As a high school teacher in East Nashville, Jarred Amato was always looking for ways to keep the students in his English class engaged. That’s just what he was doing in fall 2016 when he brought in an article from the Atlantic titled “Where Books Are All But Nonexistent” to read and discuss with his kids. What Amato didn’t know was that a class project based on that piece—about book deserts and book access for kids—would become a national grassroots literacy movement.

“We read the article together and started to talk about why book deserts exist and what we might be able to do to solve the problem in our own book desert in Nashville,” Amato recalls. “We carved out a plan we called Project LIT Community—the LIT stood for ‘libraries in the’—with the goal of increasing book access in our community.”

Amato’s students, all avid readers already, tackled the work with gusto. “They designed a logo, they wrote up a mission and a vision—just like any other group getting off the ground,” he says. Then Project LIT organized a book drive, and students wrote letters to local businesses and community leaders asking for book donations, hoping to collect 5,000 new and used books. “We got to 10,000 books by Christmas, and 15,000 by early 2017,” he notes.

Next up was getting those books into the hands of young readers. Project LIT received a donation from Gannett and was able to convert some USA Today newsstands into little Project LIT libraries. “We worked with our school’s art teacher and the kids painted and decorated the newsstands with our logo,” Amato says. “We then set up more than a dozen of them at YMCAs, community centers, daycares, and other places around East Nashville.”

But as the group began restocking the libraries, they realized that lots of the donated books weren’t in good shape, and they weren’t titles that they would want to read; they didn’t see themselves in those stories. “If we wanted to eliminate book deserts and get other kids excited about reading, we knew we’d have to do it by celebrating great, high-quality, culturally relevant books,” Amato says. “That’s when we made a shift and launched the Project LIT Book Club.”

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander was the selection for the inaugural Project LIT Book Club meeting on Jan. 31, 2017. Amato and his students invited community members to read the book and come to their school for the event, which included small-group discussion, poetry performances, and a trivia game. They served Krispy Kreme doughnuts (donated by the store), and the students all signed a “team” basketball. “That became the model,” Amato says. “We did it every month, and we became the first Project LIT Book Club chapter.” Subsequent community book club titles included March by John Lewis, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Ghost by Jason Reynolds, and Dear Martin by Nic Stone.

Nearby schools took note, as did schools farther afield. “As we grew, other teachers and students could go back to their own school and replicate what we did,” Amato notes.

Project LIT continued to gain steam, and the team applied for various grants as well as DonorsChoose and other online funding. They used social media to publicize their efforts and build a following and designed their own merch (“Just Read It” T-shirts). Amato won the Penguin Random House Teacher Award for Literacy in 2017, which came with a $10,000 prize.

In June 2018, Project LIT hosted its first national summit at its home base, Maplewood High School in Nashville, gathering more than 200 attendees who came to hear authors Kwame Alexander, Tiffany Jackson, Nic Stone, and Jeff Zentner, and to learn more about how to launch their own Project LIT book chapters and community projects. By early 2020, the Project LIT community had grown to include 2,000 chapters across all 50 states.

While Nashville and areas beyond benefitted from Project LIT’s efforts, the project’s cofounders reaped significant rewards of their own. Amato notes in a recap of year one that student outcomes included improvements in ACT scores, literacy growth and achievement, school attendance and behavior, mental health, college and career readiness, and leadership and empathy. The original Project LIT team has graduated from high school and moved on to college or other pursuits, but the movement they launched continues. Now teachers, librarians, and chapter leaders from across the nationwide community nominate titles for the annual Project LIT Book Club list of recommended titles, and students and teachers then vote for the final selections: 28 middle grade books and 28 YA. And Project LIT Community members frequently share tips and strategies for working with students and the books they love across various social media platforms.

Covid interrupted some in-person Project LIT events in Nashville, and Amato and his wife relocated to Montvale, N.J., where their son was born in 2021. During the pandemic, Amato worked on a book chronicling how he created his Read and WRAP (write, reflect, analyze, participate) framework, which was at the heart of Project LIT. Just Read It: Unlocking the Magic of Independent Reading in Middle and High School Classroom was published in February and contains resources and strategies for teachers looking to adopt these techniques in their classroom.

The 2023–2024 academic year was Amato’s 15th as a teacher. He has brought his successful classroom approaches with him to his new school and has already planted the seeds for Project LIT’s growth with his eighth grade students. “Our school librarian and I launched our book club this year,” he says, “and received a local grant to purchase 25 copies of four outstanding middle grade books: The Probability of Everything by Sarah Everett, A Rover’s Story by Jasmine Warga, The Mona Lisa Vanishes by Nicholas Day, and Hoops by Matt Tavares.”

Looking ahead, Amato says his ideal situation would be for his initiative to move beyond its grassroots status to something bigger and more formally organized. “I’d love to see Project LIT be folded into an existing literacy organization, so that we could offer even more support and resources for our chapters and bring back things that we have done in the past—our Project LIT Summit, book giveaways, mini grants, national teacher and student leadership teams, author events, and professional development opportunities.”

For now, his plans include keeping up with his weekly Just Read It newsletter on Substack, where he shares Read and WRAP activities, insights, and resources as well as Project LIT Community and personal updates. And, as colleagues and students will surely be glad to hear, Amato says, “I’ll be returning to the classroom in the fall.”

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