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Improving Literacy Access with Dr. Jarred Amato (Ep 61)

/ Jason Sholl

Dr. Jarred Amato is an award-winning English teacher from Nashville, TN, and the co-founder of Project LIT Community, a national grassroots literacy movement. Jarred is an avid reader and writer who enjoys collaborating with fellow educators to improve literacy access, attitudes, and outcomes in our schools and communities. Jarred is also a three-time tater tot eating champion. You can follow him at @jarredamato on Twitter!

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Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I'm your host, Nathan Lang-Raad. And today's guest, we have Dr. Jarred Amato. Jarred is an award winning English teacher from Nashville, Tennessee, and the co-founder of Project LIT, a national grassroots literacy movement. Jarred is an avid reader and writer who enjoys collaborating with fellow educators to improve literacy access, attitudes, and outcomes in our schools and communities. Jarred is also a three time tater tot eating champion. You can follow him at Jarred Amato, J-A-R-R-E-D A-M-A-T-O on Twitter. Hope enjoyed the episode where Jarred talks about his journey with Project LIT. Jarred, it's so great to have you on the podcast. Welcome.

Dr. Jarred Amato: Thanks for having me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. You and I were in the same district back in Nashville, and it's so cool that we've kind of circled back around and able to reconnect. And you've done so many things since you and I kind of last saw each other four or five years ago.

Dr. Jarred Amato: It's been a wild ride. I hope you're staying safe and sane and sanitized. I love that thing, by the way. Safe, sane, and sanitized. Alliteration, as an English teacher. No, gosh, there's so much has happened since you were here in Nashville. I feel like reflecting on that journey has been really fun over the past year plus now, being home a lot, I actually spent a lot of hours on the couch watching TV. And then literally capturing every tweet from 2015 up until early March of 2020, all in a row. I have every tweet in a slide deck now. It's like 4,000 slides long with all of the pictures, with the entire journey for my classroom at Maplewood High School and our Project LIT journey, like all of that.

So it's been really, really fun in these moments where I've been really hopeless at times. And there's just been a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress and a lot of sadness. I've been looking at that to, one, remind myself, but then, two, to think about, okay, what do we want the future to look like? And what can we do to help myself get back to those things in the classroom, and help other people? So that's been one of the highlights of this pandemic, for sure, is just going through that journey and trying to lay it out.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. You bring so much energy and zeal to the classroom and just every conversation. So I know that you are doing a lot for students. I know students look up to you, and you inspire so many around your circles. So I very much appreciate the level of [crosstalk 00:03:01].

Dr. Jarred Amato: Thank you. And I apologize in advance. I ramble. You can probably sense it already. I get excited. I am passionate about it, but thank you for that.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, you're welcome. And you're wearing your Project LIT hoodie, which is super cool. A great swag there. And I love to hear more about what Project LIT is, and kind of how it came about.

Dr. Jarred Amato: Yeah, gosh. So I was texting one of our students [Jakayla 00:03:29] who now has finished her sophomore year of college. Straight A's for Jakayla. So if she's listening. Straight A's. She's got a 3.79 GPA over at Belmont, just absolutely crushing it. We were catching up and I was sending her pictures I was looking through. I found one front of the [inaudible 00:03:47] couch in the classroom from 2015 or '16. She was reading Jason Reynolds' book, Ghost, and she's comfortable. She's like, "You better not put that picture online." I said, "Don't worry. I got you."

But I think that honestly, we think about Project LIT, it started in our classroom, room 220. I taught high school English at Maplewood High School for four years. And when I got there from the middle school, basically, there were some books in the library that we could borrow. I remember it was Lord of the Flies. So it's nothing against the book. There are going to be people who listen are like, "Oh, you hate Lord of the Flies." It's nothing against any book. I've gone after books like, what's the other... The Scarlet Letter. People get mad about that too.

