Project LIT Opens Books, Conversations Across the SMSD

Project LIT Opens Books, Conversations Across the SMSD
Shawnee Mission School District

Readers across the SMSD have been connecting to stories and each other through Project LIT.

Click here to see a video highlighting students involved in the reading initiative. 

Project LIT, which stands for (Libraries In The) Community, is a grassroots movement that operates in 40 states across the United States, according to an interview with founder Jarred Amato.  A goal of the program is to connect students to diverse, culturally relevant books of high interest.

This year, Project LIT has helped students and staff form new book clubs, connect through reading in the classroom, and also has inspired a group of high school and elementary students to connect regularly through literature.

The first chapter of the group launched at Shawnee Mission Northwest in the spring of 2019. Rebecca Anthony, social studies teacher and department head, started meeting with groups of students to read selections from the Project LIT reading list.

“Most of the books center stories and lives of people and families that have not typically been centered in literature that is taught in schools,” Anthony noted.” “It goes a long way toward helping students see themselves in a book.”

As someone who enjoys reading, Angel Delgadillo, junior, was glad to sign up. “It’s pretty fun because you get to be with people who share the same hobby that you do,” Delgadillo said. He said the book discussions were a great way to help connect with peers, even if they sometimes had different viewpoints about what they read.

“It was pretty life-changing for me,” Delgadillo shared. “(The pandemic) made me feel low and going back into school and getting back in this club made me feel better.”

Niki Lindberg and several fourth-grade teachers at Mill Creek are among those who joined the opportunity this year. The books hit many relevant topics which was one aspect that drew her to the project, Lindberg shared.

“It has created a very empathetic culture in my classroom where students are not seeing themselves apart from the topics, but seeing themselves within the topics and books,” Lindberg expressed. “Students can relate to each other. Even if they are completely different, they can see parts of themselves in the characters and each other, empathize, and feel more like they can be friends in their classroom. It’s important we are teaching kindness and inclusivity and making sure students see themselves in the classroom.”

The program aligns with the district’s strategic plan, Dr. Tyrone Bates, coordinator of diversity, equity, and inclusion stated.

“Part of our strategic plan is to build an inclusive culture,” Bates added. “This project helps us as one tool that can help us continue to help kids recognize we see them and we know that they matter. A way we demonstrate that is through the texts that we put in front of them.”

The circumstances of the pandemic also inspired a way for students of various ages to share a love of reading. Project LIT participants at Shawnee Mission Northwest regularly gathered for web chat meetings with Nolan Lewis’s second-grade classroom. Each time, a high school student would read a book to the younger students. Rebecca Anthony said it operated as part of a “reading as fun pipeline.”

Sarah Ellison, Shawnee Mission Northwest junior, speaks multiple languages including American Sign Language and volunteered to read to the second-graders, demonstrating her abilities. “I love to read and I love being able to interact with other students and get across that reading is a wonderful hobby to engage in,” Ellison shared.

Lewis echoed that the meetings had several benefits for his students.

“One thing I’m excited about is the relationships being built between the different schools and then my students seeing we have different aspects that make us unique and that’s something to celebrate,” Lewis shared.

Project LIT is poised to expand even more, with more educators and school communities expressing interest and working to implement the program titles. Several teachers are engaging in a three-week professional development course through Harvard’s Graduate School of Education related to culturally responsive literature. The creation and expansion of Project LIT has been supported through district funds and a grant from the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation.