Avalon School partners with St. Paul Public Library in a group read that tackles bullying and more

Avalon students and Breedlove from Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation. Photo courtesy of Avalon School.

When the St. Paul Public Library put out the call for a citywide group read of the young adult novel Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, the staff and students at Avalon School answered.

The public charter school’s decision to have its students spend 30 minutes a day in small groups reading a book that addresses bullying, violence against women and the Vietnam War has created a whirlwind of media attention at Avalon.

The library’s Read Brave project—a collaboration between the library, author A.S. King and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation—challenged teens with a contest to create public service announcements, poetry, music, one-act plays, posters or any other project inspired by the themes of the book.

Avalon students stepped up to the plate and a number of them won tickets to Lady Gaga’s concert on Feb. 6 in Minneapolis and VIP passes to her Born Brave Bus outside the Excel Energy Center the day of the concert.

The only school to participate in the St. Paul Public Library’s program, Avalon invited local media into the school to learn more about the program. Esme Murphy’s visit resulted in a report that ran on WCCO News on Feb. 4 that portrayed the 11-year-old school in the Raymond-University area of St. Anthony Park as “a refuge for students from all over the metro who have been bullied or ostracized at their old schools.” More coverage ensued as Murphy interviewed Avalon students on her WCCO News Radio show and KARE11 and Fox 9 News ran stories of students at the Lady Gaga concert.

A school for bullied kids? Avalon language arts teacher and program coordinator Kevin Ward said that’s not how the school community thinks of itself. Though, “we appreciate why she would draw that conclusion,” he said. “Students are happy when they come to Avalon because they are encouraged to be who they are and develop their own way to learn what they need to learn.”

The 180-student school has a project-based learning component that tailors the seventh- through 12-grade students’ lessons to their individual learning styles. It also strives “to make our community welcoming and supportive to everyone who walks in the door,” Ward says.

Students who may have felt they didn’t belong in a traditional school setting because of how they look, what they wear, their sexual orientation or their learning style are encouraged to be themselves at Avalon. “We try to celebrate students for who they are,” Ward said.

The whole staff at Avalon read Everybody Sees the Ants before bringing the project into the school. Having everyone on the same page, so to speak, has helped spark conversations between adults and students about bullying and their own experiences with it.

That’s exactly what the author says needs to happen. “I think that reading about and education about bullying stops short of one thing: conversation between students, teachers and administrators,” King said in an email.

King will visit Avalon on Wednesday, Feb. 27, as part of her visit to St. Paul for the Read Brave program. She will also speak at Merriam Park Library that day from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Read Brave started out as a “one-book, one-city read between the St. Paul library and myself,” King said. “I have done events like this before. In fact, last year when I was in St. Paul meeting the amazing Teens Know Best book club, I had just come from a town-wide read in Westborough, Mass., where the town and high school read my novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz. When I explained the remarkable multi-generational conversations the novel sparked in the town, and the enthusiasm that the event caused in the public and school libraries, Marika Staloch [St. Paul Public Library youth services coordinator] wondered if we could do something similar in St. Paul.”

King said she’s honored to be part of the project. “It means that there are pockets of conversation about the topics I write about which are very close to my heart. In the case of Everybody Sees the Ants, I am so happy the topics of bullying, violence against women and the Vietnam War are being explored by people of all ages. The idea is to start wide conversation. The idea is for grandsons to ask their grandfathers about the draft lotteries and at the same time, have deep, beneficial discussions about bullying and safety in schools.”

It takes a supportive community to overcome bullying in a school, Ward said. “We have to work at it every year, and we rely on students doing most of the heavy lifting to make our community welcoming and supportive to everyone who walks in the door.”

To see some of the public service announcements Avalon students made as part of the program, go to www.avalonschool.org/students/readbrave and scroll to the bottom where you will find their stories.

There is still time to get involved in the citywide reading project. The public is invited to join a group discussion of Everybody Sees the Ants at the St. Anthony Park Branch Library, 2245 Como Ave., on Wednesday, March 6, at 6:30 p.m.

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