TOMS RIVER – The Toms River Regional School District will be remembering the 5th anniversary of Superstorm Sandy in an interesting way this year – through a book.
Despite ongoing decreases in state aid and drops in funding due to Superstorm Sandy, Toms River is one of only two school districts nationwide to receive a $14,000 grant to support NEA Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts. The program, which is designed to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book, will take place over the course of the 2017-2018 school year. This is the first year the National Endowment for the Arts has opened the program up to school districts.
During the grant application process, the district was tasked with choosing from a pool of 28 NEA-approved contemporary books, and then had to mold that choice around a literacy program that included book discussions, special events and theme projects. Toms River students will be reading Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that centers on a chaos-inducing flu pandemic and an attempt to keep humanity alive through the arts. The corresponding, month-long NEA Big Read program will take place in October and relate back to Superstorm Sandy through discussions and reflections about its effect on Toms River, on the five year anniversary of the storm.
“The elements of Station Eleven that link to Superstorm Sandy will provide a unique opportunity for reflection and catharsis for Toms River,” said Rivera. “That this program will take place exactly five years after the storm is seamless, an ideal time to consider its impact on all of us. Besides that, the book is an enjoyable, engaging, and suspenseful novel that I think our students and community will be eager to discuss.”
The grant application process, novel selection and program development concepts were led by high school English supervisor Tonya Rivera and grant writer Mike Kenny, along with other district educators, curriculum directors and administrators. The Toms River Board of Education supported the district’s pursuit of NEA Big Read, as literacy was identified as a core goal for the upcoming school year. The book itself is also in line with many school initiatives beyond literacy – including the science of pandemic disease, performing arts, literature, psychology, celebrity culture and graphic arts. School officials hope the combination of these topics will help students express a maker mindset and inspire them to create art and projects, or write poems and essays.
Station Eleven will be assigned as summer reading for the roughly 5,000 high school students starting or returning to school this fall, and the book will be spread throughout schools and the community in creative ways. The Toms River Branch of the Ocean County Library will stock hundreds of copies of Station Eleven, and serve as host for the NEA Big Read kick-off event on October 2.
“NEA Big Read will be an extraordinary, emotional, and fun way for our students, families, and community to connect through a single book,” said Superintendent David Healy. “We are thrilled to have earned the opportunity to host a literacy campaign on this scale. Our vision is to bring all of Toms River together for programs and events that we’ll be talking about for years to come.”
Superintendent Healy also penned an open letter to the Toms River community inviting them to participate in NEA Big Read. Upcoming events also include Congressman Tom MacArthur speaking at High School North’s theatre on October 19, a panel discussion at Ocean County College with Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel on October 26 and a collaboration with the town’s annual Halloween Parade.
Any Toms River students, staff, parents, families and residents who are interested in signing up to participate in NEA Big Read can sign up at eventbrite.com/e/tom-rivers-nea-big-read-tickets-35242779101 or visit trschools.com/community/BigRead for more information.