But I guess the point we found was that we tried to do the traditional way of doing high school English, right? On the block schedule every other day students from a wide range of reading experiences coming into high school. There was no real way to make that work. We could've tried read it a loud. Because they take it home, they're not going to read it at home. They're going to do what I do, which is SparkNote, right?

So we essentially said, okay, let's scrap that. Let's get back to meaningful reading and writing. Let's get students into books of their choice. Let's establish a reading identity, a positive reading community in our classroom. And we did that, right? And so together that group of students and I started to read and to write to research book deserts, right? This term that we hadn't heard of before. Neighborhoods with limited access to books. And as a team, as a community, as a family, we said, let's go about solving this problem. And so Project LIT libraries in the community. The initial goal, I can still picture [Kiera 00:05:35] and Lauren in our library making this video that's on YouTube still of like, hey, we are trying to eliminate book deserts here in Nashville and promote a love of reading.

And that was the first step. We had our mission, our logo, all that fun stuff. And then from there, it was literally one step, one book, one conversation at a time. Together, we built, what we now call a chapter, right? So a Project LIT chapter is a group of students in a classroom, a school, a community supported by a crazy teacher or two, or a librarian or two, caring adults that want to empower young people to do all sorts of stuff, right? At the heart of it, book club. So the first book we ever picked was The Crossover. It was a classroom favorite by Kwame Alexander, and really inviting the community in for those conversations. And it's field trips, and it's experiences, and it's poetry, and it's writing books of our own. And it's all those little in-between moments that add up.

And so we created a chapter. We shared our entire journey on social media. All those tweets that students were creating, and they were running our Project LIT account at the time. And we eventually invited other schools and other teachers and other students to join our movement. And what we've seen over the last, I guess, four years now is nearly 2,000 amazing educators all over the world who love their young people, who love books, who love the power of literacy, who believe in that work. And we've formed this grassroots team that continues to keep at it. And so I think, yeah, it's been a really, really fun journey. I miss seeing Jakayla in our group every day, but I also know that connecting with so many people all over the world, authors, students, educators, as we build this community has been really fun. And we're getting ready to figure out what Project LIT 2.0 will look like? And that'll be the summer project, I think, right? Thinking about what the next step will look like.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's amazing. I'm thinking about, as our listeners here, our teachers, they want to get involved. Is this something that an elementary or middle school literacy teacher could be a part of. And additionally, how does Project LIT kind of fit into the what if I have a curriculum I'm following at school? How does Project LIT kind of translate into the classroom lesson planning and so forth?

Dr. Jarred Amato: Awesome question. So I think our focus has been, there's a lot of effort and attention K-3 just nationally. And so we've kind of left that alone. K-3, there's a lot of work that's going on there. Our focus is upper elementary, middle school, high school. Kids who, two things, right? Either to help students fall in love with reading for the first time, or to fall in love with it again, right? To create that community that helps each individual progress on their own reading journey and having that team around them to make it fun, to make it meaningful, to make it matter.

And so you have these beautiful booklets that are a starting point. The booklets that are curated by our students now and by our educators all over the country will continue to add to this beautiful book list to make it easier to say to say to a kid, or to an adult, yes, there is Fortnite, and yes, there is a Netflix, and yes, there is YouTube. There's all these beautiful ways to be entertained, but reading can do that too. And so we have this beautiful book list.

So you asked this question about how to fit it in, right? I think at a very simple level, every single school, whether we're talking in the big city, small little community, somewhere in between, every single student in this country deserves time to read books of their choice during the school day. We've got seven hours, seven and a half maybe. There is time in every single school for kids to read books of their choice, 10, 20, 30 minutes a day. There's nothing more important. I mean, there are a couple of things more important. They've got to eat. Maybe going outside and exercising. Those are also really important.

