YHS students, residents book time to get together

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YARMOUTH — It’s rare for high school students to engage in intellectual and personal conversations with community members a generation or two older.

The Yarmouth High School Community Book Discussion Project breaks down the barrier usually found between younger and older residents. The project brings together members of the junior class and community members in student-led discussions about contemporary nonfiction books.

“It’s a great opportunity for community members to come in and talk with students,” Suzanne Hamilton, the high school librarian said. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

The annual project has taken place for eight years, with the exception of last year. With 92 students and 30 residents, this year’s project took place on March 7 and 8 in the high school library.

Between the two days, 15 books were read and discussed among groups of four to six students and one or two members of the community.

“It’s about the book, but it’s not really about the book,” English teacher Anne Tommaso said. “It’s about conversation and listening to other people’s points of view.”

Tommaso, who runs the project with English teacher Mandy Lewis, said students are encouraged to talk about the books as they relate to their own lives. She said it allows students to better connect with the books, and with the community members.

“It’s about people from different walks of life coming together and having discussions,” she said.

Community member Janet Lyons, who has participated in the project every year, said she likes it when students are able to find ways to relate to the books.

“I just love the fact that the students get to pick a book to read and discuss it in terms of their lives,” Lyons said.

Hamilton said it’s important for students to talk about books in a way that’s less academic.

“We’re trying to mirror a real-life experience and let students know the value of discussing a book besides its literary value,” she said.

Students said they enjoyed the project because it allowed them to talk with people who have different life experiences.

“For me, honestly, it was interesting to hear an outside view,” Will Saint-Amore said. “We’re all students, so we have a certain viewpoint, so it was interesting talking to a community member.”

Max Allen agreed.

“Since most of the students have a similar background, it was interesting to compare our views and backgrounds with someone else’s,” he said.

Community members said they enjoy hearing a younger viewpoint as well.

“I love discussing books, and being able to discuss them with a different generation allows you to understand a different viewpoint and perspective,” Jeri Erickson, a parent of a former student, said.

Steve Strand, who is also a parent of a former student, has participated in the project for three years. He said the students get him to think about the books in new ways.

“You’re always gaining new perspectives on things you may not have noticed while reading,” he said.

The students and the community members all started reading their chosen books at the end of January. Students developed questions and discussion topics ahead of time, and they led the conversations.

“There’s a tight-loose quality to it,” Hamilton said. “The students need to work hard at preparing, but the discussion is very open.”

Some students ended up not liking their books, but they enjoyed the discussion, which Tommaso said is very important.

“It’s a good lesson for kids; they don’t need to love the book to have a great discussion,” she said.

School Board member Philip Jones, who participated in the project for the first time this year, said he liked seeing the students so engaged while discussing the books.

“Reading has been such an important part of my life and I enjoy seeing the kids charged up by books,” he said.

To finish the project, the students will complete self-evaluations. Tommaso said the students’ grades are based on the evaluations, which is done so students can focus less on getting a good grade and more on getting a lot out of the discussions.

“The point isn’t the grade,” she said. “It’s the conversation.”

Community members wishing to be involved in next year’s project can email Tommaso at anne_tommaso@yarmouthschools.org. She said community members get as much out of the experience as students do.

“Community involvement usually means going to a game or a play,” Tommaso said, “but this gets (residents) more actively involved and allows them to participate.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

One group in the Yarmouth High School Community Book Discussion Project discussed “The Liars’ Club” with community members Genevieve Hall and Steve Strand, far right.  Anne Tommaso, at left, is one of two teachers who run the group.

Yarmouth High School’s Community Book Discussion Project pair groups of juniors with community members to discuss contemporary nonfiction books.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.