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Books for everyone: Young Adults’ Choices Project at HHS

Hudson High School English teacher Kimberly Powers is in her second year of her second cycle as a district coordinator for the Youth Adults' Choice project. Through the project, Powers has collected hundreds of books that she has added to her classroom library and the school library as well. Jordan Willi / RiverTown Multimedia

With Hudson High School being without a true library while expansion construction continues, students might not have had the same access to books as they did in the past. Especially when it comes to books they could read for pleasure.

But with the nearly 1,000 titles English teacher and Young Adults' Choices Project district coordinator Kimberly Powers has collected and distributed throughout the district over the last eight years, students shouldn't have a problem finding a book or two that might interest them.

"I think I totaled it for this year, and I think, so far, we have received $61,000 of free books," Powers said. "We don't have to pay for them and we get to keep them. Between my first three years and this current cycle, that is like to $122,000 worth of books over six years that we have pulled into the district. So teachers have classroom libraries now, which we couldn't do before."

The free books are sent to Powers, who has been teaching in Hudson since 2000, from publishers across the country who want to get their books on the coveted International Literacy Association Top 30 list for young adult books.

"Part of the reason that I wanted to be part of this program was because I would hear students say that they had made it all the way through high school and they had never read a book," Powers said. "I would ask myself what I am doing and what we are doing as a department if kids are congratulating themselves for never having read a book all the way through high school. We are not doing our job and we are doing something wrong if that is the case because our job is to make kids readers and to get them to see the world in a new way."

Being one of five district coordinators for the Young Adults' Choices Project across the country is a three-year commitment and Powers is in the second year of her second stint as a district coordinator.

"The goal is for you to have a big enough school district that you can get about 2,100 kids for you to pull from, from seventh through 12th grade," Powers said. "The first year you are on cycle as a leader, you get two copies of every book that the publishers send in. The second year you get five copies and the third you get three copies. This year, I've got 371 titles already (with five copies a piece) and I still have six boxes in my Jeep and two more in my house."

The goal as a district coordinator is to distribute the books to teachers and have two students read, review and ballot every book. Powers then has to keep track of the ballots and send them in. With almost 400 titles in this year's collection that means she will collect 2,000 ballots by the end of this year's cycle.

"After we send in our ballots, the co-chairs pick out the top 30 books that received the highest number of votes. You get two points if the kids loved it, one point if it was okay and zero points if it was kind of stinky," Powers said. "The publishers send as many books as they can because they want a chance to be on the list. Some of the biggest publishers will send us boxes, and boxes, and boxes of books and some of the smaller ones will send whatever they have. It is kind of like the Kids' Choice Awards, but for books."

According to Powers, the International Literacy Association's publication goes to librarians, teachers, booksellers and is published on the internet, so that the Top 30 list can be seen by as many people as possible. With the list making it to so many people across the country, publishers want their books to be on the list to get the most publicity as possible for their titles.

"The goal is to help kids have a voice in what is being published for them. We want to help parents, teachers and librarians know what books to purchase since we know what books they want to read, so we can tell them what they should have on their shelves," Powers said. "We also want to increase readership amongst students and to get them interested in reading."

Powers got involved with the project when she met and worked with author Patrick Jones, who suggested Powers attend the International Literacy Association's yearly convention. After attending the convention and finding out more about the Young Adults' Choices Project, Powers filled out an application and was selected for her first stint as a district coordinator in 2010. During the three years between her two turns as a district coordinator Powers was asked to be part of the steering committee for the project, which plans the convention and which authors the group will ask to be part of their authors panel.

"It is a big commitment and sometimes they struggle to find school districts that: one, are willing to send their teachers to the convention for three years; and have enough kids to participate. It is harder, especially now, because there is less professional development money than what we used to have," Powers said. "It is a large commitment that the district has to make for this to happen. The district has been very supportive, which makes me very lucky since other teachers want to do this, but don't have the support of their district. Our kids are really lucky that our district has put the money where their mouth is and allowed me to be part of this. "

With her second stint as a district coordinator, Powers decided to change how she went about distributing books in order to make a bigger impact on more students. She asked advisors to help her put books in the hands of more students. Powers also put out a challenge to the advisories: the group of students who reads and ballots the most books receives a pizza party. Students started reading books as soon as school started and will have until February to read as many books as they can.

"My first time around, we were looking at the correlation between how much kids were reading and their standardized test scores. The amount of kids that were reading skyrocketed based on the number of students who were checking out books in the library before we started the program and the number who checked out books after we started the program," Powers said. "The reading scores seemed to improve on standardized tests because kids were reading more. I haven't looked at it this second time around yet, but I know that when you read more you do better on standardized tests because you increase your vocabulary and increase your ability to see the tricks that writers are doing."

Having books in every classroom is important to Powers because it means that the non-readers — who don't go to the library to seek out books because it is overwhelming to them and it is hard to find the good books at times — can have more access to books and know which books other kids have liked.

"That is why I have books in the middle of all my tables in my classroom and why I change them out all the time," Powers said. "When students are closer to the books, they are more likely to pick them up and find it less intimidating to try a book. It is important, for not just English teachers, but other teachers in the building, to have books in their classrooms.

"One of our building goals is to increase disciplinary literacy. We need to encourage kids to just read and to read for pleasure because that is how they learn reading skills and become readers."

Not only has having access to more books been a benefit for students and the district as a whole, but it has also changed how Powers and some of her fellow teachers approach teaching English and other subjects.

"It has changed our classrooms for those who are embracing this. It changes what you talk about with kids, too. I talk with kids about the books that they are reading. Not the book I picked for class, but we have conversations about which books they like and which they did not," Powers said. "I make it so that it is okay to put a book down, because most kids don't think that is allowed. It doesn't matter what books kids are reading, because I can teach all my English stuff no matter what book it is. This program has given me access to books that we couldn't afford to have in this school before."

Over the last eight years, Powers has seen the effects of putting a wide variety of books in front of students.

"I keep doing this because I know that if I can make them a reader that is what is going to take them somewhere in life. They aren't going to remember the grammar lessons, but they are going to remember stories and how those stories connected with them," Powers said. "It makes the world bigger than just Hudson, Wis. This gives them opportunities that they wouldn't' have without me being part of this project."

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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