There’s a photo pinned to the wall of my classroom with the beaming faces of a group of my former 8th graders standing behind the equally beaming best-selling author, Angie Thomas. It’s 2018. A colleague and I chaperoned this group of friends on a trip to Rhode Island College to attend the annual Reading Across Rhode Island author event. We’d been invited by the Rhode Island Center for the Book’s director, Kate Lentz, who had reached out to my school to engage us with their signature program, affectionately known as RARI. I'd known just a little about the program, but I knew I needed to stay connected to an organization that was not just promoting great books like The Hate U Give but also making it possible for students to access free copies-- and even meet the authors themselves.
Little did I know then that an afternoon with happy students and a superstar YA author would take me on a journey that I am just as excited about today as I was back in 2018. That first author event inspired me to recommend the next RARI book, which led to volunteering on their selection committee, which led to writing a resource guide, which led to creating a professional development event, which led to the formation of an education committee, which led to me currently serving as RARI Education Chair. In this role, I collaborate with other passionate educators from across the state to support other teachers and librarians interested in reading RARI books with their students.
It was my own students’ curiosity and conversation about The Hate U Give that inspired me to create a Resource Guide to accompany the following year’s RARI pick, What the Eyes Don’t See by Dr. Mona Hana-Attisha, the pediatrician who brought the Flint water crisis to national attention. I was eager to develop a catalog of materials that any educator could use to engage students in their reading and learning, especially in helping students connect the themes of the novel to their own lives right here in Rhode Island. I’ve always enjoyed the creative process of curriculum development, imagining how students could be inspired by digging deeper into the book's themes through discussion, research, and class projects. Word somehow spread and soon teachers from other states were reaching out to us to request access to our resource guide to use with their own students. RARI resources were made to be free and accessible, so this was a no-brainer.
Free access to books and resources to support students and educators is at the heart of what our RARI Education committee is all about. This feels more important than ever as we consider the education needs across our state. Resource sharing across districts builds bridges of equity that strengthens all of our learners. What a joy to witness a class of students opening up a box of RARI books, enjoying that “new book” smell as they read the fresh pages of the first chapters of newly-published books. This is the type of content that inspires rich classroom conversation and deep reflection because the stories are selected for their relevance to the lives of young people in Rhode Island today.
While seeing my own students’ joy in reading and discussing RARI books was what got me first hooked, it’s been the opportunity to connect with other Rhode Island educators from across our state that has kept me inspired to continue with it, even through the worst years of pandemic teaching. RARI’s mission to connect Rhode Islanders through a shared reading experience opened up an opportunity for Rhode Island educators to connect with each other in fun, creative, inspiring ways to support each other alongside our students. And we needed a space to do that. So, on March 10, 2020, we launched our first “Evening for Educators” event. It was the Tuesday before we closed our schools, and I recall the nervous excitement of meeting other educators who’d come to my school to learn from each other about that year’s book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Teachers and librarians representing public, private, and charter schools sat together at tables, learning about climate change, asking questions of local experts, sharing worries with each other about teaching a new book, and brainstorming ideas to support each other. That is the magic that can happen when we come together around a shared text, and leave feeling part of a larger community of dedicated teachers, readers, and Rhode Islanders.
This feeling of togetherness is what got me through the roughest parts of pandemic teaching. As a full-time teacher and mom of two young children, there was a lot of life that I had to let go of to manage the shift in our lives as our world turned upside down, but RARI wasn’t one of them. If you’ve been a part of it, I think you’ll understand why. And if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to join us this year. At our virtual kick-off event on February 1st, you’ll be introduced to this year’s novel, True Biz by Sara Nović. You’ll meet our honorary chairs, learn about our programming and even enjoy a visit from the author herself. And that’s just the beginning. Our virtual Evening for Educators will be Tuesday, February 28th and Sara Nović will visit our state on April 27. You can find out more at ribook.org and request a set of books for your classroom by emailing Kate Lentz at email@example.com.