a high school is participating for the first time.
“Northeast High School (NEHS) is poised to be the first Kansas City high school to participate in the Big Read,” said Kaite Stover, director of Reader’s Services for the Kansas City Public Library. “When Northeast approached us, we were just thrilled because it’s difficult for libraries and for anybody to get teenagers to do something extra.”
An initiative of the National Endowment for Arts, the Big Read aims to spark an interest in reading as well as inspire communities to participate in book discussions. Each year, the National Endowment for Arts supplies a list of books for libraries to choose from and Kansas City chose “True Grit” by Charles Portis. It’s a book that appeals to a variety of ages and embodies the Kansas City spirit, Stover said. To promote the Big Read, the Kansas City Public Library is hosting multiple book discussion groups as well as 13 signature events throughout Kansas City, which cover a variety of subjects, from art to music to literature to history to politics and more. To date, Kansas Citians have checked out 500 of the 700 copies of True Grit available through the Kansas City Public Library.
“This is the story of a headstrong, tenacious 14-year-old who is seeking justice for the murder of her father,” Stover said. “She hires a U.S. marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to lead her into Indian territory where she believes the murderer has escaped and bring him back so he can face the law in Fort Smith, Ark.”
“It’s very much out of the realm of what most kids are reading, so it will be interesting to see their reaction,” said Meghann Henry, youth services librarian at North-East Library.
In addition to NEHS, which signed up first for the Big Read, East High School (EHS) students will also participate through the library’s teen book club at EHS, Henry said.
When Sue Erb of Northeast High School’s “N Club” heard about this year’s Big Read book, she thought it would be a perfect fit for the NEHS athletes and approached the school about participating. The school district’s athletic director had already proposed offering a study time after school for the district’s athletes.
“So, I thought, ‘Well, gee, this sounds like the perfect thing to tie in with this Big Read,” Erb said. “It just seemed like the perfect fit since Northeast High School is celebrating 100 years. So many times it’s been close to closing, but our school has stood strong and that indeed is true grit.”
The Northeast community itself also embodies true grit, Erb said, who referenced the Sheffield Steel workers during the Great Depression era. Growing up, Erb heard stories of the lines of men gathered outside of the steel mill, hoping to be chosen to work that day. Erb’s father was one of them and worked as a welder. During the World War II gasoline shortages, he walked to work every day, she said.
“The Northeast community was made up of blue collar workers who took care of their families, their homes and each other,” Erb said. “That is Northeast and to me, true grit!”
About 85 NEHS athletes in grades seventh through 12th are participating in the Big Read and include volleyball, boys soccer, cross country, football, cheerleaders and the dance team. While the cheerleaders and dance team have decided to read the book on their own, Colleen Freeman will lead the other athletes in book discussions and writing reflections.
“We’re using the Big Read to hone some academic skills as well as participate in the library’s efforts and to do something socially with the community since it’s a community-wide event,” said Freeman, who serves as the distance learning facilitator at NEHS. “I just think it’s going to be a wonderful experience for them.”
Freeman divided the athletes into several groups and will meet with each group at least once a week. Students will read silently for about 20 minutes and then the group will discuss what they read and share their insight. Students will also write a reflection paper each week and later compare and contrast the book and the 1969 and 2010 movies based on True Grit.
Freeman watched the 1969 version starring John Wayne as a youngster but never read the book until now.
“Whenever I thought about True Grit, it was always John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn,” Freeman said. “For me, (reading the book) was rediscovering the true heroine of the story. It was really about watching this young woman – and I say watch because you build a mental movie – really find her real self. I really love how she starts off as this hard-nosed kind of person and then develops into a person who begins to look at both sides more… As time goes on, I think she really develops into a well-rounded person.”
Participating in the Big Read gives educators an opportunity to engage students in a non-threatening venue, Freeman said. They’re not being graded on their assignments, she said, but she and Vicki Smith, the NEHS communication arts instructional coach, will provide feedback to students regarding their writing. In addition, students will hone their inference skills, among others, which are needed for the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) and End of Course (EOC) tests, she said.
“Hopefully, they’ll be able to take that (writing feedback) back and apply it to the writing their doing in their classes and reap some benefit that way,” Freeman said. “What I hope they also take away is more confidence in their reading abilities as a young person…
“I hope they find an inner strength that they did not realize existed within them. There is an inner strength that can help you achieve great things and you just have to reach inside and find it.”