Clockwise from top left: Domenik Gonzalez, Olivia Hill, Cheryl Miller and Alexis Martin. Photos by Cheryl Boatman.

“Books are very powerful,” said Cheryl Miller, a teacher-librarian at Jason Lee Middle School. She paraphrased a metaphor by Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University. “They can be mirrors that help us understand ourselves. They can be windows that help us understand people who are different from us and their experiences. This has the power to build empathy. And books can be sliding glass doors, where they’re pure escapism and entertainment.”

With this in mind, Miller and fellow educators at Jason Lee selected Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt for a school-wide reading event called One Book, One School. The novel, about a student who learns to work within her dyslexia and also appreciate her peers’ unique qualities, spoke to the staff. “We wanted a book that had a message that could help us build the culture of the school,” Miller said.

“The book is very good about showing that it’s OK to be different and have different abilities,” said eighth grader Alexis Martin. “I used to be not very good with my speech, and I wasn’t so good at math, but I think I’m amazing at math [now]. I think it’s very good to see how people learn from their disabilities and how unique they are.”

The book’s theme of perseverance also resonated with students. “You can do what you put your mind to even if you feel like you can’t,” said sixth grader Olivia Hill.

Teachers read chapters to students and held discussions throughout February. Students also read on their own and engaged in lessons focused on discovering their unique talents and practicing empathy.

In early March, a visit from motivational speaker Tyler Monk of The Underdog Mentality tied together the themes from the book with a focus on helping students achieve their goals.

Planning already is underway for next year’s One Book, One School. Once the book is selected, the selection will remain top secret January 2023. But seventh grader Domenik Gonzalez can already vouch for the experience to next year’s new students. “Even though it’s a mandatory book, it’s probably going to be a good book,” Gonzalez said. “The books that they recommend are books that help you in life.”