by John Lodle, Belleville West High School
Every year, I encourage my twelfth grade students to apply for college scholarships. And every year, I have to work hard to convince them to apply for the scholarships requiring essays. I’m often met with looks of disbelief when I tell them it’s worth the time to apply; after all, someone wins these scholarships every year. Why not you?
Last fall, I found myself in my students’ shoes when the library director at our school suggested we enter the Follett Challenge. Really? Us? Our school was incredibly proud of its reading program, a campus-wide initiative that ignited passion for pleasure reading and improved student test scores. But was it special enough? Was it something that would be meaningful to other educators? Did it stand a chance against all the innovate programs created by schools around the country?
A year later, with our school celebrating the grand prize in the 2014 Follett Challenge, it’s easy to say entering the contest was worth it. But even before the prizes were announced, I was glad we entered the Follett Challenge.
Preparing the written entry and the video for the Challenge enabled our teachers, librarians, administrators, and students to reflect on our program. Often, the school day becomes so busy, teachers and librarians don’t have the chance to connect with each other, to assess the work they’re doing, to appreciate their impact on students and schools. This project helped us set aside time to discuss the success of our reading program and to plan for its future.
Competing in the Follett Challenge also helped reinvigorate our staff and students. Sometimes, we all lose sight of the magic happening in our classrooms and our schools; the innovative programs we create become so much a fabric of our school communities we forget how exceptional they are. As students watched themselves in our Follett video, as parents and community members participated in online voting, as staff members compulsively refreshed their computer screens to check video vote totals (OK…maybe that was mostly me), the Follett Challenge generated new enthusiasm for our program.
One of the greatest benefits of the Challenge was the opportunity it provided to share our reading initiative with other schools. Knowing other educators were able to view our video online—and receiving calls and emails about our program from teachers and librarians around the country—provided us with priceless gratification and validation.
The day Follett revealed the semifinalist schools, we felt good about our chances to be one of the People’s Choice Winners. But to hear our school named as one of the four semifinalists was an unexpected thrill. A month later, when Follett announced the grand prize winner, students and teachers watched from their classrooms, cheering when our school appeared on the screen. Just as exciting was the assembly hosted by Follett for our students this fall. The enthusiasm of 2,000 students gathered in our gym to celebrate reading is a sight I will never forget.
Winning the Follett Challenge has allowed us to develop our Community of Readers program in ways we never envisioned. Our English teachers have expanded their classroom libraries and added new titles for literature circle assignments. Our library has doubled its number of eBooks, allowing students to continue their pleasure reading over breaks and during the summer. Our athletic department is working with the library and the English department to plan more “One Book, One Team” events for our football and basketball players. Our library is cultivating its young adult and non-fiction collections, asking students to develop a wish list of new books. And our entire school is preparing for a “One Book, One School” experience during the 2015-2016 school year.
This year, as I talk with my seniors about scholarship essays, I can’t help but remind them of our school’s success in the Follett Challenge. And I can’t help but remind them of all the benefits we enjoyed before the winners were even announced.
Many schools will receive generous prizes in this year’s Follett Challenge. Why not you?