Patuxent Valley Middle celebrates literature at Reader's Cafe

At first blush, a jazz band, a vulture and a rapper may not seem to have much in common, let alone be tied to one school subject area. But all were on hand at Patuxent Valley Middle School's first-ever Reader's Cafe — a night to celebrate the written word at the Jessup school.

"With the whole infusion of literacy into the content area, we thought it would be nice to have one night just focused on reading itself," Principal Robert Motley said. "This is so kids understand that reading can be fun. That's what tonight is all about."

Community members walking into Patuxent Valley on Thursday, May 16 were first greeted by the school's jazz band. A flash mob performing a scene from the third act of "Romeo and Juliet" overtook the main hallway, while students served food in the cafeteria. Stations in classrooms included a Cake Walk, a book swap, a rapper, teachers acting out scenes from books, student writers, a published student author and representatives from NorthBay Adventure Camp in North East — who brought along a vulture for students to meet.

Since the Board of Education voted last year to remove reading as a standalone class in the middle school schedule, reading has been taught in all content areas across the curriculum. Dorothy Tingen, a literacy coach and reading intervention specialist at Patuxent Valley, said the Reader's Cafe was a way to make sure the importance of reading wasn't lost among students.

"We've done everything we can to make sure reading is still at the forefront," she said. "We're doing everything we can to support the teachers who now have to teach reading on top of their own content areas, so they can in turn support our students."

Just as the school system has taken a cross-curricular approach to reading, Tingen, too, took a cross-curricular approach in planning the evening. The culminating event of the night was a presentation from Derrick Barnes, author of "We Could Be Brothers," a young-adult novel that dispels many misconceptions surrounding African-Americans.

"It's really very powerful," Tingen said. "This book explores so many things, and you make assumptions as you read — assumptions proved to be wrong."

Tingen said "more than half" of the students at Patuxent Valley read Barnes' book this school year, while a third of the students explored breaking misconceptions of another kind. In November, the entire sixth-grade spent a week at NorthBay Adventure Camp, staying in cabins with chaperones and learning about their relationship with nature. That connected to the science curriculum, Tingen said, as the sixth-graders were learning about filters and keeping the Chesapeake Bay clean. But the teachers at NorthBay also focus on character- and team-building.

"We focus a lot on breaking down fears and getting kids to challenge themselves," said Sarah Brainer, an educator with NorthBay. "We get kids into the woods, into the water and we work on fears and misunderstandings they may have. It's about exploring the world, hands-on and getting the kids excited about learning."

That's where the vulture came in, Brainer said.

"A lot of times, people think they're these disgusting animals that just eat everything and then throw up," she said. "They do that, but it's important. By eating all the decomposing, gross stuff, they're taking out all these germs and viruses and bacteria, so they're really important for the eco-system. And in movies, they're often portrayed as symbols of death or the bad guys, but they're not. That's why it's important to break down misconceptions. Sometimes you see things and you develop ideas when you don't always know what's going on."

At the center of the cross-curricular reading celebration was the event that Tingen said catalyzed the rest: the Reader's Cafe itself, where 13 students shared work they had written for various school assignments. Some shared short stories, others read essays or poetry.

Eisha Ahmed, 12, a sixth-grader, said she was nervous about reading her poem, "A Twilight Battle," a narrative poem about a soldier engaged in an epic, medieval battle who is ultimately the only survivor. But she hoped those listening could picture her words in their heads, and that the poem would come alive for them.

"I'm a really strong believer in any kind of writing or art, anything that allows you to express yourself," she said. "I think it's important people get a look at this. I hope it inspires them."

Getting kids inspired about reading and writing, Tingen said, was the whole point of the evening.

"Whatever they want to do, whatever their dreams are, they have to be able to read to function," Tingen said. "They have to be able to think critically, and reading is a great vehicle to help them do that."

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