Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. Last week, Kelly spent some time at C.S. Porter Middle School.
It's one thing to read a book.
It's quite another to absorb and dissect it, then let its themes and literary devices flourish into all-encompassing lessons, art projects and discussions.
So beside the usual litany of school lessons in math, English, social studies and science, almost all the activities at C.S. Porter over the last five weeks came down to a single book - "Shooting Kabul" - around which the middle school built an entire half-semester curriculum.
The "One Book" concept, developed in Seattle and now in its eighth year at C.S. Porter, delved deeply and thematically into the award-winning young adult book, culminating in art projects, literary study and games meant to get students absorbed in the power of literature.
"The whole process is an educational adventure," said C.S. Porter teacher Maeta Kaplan, who sits on the One Book committee that annually chooses one book for the year, then constructs schoolwide lesson plans surrounding its content. Late last week, the project came to an end with a community-wide celebration.
This year, the committee - including parents, teachers, staff and students - chose the novel "Shooting Kabul," by N.H. Senzai. The book tells the story of Fadi, an Afghan boy torn from his younger sister when he and his family fled Afghanistan in the summer before the 9/11 attacks. In the book, Fadi faces discrimination and loneliness in an American school, especially after the 9/11 attacks. But the 12-year-old hatches a plan to find his sister by entering an international photography contest.
Last Friday, the "culminating event" of the One Book project at the school had students and teachers and parents gathering to view photographs the students had taken based on themes in the book, and collages clipped from magazines, and games of "buzkachi" on the gym floor as students, seated on coasters, emulated the national sport of Afghanistan. The sport is a version of polo, with a goat head or other animal head as the "ball" (though no horses or goat head was needed at C.S. Porter).
They kept a blog about the book, as well as individual journals. Students even had a Skype session with the book's author, N.H. Senzai, who is from San Francisco and whose husband fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
Principal Gail Chandler has supported the One Book project since she arrived at the school seven years ago, when it had already been in place for a year.
The goal is to increase reading scores and reading comprehension, while getting her students more interested in the power of narrative and literature.
"A great way to do that is for all of them to read the texts, so that kids can have a common conversation," she said.
Since it debuted as a library project in Seattle 13 years ago, the "One Book" concept has been adopted by communities and school districts across the nation.
At C.S. Porter, the annual project relies heavily on community participation, particularly from the parents of C.S. Porter students. Every year, a committee chooses a new book based on the recommendation of the One Book committee, as well as outgoing eighth-graders. In the fall, the book is a complete secret to the student population.
"There's no way we could do it without parents," said Liz Lombardi, a special education teacher who sits on the committee. "They volunteer in every aspect of it."
Last week's events included a photography contest that all students entered. Given just a short time, the students snapped photos based on themes in the book, including love, loneliness, family, guilt and loss.
Students were awarded ribbons for first place in each category, as well as an overall award in each grade.
Eighth-grader Bailey Collins took first place overall in her grade for a photo of a student silhouetted in the school courtyard through a dirty window.
"That just kind of look likes loneliness to me, how the window ended up being over the picture and all the dirt," she aid. "And I though it would have a better effect through the window. It's kind of torn up a little bit and sad-looking."
"Shooting Kabul" was chosen for its literary merits, but also because 2011 is the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The novel became an even greater teaching tool because of that, said Lombardi.
"What's neat about the book is it happened to be on the 10th anniversary of 9/11," she said. "And besides that, it was one of our top-running ones anyway."
The school, which is the only middle school within MCPS to adopt the program, will repeat "One Book" again next year.
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.