The NEA Debuts the Big Read (Sioux Falls, SD)

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  A line of actors, including two children, stands in a row smiling after their performance.

The cast of players from a reenactment of the courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, part of South Dakota's Big Read. Photo by Jayne Erickson

In December 2005, the NEA introduced the Big Read, a national initiative to encourage literary reading by asking communities to come together to read and discuss one book. Presented in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest, the Big Read responds to the landmark NEA report Reading at Risk (2004), which documented a dramatic decline in literary reading, among all age groups, ethnic groups, and education levels. Ten communities nationwide -- ranging from a community of less than 2,000 in rural Oregon to the entire state of Arkansas to the Miami-Dade and Broward Counties metropolis -- participated in the pilot phase of the program from January to May 2005.

The South Dakota Center for the Book and the South Dakota Humanities Council collaborated on a Big Read program based in Sioux Falls. Sherri DEBOER, Director of the South Dakota Center for the Book, was one of the primary organizers of the Sioux Falls Big Read, which took place March 15-April 15, 2005.

NEA: Why did South Dakota Center for the Book and the South Dakota Humanities Council apply for the Big Read?

SHERRI DEBOER: With the mission "to celebrate the written word in South Dakota, extol the rich heritage of the state, and encourage authorship, literacy and reading," the South Dakota Center for the Book is always looking for new programming strategies to promote community discussion centering on literary texts. The offer of high quality promotional materials was an enhancement that we wanted to make available to readers. We wanted to see what differences might occur when we concentrated our efforts in a one month period in one community, rather than statewide, which is the delivery model for the "One Book South Dakota" program, now in its fourth year.

NEA: What was the total coverage area for the Big Read? What's the demographic composition of your community?

DEBOER: We focused our coverage on the city of Sioux Falls, but reached out to Minnehaha County and people from within a 50-mile radius attended programs. Situated on the Sioux River and home of Falls Park, Sioux Falls is also host to the memorial to the World War II battleship USS South Dakota.

Located at the conjunction of I-90 and I-29, Sioux Falls has a progressive business climate. The city now has a population of about 144,900, with a county serving a metro area of about 211,500. The racial makeup of the city is 91.90% Caucasian, 1.80% African American, 2.12% Native American, 1.19% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 1.23% from other races, and 1.71% from two or more races. Augustana College, University of Sioux Falls, Southeast Technical Institute, National American University, Colorado Technical University, the South Dakota School for the Deaf, the North American Baptist Seminary, USDSU and Kilian Community College offer higher education opportunities.

Caption: The character Mayella Ewell testifies during a reenactment of the courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, part of South Dakota's Big Read. Photo by Jayne Erickson  

NEA: Why did your community choose To Kill a Mockingbird for its Big Read program?

DEBOER: We felt it was the most accessible text to all age groups of the four choices and that it would lend itself to a city that was grappling with an influx of minority immigrant population. Reading and talking about a book helps people be more open and allows people to discuss sensitive issues. As it turned out, the Mayor's Commission on Race Relations was involved in the Diversity panel discussion that followed the Readers Theatre performance and "Atticus and Today's Lawyers" explored unpopular legal decisions.

NEA: How did your community use the Big Read grant funds?

DEBOER: We used grant funds to feature experts in our public programs. We featured the actress who played Scout in the [To Kill a Mockingbird] film; a film studies professor who provided commentary on Fearful Symmetry, a documentary about the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird; and the author of an upcoming biography of Harper Lee. We also brought in the Director of Publicity and Marketing at Milkweed Editions to train ambassadors on leading effective book discussions.

Grant funds allowed us to advertise extensively in print and broadcast media and provide direct mailings highlighting our events calendar. Community donations allowed us to purchase "Are you Reading?" buttons, provide refreshments at the "In Scout's Shoes" event, and host an elegant Southern buffet at the final "Atticus and Today's Lawyers" event.

NEA: Other than the grant funds, what was the most important element that the NEA provided for your Big Read program?

DEBOER: The whole concept of the Big Read gave us immediate "branding" of the project, something we always struggle with in the humanities world. The [organizer's guide] was an incredibly useful document that assisted us in program planning. It helped us focus the local planning we had done in December and provided many unique ideas and tips.

The reader's guides, posters, bookmarks, banners, and the TV commercials were attractively designed, high-quality promotional materials. The materials created a cohesive brand that allowed us to succeed in getting people all over the community talking about To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, as staff members traveled across the state, people were aware of the project and commented about it.

NEA: What were some of the activities that your community planned for the Big Read, and how did your community develop its slate of events?

DEBOER: We invited community leaders to an information meeting in early December, and more than 60 volunteers planned and executed events. Committees ranged from marketing and book club involvement to the writing contest and the Ambassador training -- a session in how to lead effective book discussions. The events committee and the marketing committee worked together to manage logistics for the major public events. Every committee member took their responsibilities seriously and delivered the desired outcomes.

