One Book, One School, One Great Impact!

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Illus. by W.W. Denslow; Courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Looking for creative ways to engage your entire school—across grades and content areas—in learning? Cathy Evans, director of libraries at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, created a project that did just that. Even if you’re not lucky enough, like Evans was, to have extra money available, you’re sure to be inspired by this project. So sit back, give this a read, get inspired, and start thinking now how to adapt it for your own school!


What started as a gift grew into an idea and blossomed across the school community. In 2011, our school received a generous gift, in honor of a longtime friend of the school, to create an ongoing speakers series. The mission of this series is to bring to our campus thinkers and doers whose ideas challenge conventional wisdom and spark new thinking.

As the director of libraries and one of the people on campus with the most experience in bringing speakers to campus (mainly authors), I was put on the speakers series committee. At our first meeting we tossed around topic ideas and possible speakers, and finally settled on the topic of global hunger, food, and sustainability. Since we wanted to have speakers come to school in the fall, we had about six months to find dynamic speakers and build an exciting curriculum around the topic.

Linking Speakers with the Theme

The result was a unique pairing of internationally known activists in the field. Ido Leffler, the founder of the Yes To line of beauty products, Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of Feed Projects and founder of the 30 Project, and Dr. Cary Fowler, founder of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Leffler’s Yes To seed fund helps create gardens at schools located in impoverished areas across the country. Gustafson’s Feed Project takes simple burlap grain bags and turns them into chic accessories, funding school meals for children across the world. Dr. Fowler’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault deep inside a Norwegian mountain contains seed samples from crops around the world, more than 250 million seeds to date.

Seed Grants to Involve Students

Our committee wanted to get the students involved in the program as soon as possible, so we decided to allocate some of the funds to provide $500 seed grants to students who developed a program addressing local food issues. One grant was awarded to the winning proposal for grades 3-4, one for grades 5-8, and one for grades 9-12. This created a lot of excitement and served as the means by which we introduced the topic and speakers to the students.

The fourth grade winning team created gardening starter kits and distributed them to about one hundred families. The kits contained supplies as well as planting and growing instructions and recipes. The middle school grant recipients planted four vegetable gardens in a “food desert” area of the city and worked with residents to tend the gardens. Vegetables were distributed to the residents as well as to a café that provides inexpensive and nutritious meals for the neighborhood. The upper school grant recipients also created a garden in the community but took it one step further by organizing a health fair to showcase the immediate effect of healthy living and eating. The students worked on their projects throughout the summer.

An All School Read

Our students always have assigned summer reading. Our upper school had in the past read the same book, so it was a natural fit for us to include an all school read as part of the program. I selected books for the all school read and developed a curriculum around the readings. For the upper school, I selected Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Reader’s Edition, and for the middle school Food Rules. The school purchased the books for the faculty, and the students purchased their own copies.

For several years now our school has been using Haiku Learning Management System to create online curriculum materials. As librarians, we realized right away that this was an opportunity for us to be more embedded in the classroom, and we had been creating online content in collaboration with the teachers using Haiku on a number of projects. Using Haiku, I curated content pages to support the readings. On the pages, I embedded YouTube videos and TED Talks from the speakers as well as biographical information. Haiku provides online discussions, so I used this feature to group students for online discussions of the book and the speakers. Since our students are all assigned to advising groups with a faculty advisor, the discussions were set up by pairing advising groups from different grade levels. This was an added bonus as we are always looking for ways to collaborate across grade levels and disciplines. The advisors were encouraged to be a presence in the discussions. This built in a level of accountability without having to dampen the enthusiasm by testing the students on the book.

Special Programs for All Grade Levels

One longstanding tradition at our school is Derby Day, held one fall afternoon soon after the start of the school year. The students play games outside and compete by grade level, eat, get muddy, and generally have a good time kicking off the new school year. We use Derby Day morning to create special programs. It seemed like a great opportunity to pull together a program to prepare the students for the speakers who would be coming in a few weeks and the topic of food, hunger, and sustainability. Since I had selected the reading and coordinated the related curriculum, I was asked to also coordinate the morning program.

We started by watching the very moving documentary from the Food Network called Hunger Hits Home. After viewing the documentary, the students met with their advisors and the groups they had been paired with for the summer online book discussions. They talked about the book and the documentary, and came up with questions they wanted to ask the speakers. We then reassembled and met with a dynamic group of people in the community involved with various food issues. Panelists included the director of the Memphis Farmers Market, the director of Project Green Fork, a local organization that guides restaurants into becoming green certified, the gleaning coordinator from the Society of St. Andrews that “gleans” food not sold from the farmers market and distributes the food to local soup kitchens.

