Middle school students dine on literary delights

Photos and story by Stephanie Nelson
Special to the Stuttgart Citizen

Seventh graders Hannah Winkels (left) and Shelby Johnroe savor the starter.

Before COVID-19 closed schools, Patch Middle School students found opportunities to explore their literary tastes as the institution’s information center was converted into a “Reatery.”

Nothing pairs with a delightful comedy appetizer quite like a meaty drama entrée, topped off with a sweet fantasy desert.

“Book tastings are the rave in elementary schools, but they usually focus on genres,” said Lorien Gustafson, a former English teacher now in her first year of managing the information center. “The concept encourages students with a different method to select new titles to check out by reading the beginning of the book for just a few short minutes to determine if the book is a good fit.”

The event was a hit, as library checkouts increased 92 percent following the event.

Over the last several years, the Department of Defense Education Activity has made a concerted effort to improve student literacy through initiatives such as the adoption of College and Career Ready Standards, shared grade-level curriculums across 160-plus schools worldwide, as well as teacher collaboration and training.

With the help of parent volunteers and student-library apprentices Nicole Ortiz, Katerina Donovan, Ruthie Thompson, Kariella Trump, and Carolina Jones the information center was converted into a restaurant over the course of a weekend. For weeks prior, apprentices and parent volunteers worked with Gustafson to identify more than 100 books – in particular firsts in book series – then wrapped each in book covers.

“The idea behind the secrecy of the books was to get students to consider works they otherwise would ignore and “to reel in and encourage repeat readers,” said Gustafson, who is married to a retired Marine and is mom to a sixth grader attending Patch Middle School.

Dylan Longworth (left), Delores Jordan and Jackson Freds (right) enjoy the main course.

“Like local restaurants host many people from different cultures, the Reatery established an atmosphere to bring together the military students with diverse backgrounds in one place that encourages literacy no matter their grade level, course schedule or beliefs.”

Beforehand, kids viewed a tasting menu scroll and booked a reservation. Volunteers dressed as wait staff greeted students at the door and directed them to their tables, which were adorned with black tablecloths, placemats, floral arrangements, and hour-glass timers. Once seated, students enjoyed smooth jazz during three courses of “cerebrum cuisine” to tempt their literary taste buds. Servers brought out silver trays of wrapped books, so students wouldn’t be able to judge books by their covers.

“What I enjoyed about the book tasting was it gave me an opportunity to discover new books,” seventh-grader Alexandra Burns said. “I think the library should do this at other schools.”

Students had a few minutes to read passages and then reflect. The event was a hit, as library checkouts increased 92 percent following the event.

“I really enjoyed the aesthetic of the book tasting,” said Iris Weiland, a sixth grade student. “I thought it was unique and different, which I found interesting and surprising.”