Filling the Gaps

Closing the chasm between what our students have and what they deserve is immense work. For 500 children living in poverty, that chasm closed a little bit today, thanks to a spectacular book fair that didn’t cost the kids a dime.

This week Scholastic delivered 10,500 books to our school for the first book fair of its kind. Two things make this book fair different from most:

  • The kids don’t have to pay for the books.
  • The book fair is tied into six family literacy nights planned by every grade level, kindergarten through fifth grade.

Every child in every class gets to choose five books to add to their home libraries, and the children who come with their parents to a family literacy night get four additional books to take home and keep. 98% of our students live in poverty, so providing the books free of charge makes a huge difference in the number of books going into children’s hands and homes.

Today at our book fair, I saw Jasper—a little guy from the Marshall Islands who wears comically big glasses—moping around as the other students chose their books. I asked him why he wasn’t picking out any books and he said in a forlorn voice, “I don’t have a dollar.”

When I explained that this book fair is different, he doesn’t need money to pick out books, he grinned and set out to make his selections.

Angela held up a book and told me, “I picked this one for my brother.”

On our way back to class, Sala said, “When I get home, I’m going to teach my little brother to read.”


The Many Gaps that Cause the Achievement Gap

When we talk about closing the achievement gap, we usually focus on the obvious markers of inequity: ensuring that students in high-poverty schools have competent teachers, sufficient resources, and adequate test scores.

But the opportunity gap between children who live in poverty and those who live in affluence is immense. That gap encompasses everything from health care to food security, the chance to visit museums to the number of books in the home, even the number of years a child is likely to live.

On Friday, there was a shooting in the apartment complex that borders our playground. We spent the day on partial lockdown, which meant no students could go out for recess, and we had to draw our blinds to block the crime scene in plain sight across the parking lot.

There’s an insidious narrative that blames public schools for poverty. It’s undoubtedly true that most poor children don’t get the schools they deserve, but that has more to do with inequitable funding and bad policy than it does with any failure on the part of the people who serve those children.

Remarkable things are happening in high-poverty schools all over the country, led by educators who have chosen to make less money in order to teach children with greater needs. Faced with systemic problems like wage inequality, abysmal health coverage, and gun violence, teachers and principals across the country devote their days and years to making things better for the children and families they serve.

Our school closes the gaps that separate our students from more affluent students in all kinds of ways, most of which wouldn’t be necessary in a nation that truly valued all children.

We feed them breakfast and lunch, and send home food on the weekends for the kids who won’t get enough to eat otherwise. We provide health care in a clinic housed in our school.

Teachers in our school have paid families’ utility bills to help them avoid eviction. Counselors have bought new clothes for abused children when they have to testify in court, to make the wrenching experience of seeing their abuser in the courtroom a little less miserable. One of our teachers became a father when he adopted a student who had nowhere else to go.

None of this should be necessary. Children in the wealthiest nation on the planet should have enough to eat, a skilled doctor when they need one, and the security of a permanent home.

But the students in our care, despite all the obstacles in their lives, fill their moments with curiosity and delight. They get excited over shark tooth necklaces and books about Lego Ninjas. They’re drawn to stories about neglected kittens, fierce ice princesses, and bloody battles between Komodo dragons and Bengal tigers.

Today they had one more opportunity that is often reserved for middle-class children: the chance to wander through a dizzying array of books, then take home the stories that call to them most powerfully.

The gaps between what our children have and what they deserve remain vast. But the book gap closed on this first day of our book fair, and five hundred children’s lives got a little bit better as a result.

*Note: For more about the home library project and how it grew from 25 students to 2,500 students, read The Home Library Effect and Taking Teacher-Led Projects to Scale.

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  • Alysia Wilson


    This is a powerful story and an example of how much power teachers have to change the lives of the students.  I would like to know more about the Scholastic program which provided the opportunity for the students to accquire free books.  The actions of the teachers and counselors at your school are inspiring.  Thank you for sharing!

  • JustinMinkel

    Thank you, Alysia!

    Thanks for the kind words, Alysia! The two links in the post have more information on how this came about, but the short version is this:

    *When I did the classroom pilot project, I asked Scholastic to fund it and they very generously provided half the books for those two years.

    *My partner teacher and I applied for the Farmers $100,000 grant and have purchased almost all the books for the larger project and the family literacy nights through Scholastic.

    This summer, I need to think through sustainability of the project once funding runs out, and I’m hoping that we can forge a long-term project with Scholastic. They’re one of those rare companies that truly seems to have a strong sense of mission beyond profit, and they provide high quality books (including many Spanish/bilingual titles) at low prices along with focusing on community/family engagement, so they’re a natural partner for this project.

  • KrisGiere

    Choice as part of the bridge.


    First, I just want to say how much I love that you and your school are helping get books in the hands of children at a young age.  Thank you for your efforts.  They matter.

    Second, I am even more excited that there is a pronounced element of choice involved in this program.  Of course, we all know that students who are interested in what they read will read more deeply and retain more of the information, but I am going out on a limb here and assume that beyond interest there is a level of diversity among those 10,500 or so books.

    I haven’t taught at your level, but in my role as a “Developmental” (whatever that means) English teacher at the college level, I am all too familiar with language about bridging gaps.  One of the core flaws I find in most of the interventions proposed to helps students achieve at higher rates is that the students have little choice in where the intervention will lead them.  The bridge, if you will, is built with the bridge builder’s destination in mind, not the traveller’s.  The big concepts are easy.  Yes, students want to succeed.  Yes, students want to be “smart.” (How one measures that is a debate for another day, post, etc.)  Yes, students want to feel empowered through the act of learning.  These desires are seemingly universal.  However, I find that many students don’t cross that bridge.  I am beginning to believe that it isn’t because the big-picture concept is flawed, and I for sure know it is not because our students are somehow subpar.  How many of us question, not the particular bridge itself, but how the bridge is built, how it must be traversed or where the bridge leads exactly.  I think that in order to close some of these gaps, those who have to traverse them need a significant say in how they get to their destination.

    It is that belief that makes me all the more excited about your post.  It feels like the students have more of a choice in so many aspects.  They get to chose the components of the bridge (the books), how it is constructed (where and to whom they read.  Even teaching younger siblings to read with these books.  I mean come on.  How cool is that aspiration!), and even where this bridge may lead (whether it be learning about something new, stoking a fire for a current interest, improving reading level, and so much more.).  This is awesome!  Thanks again for all of your efforts.