Orchestrating an All-School Read

My proudest librarian moment occurred on a Friday morning this past September when William KamkwambaThe “Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” – visited my school for our Innovation Celebration, the marquee event for our first-ever all-school read. That day, he had a welcome reception with parents, spoke to our combined middle and upper school (grades 6-12), gave a presentation to our lower school (JK-5) AND joined the entire school community: students, faculty, staff, administration and parent volunteers to engage in a variety of cross-divisional maker-style design thinking activities, dubbed our Innovation Celebration.

William presenting.
Author and entrepreneur William Kamkwamba speaking to our students.

The energy that day was palpable. The students (and adults!) flocked to William like he was Beyoncé or a superstar athlete, begging photos and autographs and asking questions that ranged from insightful, “How do you see the future of alternative energy shaping the developing world?” (asked by a 12th grader) to adorable, “How did you get your windmill to stay together? Did you use tape or glue?” (from a member of our Junior Kindergarten). Weeks after the event I’m still stopped by students, parents and colleagues who want to chat about the book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind; William Kamkwamba, the man behind it, how it all came together, and of course, what we’re going to read next. Doing an all-school read was so much more than I had anticipated. It was the result of a whole lot of hard work, collaboration and trust. Here are some of the highlights on how we made it happen.

Surrounded by his super-fans!
Surrounded by his super-fans!

The Book

So much of the success of our all-school read is due to the book we read. It can be very difficult to find a book that is universally interesting and applicable to large group. When your community includes toddlers, children, teenagers and adults and you want ALL of them to participate, it’s even harder. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was the perfect book for us. Not only was it available in three formats (picture book, young reader’s edition and standard edition), but William’s story of curiosity, perseverance and ingenuity hit upon numerous areas of our curriculum and tied in with our school’s mission and priorities. Our JK-2 students had the picture book read aloud to them in the first weeks of school. Our 3-8 graders read the young reader’s edition as part of their summer reading. 9-12 grade students were assigned the standard edition, as were faculty and staff. We even emailed alumni and parents and encouraged them to read along – which many did!

picturebookyoungreadersstandardedition

Investment and Buy-In

Thanks to the above-mentioned connections to our school’s mission, curriculum and priorities, getting the administration and faculty on-board with an all-school read wasn’t as challenging as I worried it might be. A few individuals voiced initial concerns about adding another reading on top of an already significant summer reading load. At the middle school, we were already in the midst of restructuring Summer Reading, so we took this into account when devising the new plan, so as not to create an additional burden. Another aspect that helped to build investment was the creation of an all-school read committee made up of faculty and staff from all of our divisions. We worked to determine how to weave the book into the school year, identifying resources and creating discussion guides that teachers could use with their classes and masterminding all of the logistics for the the “Innovation Celebration” day. We also got the school to provide a copy of the book to every member of our faculty and staff.

Students testing out a "multi-use sled" they built from scrap objects.
Students testing out a “multi-use sled” (one of the design thinking challenges inspired by the book) they built from scrap objects.

Partnerships

The “Innovation Celebration” – William’s visit and presentations and our design thinking activities – came about as a result of some wonderful partnerships that were forged within and outside our school community. Within the school community, our committee worked with Dining Services to cater the parent reception and provide 1500 lunches for all faculty, staff and students, Facilities and Maintenance to set up and break down the many events of the day, Athletics to coordinate the use of the gymnasium and football field, Tech to provide some of the audio production, Transportation to get all of our students, faculty and staff to the same campus (we have three separate campuses), and Sustainability to ensure a 95% recyclable or compostable event. Parent volunteers donated an enormous amount of supplies for our design thinking challenges and helped organize distribution of them during the activity.

In terms of external partners, we worked with Harper Collins publishing to schedule William and to provide books to our students and families at a discounted rate. They also have a reading guide that we used as a starting point for developing our own guides. A local independent bookstore, Hooray for Books!, also provided a discount and coordinated an evening visit to their store so that parents (whom we encouraged to read the book, but weren’t able to invite to the in-school presentations) could meet William and hear him speak. We were also able to work with Electrum Productions, who turned our acoustically challenged gymnasium into the perfect venue for an 800-person speaking event and charged us a tiny fraction of their usual fee.

A student flies his group's"collapsible kite"
A student flies his group’s “collapsible kite” (another one of the design thinking challenges inspired by the book).

Budget

To pay for all of the costs (speaking fees, production, catering, etc.) our outstanding Association of Parents and Teachers (APT) gave us a generous $10k grant. I don’t think I saw even half of the invoices that were generated from such a large event and I’m almost positive that though we made every effort to be budget conscious, we spent much more than that. Thank goodness for my ever-supportive Head of School and the folks in the school’s Business Office who crunched the numbers and found additional funds to cover the rest.

Never before had our school come together so totally and completely – all students, all staff, all faculty and administration and even parents and alumni! – in such a powerful way. It was moving to see how much our community took from the book and how the shared reading experience and the design thinking activities inspired by William’s work brought us together as learners and innovators, forging relationships to build something meaningful. While the projects we worked on in groups that day, and the words we heard William speak will surely fade as time passes, the all-school read united us and gave us a new, shared identity as readers and thinkers. And it was pretty awesome. This article on our school website gives a pretty nice encapsulation of the day, along with photos and videos that capture the excitement. I’d like to do it again. And hopefully we will!

William and I on the football field.
William and I on the football field.
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