This is Why I Do the Big Read

“What was your favorite part of the kick-off event?”

As I asked this simple question in my 10th grade English class at West Ottawa High School, hands shot in the air!  Each year when my students read the book chosen for Holland’s Big Read, I require that they attend at least one event of their choosing.  At the kick-off event this year, I saw many of my students in the audience.  Yes, they were “forced” to attend, but the impact was so powerful.  As students in my class shared their experience the next day, I saw how the speakers impacted my students and engaged them in a way I can’t do in my classroom alone.  Some students’ favorite part was learning about the history of the Japanese Empire, or about America’s role in WWII, or the personal account of a Japanese-American’s family story.  In class the next day, they initiated conversations about choices the speakers made about what to share at the event and how they connected their knowledge and experience to the book we are reading together.  They showed me extensive notes they took during the talks that I never asked them to take.  They shared in an experience together to explore aspects of a novel we are reading for class.  For school!  This is why I do the Big Read.

As the programming during the month of November continues, I will keep asking my students to share their experiences at events to make connections with When the Emperor Was Divine.  These conversations will help deepen their understanding of the book and of the community around them.  Attending these events will help broaden their understanding of the novel as a whole, but also show them that reading does not only happen in school.  At events, they will see community members who are choosing to attend because reading matters to them.  As a teacher who sees more and more students who dislike to read, this opportunity is important.  I want my students to read a book with me and learn about the human condition, but I also want them to see that school is not the only place this happens.  Stories matter, and the events my students attend help them see that stories matter outside of their English teacher’s classroom.  This is why I do the Big Read.

When students leave my class, I want them to be better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners, but I also want them to be better thinkers.  Better participants in their community.  Better activists for what they’re passionate about.  I want my students to be ready for college and for a career, but I also want them to be ready for life.  The conversations we have together in class about When the Emperor Was Divine and the experiences my students have out in their community make this program the most valuable thing I do all year.  We will talk about the events and our experience until summer break.  My students will ask, “When can we do something like THAT again?”  And even if I cannot offer them this opportunity all year long, offering it for a few weeks in November is important to me and will become important to them.  This is why I do the Big Read.


Contributed by Audra Bolhuis. Audra is a English Language Arts teacher at West Ottawa High School.

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