But other than that, what do we do? Teachers talk. And there's lecture and there's note taking. No, let's be quiet. Let's get lost in books of our choice. So that's one way, that every single Project LIT chapter, that's a win. If every kid in that school can read books of their choice, we are succeeding. Then from there, I've been thinking about this term leveling up, right? So you create this foundation of independent reading where it's thriving. Kids are reading books of their choice, they're finishing books. They're figuring out what books they like, authors, genres. Gaining confidence, stamina, fluency, all those good things, vocabulary. All of those things we know that reading, the more you do...

Now it's like, okay, we're going to have students lead book club. They're going to get on camera and make videos. They're going to write letters to authors. We're going to invite authors in. We're going to have a poetry slam. We're going to connect with chapters all over the country. We're going to design t-shirts and make swag. We're going to get a button maker. And there's going to be buttons and book covers. And they're going to create art and murals, and paint lockers, and have people in. All those things that happen once students say, I am a reader, right? I am a reader. I am a writer. I am a leader, and I am empowered. So I think that's where I think all chapters can start with that foundation. And then begin the journey together. Figuring out what their kids want to do, what their chapter wants to do. But that's where the fun really starts.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I love the student ownership aspect of this. I think that is the most exciting part about it. It's not a teacher asking a student to comply. It's not reading logs. It's not this kind of forced aspect. But it's students saying we value reading. We love to read. We think reading is going to make a huge difference in our community and our own lives. And we want others to be a part of this movement.

Dr. Jarred Amato: Yeah. And that's exactly it. And I think sometimes because of how we've done education for so long, I think sometimes people are looking for, Jarred, just tell me what to do. What does our chapter have to look like? And what we say is whatever it needs to be for you and your students, right? What book do we read first? I can't answer that for you as a chapter. Okay, so there's some skills, there's some tips, right? Let's bring everyone together once we can, it's safe. Or we do it virtually now. Let's look at all these books that have been written over the last five years. Beautiful books that like, oh, I want to talk about Neil Schusterman's books and Nick Stone and Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas, and let's preview them. And then let's have students vote in a simple way. Let's get our phones out. Let's get our computers out. Let's vote on what should we start with?

And then the book club, it's like game day. So that's like the game. You're always looking forward to the next game. And then there's all these little moments before the game to get ready for it. So students are coming up with the discussion questions. Hey, what do y'all want to do? How should we start the book club? Who wants to kick us off? Who wants to set up our Kahoot? What else can we do after the conversation? Positive experiences. So, okay. Maybe we're going to read The Crossover. Let's have a basketball tournament. With the Fire on High, let's do a cooking demonstration. And so thinking about all the experiences that we can create around the books that we're reading. And that part's really fun too.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I'm probably going to suck the fun out of it by asking this question. So bear with me.

Dr. Jarred Amato: No, you're all right.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Because whenever you're talking about the whole experience and kind of the after part, after you read the book, the videos you can create the, the book clubs. I was thinking on the learning side of it, I feel like there's kind of a cognitive side of it. As you're reading, you're interacting with the text, it's the vocabulary, it's the fluency you talked about. And then there's also the metacognitive realm. It's like what do you now do with the information? How do you have a discussion about the book? How do you reflect on some of the ideals in the book? How do you think really critically about what you just read? And so I feel like there's two really major learning opportunities during the reading and then after. Am I in the right space here with this?

Dr. Jarred Amato: No, you are. So as you're speaking, none of you can see this, but what we do periodically with our students is, for example, they'll literally take the books they've read, list them on a sheet of paper, and then start to draw lines between them. So they're literally drawing the connections, the things that are happening in their brain. So they're connecting books to other things they've read, to other things they're watching and experiencing. And then of course, we're constantly talking about that, right?

So I've come up with this acronym recently. I'm working on a project where there's this independent reading time that we get lost in it. It's a solitary thing. It's a beautiful thing where we can escape, right? Our brains can do all these magical, beautiful things as we're reading. But then there needs to also be time to process, to reflect, to write, to have conversation. So I call it time to read and then time to WRAP. W-R-A-P. Write, reflect, analyze, and participate. It works, I think. Don't steal it. Y'all out there going to try to make some money on this thing. But read and WRAP. So that reading and WRAP time, that I think every school should make time for in the school day to 20 to 30 minutes, is so incredibly important.

