‘Albion Big Read’ continues to write success stories with focus on students

In its ninth year, the community program has given college students hands-on opportunities to introduce thought-provoking, relatable books to area students

October 18, 2023

“Albion’s Big Read” continues to write its success story as a community program in which college students help middle school and high school students find their voice and share the love of reading.

In its ninth year, the program has given college students hands-on opportunities to introduce thought-provoking, relatable books to area students, taught those students how to lead discussions about the books, and provided free books to the community.

“We were interested in building a program that would value young people and create opportunities for diverse communities to come together,” said Jess Roberts, the Albion College English professor who started the program with a National Endowment for the Arts grant. “The idea is to teach young people how to lead book discussions and provide the books for those discussions. That has been the model from the beginning.”

“I told her she was crazy and it would never work,” said Nels Christensen, associate director of Albion’s Big Read and associate professor of English. “But she did it and I was converted. The brain said that this could not happen but the heart said that it must and the heart won.”

“Albion’s Big Read” has brought nine books to students and the Albion community since its inception in 2015. “Selected by a committee, the books have all been written by Black authors since 2018 and are reflective of the world in which young people, particularly Black and brown young people, live.”

The recent selection is “Mighty Inside,” by Sundee Frazier, which is about a Black boy in 1955, struggling with a stutter, who becomes more aware of the racism that shapes his life and realizes he has to find ways to fight against it. The book was inspired by Frazier’s real-life family experiences integrating into a white neighborhood in Spokane, Washington.

Frazier, the ALA Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent award-winning author, will visit Albion to talk about the power of young people and imaginative literature  Nov. 2, 7-8:30 p.m. at the Bohm Theatre. This event is free and open to the public.

“We are looking for stories that are relevant to our young people’s lives,” Roberts said. “We don’t read about slavery and slain civil rights activists. We want to demonstrate that Young Adult literature by Black writers is strikingly diverse. It includes murder mysteries, historical fiction, remixes of older books, and novels-in-verse. We are interested in the way the book represents the complexity of the lives of young people.”

College students gather with local high school students for Albion Big Read

Photo provided by Albion Big Read

Reading the book is just part of “The Big Read” experience for the student leaders, who are nominated for the program by their teachers. “The Big Read has two basic parts,” Roberts said. “There is the summer component where our college volunteers work with the kids who are nominated and then we move into the community in the fall and distribute the books and host discussions with local partner organizations.”

The college volunteers work closely with the Big Read staff to help the young people develop the skills they need when conducting discussions. Topics include how to create an engaging discussion about the book and how to project your voice so that others can hear you.

“The college student volunteers tell the story,” Roberts said. “They are so important to program functions. They believe in what we do and they fall in love with the program. They give their blood, sweat and passion to the program. It is an excellent example of experiential learning at Albion College.”

Several of the current Albion College student volunteers came to the “Big Read” program as participants while still in high school.

“This is my second year as a college volunteer,” said Ian Lee, a senior English major. “I was a student leader the first two years of ‘The Big Read.’”

Malena Solis, an Albion College senior majoring in psychology got involved in the program in high school as well. “I was in ‘The Big Read’ in high school,” said Solis. “When I became an Albion Fellow my goal was to give back what they had given me.”

No matter how they got involved in “Albion’s Big Read,” the College student volunteers understand that the focus is not on them.

“It’s not about us, it’s about them (the student leaders),” said Kyndall Lewis, a junior majoring in environmental studies. “We are all in with everything. It is ingrained in the program. The goal of the program is to change the world by changing young people’s relationship to reading.”

“It’s about the bond and connections we build,” explained Kali Johnson, a senior English major who wants to become a teacher. “We choose to show up for the kids and the kids show up for us. We all support each other and the student leaders.”

Akaiia Ridley, ’22, the current assistant director of “Albion’s Big Read,” has experienced the program at every level. “I was a student leader in the program and a college volunteer,” Ridley said. “It has such a big part of my heart.”

Ridley is now working on her master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University in historic preservation, but said many of the skills she has developed started with “Albion’s Big Read.”

“It taught me how to communicate and how to keep track of everything and be organized,” Ridley said. “These are skills I now have that can help me in my career path.”

Johnson added that she has learned as well, from the student leaders.

“A really big thing that ‘The Big Read’ solidified for me was that kids will take more out of the experience if they can connect it with their everyday life.”

While those connections continue to grow and strengthen the program, Roberts said she is not sure what the next chapter will be.

“I hope it continues to find ways to create liberatory educational spaces for young people and to create contexts of joy in which young people experience reading,” she said. “It’s not about the two of us (Roberts and Christensen), it is about all of the people who make it happen every year. This is a community program in which Albion College is one partner. It is a crucial partner, but the program would not exist without all of the other partners.”

You can read more about this Albion program on their website.