READ BETWEEN THE LINES: A Q&A with Monroe Community College (Monroe, Michigan)
The Foundation at Monroe County Community College has been immersed in The Big Read since its kick-off on March 26 with the production of Our Town. At the kick-off, more than 200 copies of The Bridge of San Luis Rey were distributed to community members with an additional 300 copies available at the 16 library branches throughout the county and 600 more distributed to local community organizations and schools.
Michigan?s Monroe County Community College is a veteran Big Read grantee. Having led their community in reading Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby, they tackled Thornton Wilder?s The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town for their 2010 Monroe Big Read. Beth Kohler, one of Monroe?s Big Read coordinators, describes her favorite moments over four years of Big Read experiences.
NEA: How did you choose The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town for your community?s current Big Read?
BETH KOHLER: We have a large committee representing 17 community organizations. We decide which book to feature by a committee vote of their first, second, and third choice. The book with the most total votes gets selected.
NEA: Over the past four years, what has been your favorite Big Read moment?
KOHLER: That is such a difficult question to answer as there have been so many. I?ll give you two examples.
During our kick-off for To Kill a Mockingbird, we had an entire family---kids, mom, dad, and grandparents come together because they decided that it would be a great family activity---to read a book together. I was so excited that someone understood what we were trying to accomplish.
Anything having to do with our partnership with the Monroe County Youth Center, our local youth detention facility, has been a "favorite moment." These are kids who have experienced some pretty difficult life circumstances. Most of them have never been read to by an adult who cared about them, and each year they have fallen in love with reading. They haven?t stopped with The Big Read selection, but have kept on going with their own book club. One year, a detention center resident earned the right to participate in and attend a poetry workshop and contest, and he won! He was thrilled that someone cared about what he had to say, let alone thought it was good!!!
Monroe County Community College faculty facilitated a multi-generational Brown Bag Book Discussion at the college. An annual event, the discussion involved college students, high school students, and community members.
NEA: What were some of the unique activities that your organization planned for The Big Read?
KOHLER: During our reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, our library system hosted a unique event for teens to create altered books. This event was held in a branch of the library system in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood in our community. The audience was a good mix of boys and girls. I chose to sit at a table with a bunch of 13-15ish-year-old boys and just watched and listened. They were totally engrossed in the activity of creating a work of art out of an old book based on a theme from the novel and they were actually discussing the book. I was thrilled! It was a beautiful thing.
For our current read of The Bridge of San Luis Rey we are hosting a panel discussion on why bad things happen to good people, including panelists who are Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Atheist. I?m anxious to see how the discussion will progress. We have also held four different film festivals each featuring four films----classic, foreign, and contemporary films that have related to the theme of each featured book. They have really been a wonderful addition to our read and helped people understand how themes of a book can transcend the written page.
At a teen only (infiltrated by some youngsters as well) altered book event, participants create works of art related to themes from the book out of old books.
NEA: What has been the biggest surprise from your experience with The Big Read?
KOHLER: I come from a family of readers. It is something I watched my parents and grandparents do while growing up, and I love books. So when we first started I was shocked at how many people (kids especially) have never owned a book. Our program gives away at least 1,000 copies of the selected book, and to see the reaction of people when they?re told they can have it is very humbling.
NEA: If you could meet any of our Big Read authors, who would it be and why?
KOHLER: Tim O?Brien because The Things They Carried was such a powerful book. I did get to see him speak at the 2009 Big Read orientation, and it was amazing! I would have loved to have a conversation with him, although I suspect he would avoid answering many of my questions about that book and others he has written.
NEA: If you could meet any character from a Big Read book, who would it be and why?
KOHLER: Boo Radley because he seemed like a character worth getting to know and in the book you really don?t get that opportunity.
The Arthur Lesow Community Center, a long time Big Read Monroe partner, hosted a ?Bridging the Gap Between Generations? event where children were rewarded for bringing their parents or grandparents to this bridge-building event. Copies of The Bridge of San Luis Rey were distributed as well.
NEA: Why should other cities participate in The Big Read?
KOHLER: This has been such an amazing opportunity to build a true sense of community. We are all so scattered and have become so impersonal with our use of social media outlets and other various technologies that we don?t take the time to really have an in-depth conversation about anything anymore. This program has given us the opportunity to stop, take a deep breath, and really talk.
NEA: If you could choose three words to describe your Big Read, what would they be?
KOHLER: Community-building, transformative, humbling, inspiring, and really fun! OK, maybe that?s not three words, but has anyone been able to stop at three?
NEA: Any last words?
KOHLER: It has been a real honor and pleasure participating in this program. While it is a lot of hard work, the rewards have been immeasurable.
All photos courtesy of Monroe County Community College