And as you mentioned for a whole lot of reasons, and I think that's why I get tired and teachers get tired is having to justify that. It's like, we know that it's good. We know that it's good for so many reasons. Whether it's the critical thinking, the actual literacy skills, the joy, the possible social, emotional and mental wellbeing. There's so many benefits to that time and to that experience. And yeah, I think the question we should be asking is how do we help teachers feel good about creating those experiences? What supports do they need? As opposed to how can we give them the script and help them memorize their lines. That to me is, I know you're going to ask me later about the things that bothered me. I just think we should get to the point where we're all working together to support teachers to create the conditions where that kind of conversation writing, reflection, reading can happen. Because I know it's so it's so incredibly rewarding.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Okay. So speaking of supporting teachers, how can a teacher get involved if I'm a middle or high school teacher, and I want to start a chapter, I just want more information about Project LIT. How do I get involved?

Dr. Jarred Amato: Yeah, we've kept it really grassroots on purpose. Bitly.com/projectlit, C-O-M-M. We have a Google form that is available for teachers to fill out, librarians to fill out, caring adults to fill out. Really, really simple. We kept it the exact same since May of 2017. Teachers fill out that Google form when they're ready. Every Sunday or Monday, I looked through it, welcome them to our community, send them a bunch of a bunch of materials, a starter kit, things to think about. And then they're in. They're in, and it's this inclusive, wonderful community. And then from there, we've got things going on all the time online. Monthly Zooms. We'll do things, of course, all summer to support each other. Build little teams that are regional teams when we can have fun in person together. We had a couple of Project LIT summits. So there's a community of adults that are ready to help new chapter leaders too. But yeah, that's the easiest way to join.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Very cool. We'll have that link in the podcast notes so that'll be there for everybody. Yeah. Okay. Jarred, are you ready for our lightning round?

Dr. Jarred Amato: I feel like it's a Family Feud style. That, to me, that last round of Family Feud, I've always wanted to be on that. So I'm ready.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, just channel your inner Family Feud moment. Because this is your big moment, Jarred.

Dr. Jarred Amato: Here we go.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. If you're on a desert island, which three books would you have with you and why?

Dr. Jarred Amato: Yeah, this was impossible, three for me, to do this.

Nathan Lang-Raad: For an English teacher. I know, I know. This is ironic.

Dr. Jarred Amato: There's the symbolic books that mean a lot to me personally. I've kind of hit on a couple. But let me go, so Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. I would read it out loud to the other people on the island. So it's the best read aloud experience I've ever had. Jason reads it better. So if we have an audio book-

Nathan Lang-Raad: You're by yourself. So you're going to be reading to palm trees.

Dr. Jarred Amato: Okay. It's just me, then they'll appreciate it. But seriously, the audio book is recorded by Jason himself, Long Way Down. I'm big on choice, but if there's a whole class experience that makes sense in our high schools, that's one of them. Gosh. Let's go Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi. That book Homegoing, I want to read it again. I just remember being just completely blown away the first time. That'd be two. And then I'll stick with the adult stuff. Either Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward, or The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead. I think The Nickel Boys, that book, another one that just messed me up in the best possible way. There are a lot of just takeaways for educators that I think are really important. I think I already broke the rules. I'm already out on question one. But those would be a few that...

Here's what I will say one last thing. What's cool, when you ask that question, so probably all your guests, everyone says something different, right? But then why do we make every kid read the same books. It doesn't make sense, right? You are successful in your work. However you want to define success. You've read different things than I have. And my wife's who just got home downstairs has read different things. There are no set of books that you have to read to be successful. That's just not how it works. That's not how reading works or how life works. So I just really get frustrated when students do not have any choice in what they read throughout their entire K-12 experience. I don't know the exact percentage of what percentage should be whole class versus choice. All I know is that there should be plenty of room for students to find the books that they want to bring to a desert island. Yeah, really good point. Yep.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. Next question. How do you recharge?

