By Astha Agarwal
For at least one participant, last Friday’s One School, One Book event was a highlight of the school year.
“People say to me, ‘What do you like about your job? Today is what I like about my job,” said Superintendent David Fleishman.
Students spent about three hours discussing The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s story of two cancer-diagnosed teenagers who fall in love and learn to struggle with the obstacles that come their way.
The day began with a welcome by Principal Joel Stembridge and English teacher David Weintraub, who headed the book selection committee, along with a keynote speech by extreme athlete and 40-year cancer survivor Jothy Rosenberg. (see his speech here.)
Students then attended a book discussion and one of 8 panels — choosing from Arts, Culture and Religion, Heroes and Survivors, Humor and Irony, Relationships, Science, Sports, and Stories. Panelists (see their biographies here) included writers, religious leaders, research scientists, athletes, comedians, as well as a Newton parent who lost a child to cancer.
See how the event looked on social media in NSHSDenebola’s Storify version of One School, One Book.
Students and teachers said that hearing panelists speak allowed them to connect themes from the novel to their own lives.
Junior Liana Butchard, who attended the Arts panel, said that the experience taught her about coping mechanisms and how art has the ability to relieve pain. “I found it really interesting to hear the panelists talk about how you could take something both physically and mentally painful and turn [that] energy into art and music,” Butchard said.
English Department head Brian Baron, who organized the the day’s events along with Newton Schools Foundation Co-President Julie Sall, said he hopes that hearing from a diverse group of speakers provides students with insight into the book’s many issues.
“With this particular book, we were looking for how [the panel] interacted with the themes of cancer, death and dying,” Baron said. “We’re looking at artists who use art to handle mourning, and people who’ve made it through different times for the Heroes and Survivors panel.”
Sall said she feels that the novel created discussion around a variety of themes, which included cancer but was not limited to it. “While people who have been touched by cancer are definitely a part of many of the panels, that isn’t the whole story, so we tried to bring the book alive across the different panels,” Sall said. “People who read this book come at it from their own perspectives and interpret it in their own ways, [which] adds depth to the discussion.”
Special Education teacher Barbara Harkins said she felt that while the novel itself touched on very sad topics, the event brought a new light to the discussion through a variety of perspectives.
“I think it would have been really hard to read for parents or kids who have had a person close to them die, because it would have stirred up those feelings,” Harkins said. “But the event is always very uplifting and unifying within the school.”
“They have different workshops, and they’re looking at it from a different perspectives, so if a student doesn’t want to be sad because they know someone who’s passed away, they’ll choose some of the workshops that don’t deal with that.”
Fleishman said that the event is a defining feature of South’s education, and of the Newton Public Schools as a whole.
“This is one of those things that makes the Newton Public Schools so special, where we can have an entire community not only read a book together, but bring the panels [which] connect to so many rich themes,” Fleishman said. “I was so privileged to moderate the Heroes themes, and we discussed a cross-section of so many issues we have in our society today – health care, cancer, Afghanistan, and World War II.”
“The reason the four people [on the Heroes and Survivors panel] are heroes is because they are actually all devoting their lives to service based on their experience, [which] was great for the kids to hear.”
The Fault in Our Stars is South’s fifth all-school summer reading book, and 2012 marks the third year an all-school event has been held around these books.
Students and teachers said that this year’s novel elicited a significantly different reaction from students than those in past years.
“[The Fault in Our Stars] was a book that kids engaged with more,” Baron said. “The other books felt like they were designed to teach. [With Zeitoun, it seemed as if] ‘We want you to learn about Hurricane Katrina and so we’re going to teach you about it.’ But this is a book which is just a good story. It connects with the reader on a more emotional level, and kids seem more jazzed up about it than previous years.”
“It was told in a very strong, funny, ironic voice, and it was told by real people with real feelings,” Sall said. “I think students like this book better because it’s targeted to teens, so they were more receptive to reading it.”
Teachers agreed, however, that the event was geared more towards a community-building experience than academic enrichment.
“I hope [students] realize that this is not about loving the book, this is not about being taught any lessons. This is about joining together as a community and all talking about the same thing at once, which is a really powerful thing,” Weintraub said. “It is a very powerful phenomenon when 2,000 people can communicate about the same subject at the same time, and it reminds us that when a bunch of people get together great things can happen.”
“I hope it feels a little bit different than school,” Baron said. “This day is something that’s just a little bit different because you’re not sitting in class all day. [Instead] you’re trying out things in a different way, [which] I hope expands people’s horizons.”
Students and faculty said they were impressed by the relentless effort of many individuals that went into putting together the event — the initial book selection committee of students and teachers from every department, one to two faculty members organizing each panel, 33 faculty members (and Principal Joel Stembridge’s mother) running discussion groups, the panelists, the custodial staff, and secretary staff, under the leadership of Baron and Sall.
“It’s a big production,” Baron said. “I’m continually amazed at how many interesting people we have in our community, and how willing they are to just say yes when we ask them to do something [on a panel].”
Baron said he felt that the event also brought together students and teachers who don’t have the opportunity to communicate with each other on a regular basis.
“We can build a community in which we do stuff together,” Baron said. “It’s not necessarily a communal event going to school at Newton South High School or any other high school, but this is something that we do together, and everyone feels part of it.”
Many students, though, felt that they were not able to openly discuss the issues brought up during the event because they were not familiar with the people in their panels and book discussions.
“It just doesn’t make sense to talk about something that you cried about, to people you don’t know,” junior Oliver Xie said. “Even though you’re making new acquaintances, you’re not going to fully benefit from the discussion. It would have been more comfortable if [we had] done it by advisory, or grade.”
Baron said he hopes that students enjoyed reading the book and participating in the event, and that teachers will allow them to do just that.
“If [teachers] connect it to the themes of the literature that comes up during the year, that’s great,” Baron said. “But I don’t have any expectation that [they will] talk about The Fault in Our Stars again on Monday. This is supposed to be fun, and you’re supposed to enjoy it. I wouldn’t like it if I had to go take a test on it even though I loved it.””
Sall praised the wrap-up video.
“The wrap-up video [provided] a forum for the kids to find something that they can do,” Sall added. “I’m not sure if it’ll be around the book but certainly around the discussion. Maybe people will be motivated to go into cancer research!”
Baron said that he found the way that the event changed students’ perspectives to be the most rewarding aspect of the day.
“I had a moment [the day before] in my advisory when I was talking about the event and one of the kids asks, ‘Are you going take attendance?’” he said. “And when I went down to the Humor panel [the next day], that same kid was up there talking to one of the panelists, [telling her] it was really interesting what [they] had to say, and was really engaged [in the discussion]. So for me, that made it worth it.”