Imani Rowe, a junior at The Howard School, didn't always like to read.
The books students had to read in class often weren't interesting, she said. And after school or at home, she and her peers have a lot of responsibilities — sports, jobs and families — that prevent them from reading outside of class.
Jariah, a student at Brainerd High School, likes to read but says many of her peers don't. They can't relate to the topics, or they don't see themselves in the pages of a book, she said.
NOOGA CHAT BOARD MEMBERS
> Ashley Cox, teacher at The Howard School
> Ginny Jackson, teacher at Brainerd High
> Victoria Gentry, teacher at The Howard School
> Brittany Ruise, literacy coach at Brainerd High
> Brandon Hubbard-Heitz, Opportunity Zone literacy coach
> Wilmer Perez Ortiz, student leader at The Howard School
> Imani Rowe, student leader The Howard School
> James McKissic, director of the city of Chattanooga’s Office of Multicultural Affairs
> Tiffanie Robinson, school board member for District 4
> Karitsa Mosley Jones, school board member for District 5
> Lynda LeVan, executive director of the Southern Lit Alliance
IF YOU GO
> Nooga Chat will meet on Dec. 6 at the Downtown Branch of the Chattanooga Public Library, at 1001 Broad St. The time has yet to be announced. Students from The Howard School and Brainerd High School will be in attendance.
> Community members, teachers and students from across Hamilton County are invited to attend and encouraged to read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Dear Martin by Nic Stone prior to the discussion.
In a school district where only 34 percent of third- through fifth-graders can read on grade level and reading levels often vary widely between school communities, Hamilton County Schools educators often find engaging their students through words and text challenging.
But one group of students, teachers and community members, including Rowe and Chapman, have found a way to build a love for literacy at Howard and Brainerd through a student-led community book club, called Nooga Chat.
Nooga Chat is born
Students spend a lot of time reading, not only in English and reading intervention classes, but throughout the school day.
On any given day at Brainerd High, students might spend 40 minutes reading independently, said Virginia Jackson, a 10th grade English teacher. But it can be a challenge for teachers to find books their students will love while balancing state standards, a traditional curriculum and the needs of a lesson.
"There's this theory that is in vogue that books can be mirrors, windows, or sliding doors," said Brandon Hubbard-Heitz, a literacy coach for the Opportunity Zone learning community in Hamilton County. "Students can see themselves in mirrors, a window offers a view into someone else's experience. So only after a student or child has been able to see themselves in literature, then they can engage with books that offer insight into someone else's world."
Recognizing that some of their students didn't enjoy reading, Hubbard-Heitz and Ashley Cox, an English teacher at The Howard School, decided to do something about it.
In 2017, they started Nooga Chat. Students would meet after the school day ended to discuss a book they had read with other students, teachers and even community members.
"Nooga Chat offers an entry point to students whether they are reluctant readers or get excited about reading," Hubbard-Heitz said.
The program has since expanded into a second school, Brainerd High; formed a nonprofit organization and elected a board to govern it; and secured a $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.
The key, Cox and Hubbard-Heitz agree, was giving students voice and the ability to pick books they wanted to read.
The Hate U Give
Giving students access to literature in which they can "self-identify" or encounter students who look or sound like them "in a variety of natural environments, especially school, being successful and enjoying learning" is essential for students, especially struggling readers, to build skills that will help them academically, according to a study by researchers at Ohio State University and Western Kentucky University.
Since Nooga Chat was launched in 2017 and began meeting quarterly, the group has read young adult novels like "All American Boys" by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, "American Street" by Ibi Zoboi, "Long Way Down" by Jason Reynolds and "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas — novels often by authors of color, depicting teenagers in inner cities and centered around themes of police brutality, poverty, violence and more.
"There is something important about seeing yourself and your experiences in the books you read," Cox said. "When you only read books about people who are different than you, can you see yourself as a reader?"
Recently, students gathered to discuss "The Hate U Give," now a movie, at Brainerd High.
Chapman said she loved the book.
"We can relate to it, we're going through the same things," she said.
Her friend, Crcimessha Carter, also a Brainerd student, said in the past she only read school books and school books were really boring.
"'The Hate U Give' wasn't boring. The author was really relatable," Carter said. "And she never told you the city [the setting of the book]. I think it's because we can relate to it so it doesn't matter where it is."
Students like these girls met with teachers and community members — Shawanna Kendrick of the District Attorney's Office, Chris Stuart, an English professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Hamilton County Schools district leaders — to discuss these themes and do activities centered around the book.
They drew pictures of a shirt they might wear to protest police brutality or a pair of sneakers they might want to wear. They created a playlist for the book, featuring songs ranging from Marvin Gaye's classic "What's Going On" to Childish Gambino's "This is America."
Jackson said she was really impressed by her students.
"What we really want to do is get kids talking about books outside of school," she said. "Get them to see that reading is something you don't have to do for a grade. The only voice they hear telling them about literature is mine, but community members show them it is something that you can love to do throughout your life."
Looking to the future
Cox and Hubbard-Heitz have become forces to be reckoned with in literacy education in Hamilton County.
Recently, the pair were runners-up for the Penguin Random House Teacher Awards for Literacy. As Nooga Chat's founders, they placed in the top 10 and received a $250 grant for the book club and an additional $1,000 each to purchase books.
The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga also awarded Nooga Chat a $15,000 grant, and helped the organization raise another $5,000 from individual donors to help it build capacity and purchase books, provide transportation to meetings and more for students.
"We wanted to support their work because it really gets students excited about reading through high-interest books that are also selected by their peers," said Marisa Ogles, the foundation's vice president of donor services and engagement. "It provides an outlet that might not be available to some students and we are so impressed with the program."
Cox is excited to expand the program, even as she takes on more leadership roles at The Howard School, such as teaching AP English Literature for the first time this school year.
She hopes to get more community members involved, more students reading and show Chattanooga what is happening at schools like Howard and Brainerd. Most of all, she wants her students to feel like the community cares about them.
"It shows them that people care about reading, but that people care about them," she said. "People aren't showing up for the books, but they are showing up for the students."
Howard and Brainerd students also will be coming together to discuss the books they've read this semester at a joint meeting on Dec. 6 at the Chattanooga Public Library's downtown branch. The time has yet to be announced. Community members are invited to attend.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.