The kick off event, "In Scout's Shoes" featured the screening of Fearful Symmetry with commentary and a conversation with Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout. DVD signings were scheduled at Barnes and Noble and the independent bookstore, and Badham spoke at a Kilian Community College breakfast.

The Big Read banner graced the front of the convertible entourage, including NEA and Arts Midwest representatives, the Lee biographer Charles Shield, and "the Ham" at the St. Patrick's Day parade. Committee members walked the parade, decorated in shamrock signs with "Go Big Read!" They handed out the Big Read, "Are you Reading?" stickers and buttons.

"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" featured a southern breakfast and conversation with author Charles Shields. "A Picture Show" found two of the libraries hosting film discussions. Readers Theatre performances were followed by a panel discussion on diversity led by the Mayor's Race Relations members and a panel discussion on controversial legal cases, led by a South Dakota Supreme Court justice.

Another highlight was the student Readers Theatre troupe organized by a teacher at Lincoln High School. The cast of 20 students rehearsed numerous times and performed [their version of To Kill a Mockingbird] for all the English classes, reaching the entire student body

NEA: How did your community respond to the Big Read?

DEBOER: One of the most often heard comments was the wonderful sense of community that developed as a result of involving so many people in reading a pivotal text. We had significant attendance at all the events. The volunteers developed community pride in developing a worthwhile project in a very short time frame. More than 37 groups read the book, and the library circulated the book 779 times after the donation of 400 trade paperbacks from HarperCollins.

The Big Read encouraged people to read more and talk about and explore the book with others, which was the main goal. Many said that they had not read the book since high school and decided to read it again. A participant said, "What a wonderful gift to live in the United States and be able to read -- knowledge, escape, and adventure."

NEA: What surprised you the most about the community response to the Big Read?

DEBOER: I was most surprised at how much people enjoyed re-reading the text. A lot of people talked about how their age influenced the characters they identified with -- especially those that have children. I was also surprised to hear from people that they read To Kill a Mockingbird every year, at the beginning of summer, or watch the film every year, at Halloween.

NEA: Any advice for other communities planning to host a Big Read program?

DEBOER: We would tell the community to get involved. The promotional materials are superior and the available network of sponsors, Arts Midwest, and NEA allow coordinators to get immediate assistance with ideas and program problems. The most important thing is people will have fun planning the program.

Creating multiple community partnerships makes the project successful and new reading networks are established. Most critical is determining how to track participation. One person stated on the evaluation, "Even though we didn't all read the book, the Big Read opened up discussions with me, my husband, and two teenagers about its issues."

NEA: If you were to hold another Big Read program, in retrospect, is there anything you would do differently?

DEBOER: We would push for incentives to get immediate feedback from those participating. We would develop ways to increase usage on the blog and a method of Web registration to improve tracking of participation.

The amount of time available from the grant award to implementation of a program with meaningful school participation is very compressed. Since the text was already read as part of the fall curriculum, we had to focus on the next year for in-class discussion. With the current funding cycle, not much could change with this text.

NEA: What do you think your community has gained from participating in the Big Read? How will the Big Read affect your community going forward?

DEBOER: Again, the heightened community spirit among organizers and readers was the highlight of the project. People gained new insight from the reflection required in the reading/discussion format. We heard "The Big Read afforded me the opportunity to hear other viewpoints and to 'peel away' to deeper layers of understanding."

Attendees let us know that the program was very significant on an individual level. One woman wrote, "Winning the [writing] contest has given me the courage to continue with my dream of being a writer. Thank you for giving me that confidence." Another said -- "This is a great idea and [participating in the Big Read] encouraged me to enroll in college to finish my degree."

The Lincoln High School English Department plans to incorporate the staging of the Readers Theatre into the sophomore English class curriculum. It is very possible that other high schools in the district will follow suit and offer this enhancement for studying To Kill a Mockingbird.

We believe these testimonials illustrate the significance of the Big Read as an agent of change. More than 40 people were given tips on how to lead effective book discussions at the Ambassador Training session. We also promoted our organization's other literary events, which will likely continue the trend of reading in the community. Volunteers have carried forward from the Big Read to the [book] festival planning. As a result, we expect a larger, energized community of readers in attendance at the book festival this fall.

NEA: Any favorite stories you'd like to share from your project or anything you'd like to add about the experience in general?

At Kilian Community College, a teacher reported that after Mary Badham's breakfast visit to the college, her "Intro to Lit class begged me to run an honors section of the course so we could discuss To Kill a Mockingbird." The teacher "was thrilled this was student-initiated" and so were we. The Big Read and other community reading programs allow us to put readers and writers in the spotlight. I think that is the huge benefit of this project -- people gain solidarity and a sense of community from the shared experience of reading and discussing the same book.

For more information on how your community can participate in the Big Read, please visit www.NEAbigread.org.