Dr. Jarred Amato: This one, I used to kickbox, but it got like too much work. It was fun for a few months, but F45 is a gym here that I absolutely love. It's exactly 45 minutes. I make time for it. I know what to expect going in. And I leave after a long day of work maybe I'd be feeling tired and sluggish, I leave and I'm super energized. So exercise for me. Being outdoors, being active. And being in this F45 space, there's a coach there, Coach Nino, I think about him and the parallels to reading. And so just thinking about meeting people where they are coming in, wherever they are in their journey, whether it's for exercise or for reading. Building confidence, building relationships, being consistent, establishing routine, not worrying about assessment too much, right? If they put me on the scale the first day, I would have been out. Yet kids have been home for a year, and the first time they were back in school was to take a standardized test. It's crazy. It's like, God. So anyway, I love exercise. And I also love thinking about the parallels between exercise and reading.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Okay. What is the biggest challenge in education?

Dr. Jarred Amato: I think it's doing exactly what it's designed to do. That's the frustrating part is that there are so many easy things we should be doing that it doesn't make sense that we're not doing them. If an alien came to earth, they'd be like, why? Wait, so kids have been home for a year, and you're talking about mental health all year and learning loss and making up these terms, but then you're not addressing that. You're forcing them to take a test and then sending them back home. Things like that that we've experienced for more than a year, right? For, I don't know, as long as I've been in education. So I can't speak before that.

But I just thought there's so many easy things we're not doing that we can't even think about the hard stuff. So why are we not doing the easy things? And then I think it's because, I don't know, the status quo is the status quo. And there's people and there's power and there's politics. And there's things that are happening behind the curtain, or maybe not even behind the curtain anymore, that keeps things in place. I don't know if that's the answer, but that to me is where I'm at today.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. It's tough. All right. What subject did you love in school?

Dr. Jarred Amato: I was always humanities, English and history all the way through. Math, I tapped out in ninth grade. The rest, chemistry. You were talking about chemistry earlier off the call. Chemistry, I barely got through with a C. So English and history all the way through. I loved it. Until high school. I mean, honestly, high school English. I don't have as many memories of high school English, but Mrs. Madison in third grade, she was the best. Mr. [Capetta 00:23:59], fourth grade. I can go all the way through. High school, eh. But yeah, English and history.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well that's the next question, actually. So you're almost there. So who is your favorite teacher and why?

Dr. Jarred Amato: I knew I needed to make up ground. Mrs. Madison in third grade encouraged me to write my first book. I remember using a simile for the first time, and she was so proud. So Mrs. Madison. And then in high school, I had a journalism advisor, Mrs. Helen Smith. And gosh, I loved it in there. She was a coach, right? She was no nonsense. Would tear your paper up with the red ink. And I got so much better at writing. She believed in me though and pushed me. So high school, I have so many great memories in that basement working on stories and her. Yeah. So Helen Smith and Mrs. Madison.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Awesome. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Dr. Jarred Amato: Initially, so I don't know if you're into Enneagrams, and I don't know if you have a number. So I'm an eight. And I think my sense of justice, like a strong sense of right. People may disagree on what is the right thing to do, but that's been there for me. As an advocate for my mom at a young age, and always wanting to help. I remember just being in elementary school thinking I want to to take care of my mom even then. And I wanted to be a lawyer. And yeah. So I think by the way, another great book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson. Reading that book and took our students to see the movie before COVID. I think in a different life, that was something I would've loved to do.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Awesome. Who made the biggest impact on who you have become?