Perhaps the highlight of the morning was the presentation by a Buddhist scholar from a local university who led the students through a mindful eating exercise in which they took twenty minutes to eat a tangerine. As a fun culminating event for the morning, I wanted to create a real sense of community by letting the entire upper school have an unhurried, healthy, and nutritious “family” meal of locally grown food. The school had just engaged a new dining service and they were very eager to work with me in creating just such a meal.

Last fall, all across campus, teachers were finding creative ways to prepare the students for our speakers. The kindergarten students were planting and tending to an herb garden. The herbs were picked and harvested by their tiny hands and delivered to Caritas Village, a community organization whose mission includes facilitating affordable and nutritious meals to people in the surrounding neighborhood. The students wanted to help them provide healthy and tasty food. They were also learning songs in music class, like “Dirt Made My Lunch” and “Inch by Inch.”

Meanwhile, the first and second graders were in the library with iPads, working with the lower school librarians, researching seeds, plants, and where our food comes from. Using books and the library databases Wixie and My Story, they created illustrated e-books about food. The third and fourth graders were learning all about our speakers and their companies and projects. They prepared questions to ask them during their upcoming visit.

The fifth grade class spent a morning out in the community in a real life lesson where they followed their food from farm to table. They started at a local organic farm and ate lunch at a restaurant featuring locally grown food. They lunched with the director of Project Green Fork and the editor of Edible Memphis, a magazine that focuses on local food producers, chefs, and the Memphis food scene. They then visited the garden created by the middle school seed grant winners. They also spent their service day weeding vegetable gardens in the community, working with the local food bank in stuffing backpacks with food for children in need, and stocking and organizing shelves for a local organization that delivers meals to house bound elderly residents. Other middle school students were making posters about the things they learned from Food Rules.

In the upper school, algebra students used graphs and calculations to measure fat grams and calories in french fries. Health classes were keeping food journals. Chemistry students selected a commercially available food product with a published ingredient list. They selected two chemicals found in the food and did extensive research on the source of the chemical, its use in food, and the safety of human consumption of the chemicals.

Engaging with Speakers

When October 2nd finally arrived, the whole school was abuzz and ready to finally meet our speakers. Since Ido Leffler uses a lot of carrots in his products, he has worn orange every day since the founding of his company. In honor of Ido, the entire school was dressed in orange. The day started with a presentation to grades 5-12 in our daily chapel program. Both speakers were very engaging in their message that each person can make a difference in ending global hunger. “Use your powers for good,” Gustafson told our students, saying it takes just one idea—and passion—to create change. Leffler encouraged questions by tossing out samples of his lip balm to those who asked a question.

At a luncheon, we recognized the seed grant recipients by having them give presentations to the speakers about their projects, and the kindergarten students presented our visitors with packets of the herbs they had grown. After lunch we went to the library where some of the first and second graders were excited to share their e-books, and the third and fourth graders serenaded our speakers with the songs they had learned in music classes about food, and were well prepared and poised in the questions they had for them.

Dr. Fowler could not work the date into his schedule but spoke to our grade 5-12 students in an extended chapel program at another time. He spoke about his seed vault, telling our students that “it is important to conserve biodiversity because it represents all of the options we have for the future.”

In the evening our speakers shared their personal journeys and detailed the genesis and work of their foundations to a gathering that was open to the Memphis community. This was followed by a reception featuring, of course, delicious hors d’oeuvres of locally grown foods prepared by the chef of one of Memphis’s Green Fork restaurants.

The Perfect Mix

When the assistant head of school, Leigh Mansberg, was asked about the success of the speaker program and the One Book, One School read, she responded, “It is a serious curriculum that has been able to be taught in a hands-on, engaging, and lively way. We mixed world-class speakers, seed grants, and innovative curriculum ideas that left a lasting mark on the St. Mary’s community.”

The committee decided that we would bring in speakers and develop an appropriate corresponding curriculum on an every other year basis. We are already gearing up for the next big adventure. I look forward to the role I will be able to play in the process.


Cathy Evans, MLIS, Direct of Libraries, St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Memphis, TN, earned her master’s from the University of Tennessee and has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Louise Meredith School Librarian of the Year for the State of Tennessee, Award of Excellence from the Memphis Area Library Council and the James. E. Ward Library Instructor Award. She has served on the AASL Board of Directors, the NSLPY Award Committee, and is co-chair for the AASL National Conference in Phoenix.

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