When it comes to engaging young readers, there’s nothing like getting under the skin of a fictional character to bring a story to life. This winter, Behind the Book’s latest literacy program at Collegiate Institute for Math and Science (CIMS) high school in The Bronx brought a series of writing workshops, author visits, and a surprise art project to Mr. Hesse’s 11th grade English class. These 26 Bronx teenagers are now well on the way to becoming engaged readers, good writers – and knitters.
Behind the Book has partnered with CIMS for four years to create literacy programs that augment the class curriculum, are aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards, and foster reading engagement. This year Behind the Book coordinator for CIMS, Christine Fleming, worked with Mr. Hesse to design a program based on author Jason Reynolds’ YA novel When I was the Greatest.
Set in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Jason’s novel tells the story of a teenager who is learning to navigate life in his neighborhood, loyalty to his family and to his best friends – two brothers with problems of their own – the unpredictable, “Noodles” and his brother, “Needles”.
Christine said that when she met with Mr. Hesse to present the book, she was just thinking aloud about using knitting as the art component for the program. As one of the books main characters learns to knit, Christine thought the author would get a kick out of walking into a room full of knitting teenagers. “I didn’t think he’d go for it, but Mr. Hesse said he wanted to give the kids a diversion from the test preparations they’d just finished – he loved the idea,” Christine said.
The pleasant diversion Mr. Hesse had in mind took on a life of its own when nine volunteers arrived with a basket full of yarn, pre-cast onto needles with the first three rows, ready to teach 26 Bronx teenagers the finer points of stitching and purling. Or the more defensive art of not dropping stitches.
“She said whatever you do don’t drop it and I drop it,” mourned one student. “My grandmother taught me when I was eight,” explained another, who was on his way to a scarf by the time his neighbor worked out how to start his second row.
Amongst the determined clicking of 26 sets of needles (27 including Mr. Hesse’s, 28 when principal Fredrick Nelson dropped in to try his hand), students chatted about the importance of not allowing stitches to tighten; the value in keeping count, and, once they got the hang of it, about how they could see why knitting was such a great idea for Needles.
It’s difficult to measure engagement. It’s a quality, like empathy. But reading proficiency is highly quantifiable, and we know that engaged readers become more proficient readers. The 45 minutes our students spent knitting and chatting was a glimpse at our goal of creating “a community of lifelong readers”. It’s why all our programs incorporate an art project, author visits, a writing assignment, and editing and writing workshops with volunteer mentors from the wider community. There are many ways to read a book.
When Jason Reynolds visited the class for the first time a week later, he found 26 students who had spent time in the shoes of one of his characters. Seated around a big table in the library with their knitting, he spoke to them about his life and how he came to write this book, about how he created the characters and the process of writing.
He read a short chapter aloud, giving voice to his characters. He provided advice and critiqued their work and all the while students were knitting.
But Jason didn’t appear to notice. We had to ask. He just smiled and said it seemed so natural to him, since he’d been knitting since he was seven years old. So much for our big surprise to our newest author!
Still, the program reinforced to us that readers approach literature from all angles. And we had fun finding a new one together with Mr. Hesse’s 11th graders. For this program students wrote one page reflections on “the limits of friendship”, “mutual support within the family” and “the need for self defense”- all topics in When I was the Greatest.