Dr. Jarred Amato: I mean, the parents. My mom, and then in another way, my dad. So my dad passed away a couple of years ago. And I think he was always my champion. I think the way I championed my students, that comes from him. The passion you obviously hear me barely complete a sentence. Sometimes. I get so excited like that. That comes from him, his joy for life. And I think in a way I wish I could have just helped him with reading. I think about reading. If he had some hobbies later in life where he could just spend his day getting lost in books and being able to better empathize and communicate, I think that it would have helped him. But I get a lot of his belief in people and in life, and the way he supported... He saved everything that I ever wrote. Yearbooks and journals from elementary school. And he had it all. And just everybody deserves to have somebody who believes in them no matter what. And he definitely was one of those people for me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's a gift. What's the most positive change you've noticed in education.

Dr. Jarred Amato: I mean, I think this year, the flexibility, right? I think there's a lot of cool things that are coming out of it. Just why did we do X or Y? Why did it have to be this way? And I think there are a lot of cool parts of the world where they're like, you know what, we're not going to go back to that. And so the innovation that's happening in certain places, my hope is that we share that widely. Hey, here's what we're doing now that is better. You should do it too. And that's really what I'm about in education is like, here are these good ideas. Let's keep doing that. If there are policies or practices that are causing harm, that are harming students, that are harming educators, let's not do that. At a very simple level. Good things, joy, positive, do more. Things that bring no joy, that they have no positive impact on the school experience, let's not do that. And so I am definitely energized and encouraged by lots of individuals and also lots of systems that are doing that.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Okay. What's the worst advice you ever received?

Dr. Jarred Amato: I asked my students this question today. And they didn't really know. Well they're like, "If it's bad advice, you wouldn't take it." But I will say this. I'll say it. I don't care. There was a school board member who privately told me to be quiet a few years back. And that really bothered me. And that's not advice I'm going to take. And especially because they also then proclaim to be this big advocate for equity and for students. And then here they were mad that I was calling things out that were not personal, but just were fact. I was sitting in a library for literacy PD, and they told us that that library was actually closed in the school. Students couldn't access the library. I'm like, how are we sitting on a literacy PD, and you're telling me there's no library position. And the students can't come to this space. Things like that, that I may not always be right, but I'm going to try to engage in conversation.

I think that's what I just want to see people do is have conversation. We may disagree, but come to the table. And not online, right? Come together in person, or through Zoom, or over the phone and talk through things. But I'm not just going to say stay quiet so that I can move up the ladder in a district. And that's just not how I'm going to live my life. Hopefully that doesn't get me fired. Please don't get me fired.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. What's the best advice you've received then?

Dr. Jarred Amato: Best advice. So it's kind of a kind of a cop out, but we watched this today. We'll share the link as well. It's a great video. Jason Reynolds, who did not pay to be mentioned as many times as he has, but For Every One was a poem that he wrote. It turned into a book, which is an awesome graduation gift. If you're looking to gift something to a young person or even to an adult, especially as we head to graduation season. The end, hopefully, of a long year for everyone. Was also turned into a video. So there's a 20 minute video that Jason is onstage. The production is incredible. We were talking about today. And so there's a line in there, "Jump anyway," that I wrote down this morning. So it's written to all of us, to all the dreamers out there. And we have these dreams, and may be scared or confused or unsure, but to jump anyway, is was just awesome advice I needed to hear.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And that's a great place for us to wrap up our conversation today. So Jarred, it has been just absolutely a pleasure. So enjoyed your energy and your positivity, enthusiasm you brought to the conversation today. So thank you.

Dr. Jarred Amato: You are welcome. I appreciate you having me on.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I want to invite you to our second annual WeVideo creator community summit, July 20th through the 22nd. We will have educators from around the globe presenting on topics like personalized learning, social, emotional learning, and blended learning. The summit is free of charge and you'll receive a PD certificate for attending. For more information, visit www.wevideo.com/wccs21. I hope to see you there.