SPARTA, NJ — Over the course of two days, over 700 Sparta Middle School students scattered throughout the school to talk about books. Adventure stories, inspirational tales, silly books, fantasy novels, historical fiction, classics ... 35 different options were recommended by teachers who served as Book Chat leaders. Students chose their book in June, read over the summer, and joined the book chat in September.

“The goal of the summer reading program is for students to see that reading is fun, that teachers of all disciplines enjoy reading, and that choice in reading selections inspires more reading,” Language Arts Supervisor Mary Hassenplug said. “Whether it was principal Mike Gregory leading a group, a math teacher sharing Minecraft: The Island, a French teacher leading a discussion of A Long Walk to Water, history teachers exploring Believe: The Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand, or science teachers delving into fantasy, the cross-curricular approach reflected a schoolwide commitment to literacy.”

Language Arts teachers shared ideas with their teams for activities and discussion topics that would inspire students to explore the many topics and characters presented in their novels.

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Several book groups were lucky enough to have guest speakers join the discussion. Author Wendy Mass visited the group reading her book The Candymakers. Sixth grade teacher Kathy Cayan organized the presentation in which Mass was able to share the writing process with students.

One sixth grade student said, “I didn’t realize how many times she had to rewrite different parts of the story.”

“She spoke about the many rejection letters she got before she published her book — but she kept trying,” said another students, prompting agreement from others who said, “She inspired ME to keep writing.”

Social Studies and Physical Education teachers Bob and Barbara Gilmartin were able to turn a college connection into an author visit. Katie McElhenney, Barbara’s college roommate and teammate, is the author of The Things They’ve Taken and she joined the book chat through Google Hangouts.

Students were excited about the opportunity to chat with the author, but were a bit nervous at first.

Bob Gilmartin said, “They didn’t ask many questions at first, but once they got rolling, good questions kept coming and we ran out of time.”

“I got to know her thoughts on the story and the way she envisioned the characters compared to how I saw them. It was cool to find out how she came up with names and other things that inspired parts of the book,” seventh grade Uma Kowalski said.

Two speakers sponsored by The Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest Jewish Federation in Whippany joined the readers of Refugee by Alan Gratz. Media Specialist Kelly Kiff arranged the presentation.

Hanna Keselman, who was separated from her parents at age 8, told her story about fleeing Germany to France and then Switzerland to stay one step ahead of the Nazis during World War II.

“Mrs. Keselmen really conveyed what it means to be a refugee. She lived in an orphanage, was hidden in a convent, and moved from place to place to survive,” Kiff said. 

“Her story was very inspirational and interesting,” seventh grade student Aiden Parlapiano said. “When she said that she hadn’t seen her parents for three years, it really stuck with me. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Robert [Bob] Max, an American Jewish soldier who was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and put in a slave labor camp rather than being treated as a POW, shared his harrowing tale of hardship until he was finally liberated, weighing only 88 pounds and needing months to recover.

“He served our country in one of the most brutal wars. It is inspiring to me that when things got rough, he remained sane and strong in order to get free,” seventh grade Quint Flannery said.

“I could have sat and listened to Bob speak all day. His stories about his experiences as a Jewish American soldier were unbelievable,” Nicky Audino, sixth grade said. ”I enjoyed Bob so much, I went with my mom and ordered his book, The Long March Home. I can’t wait for it to come in the mail.” 

Nicky’s mom, Stacy Chiarolanza said, “I was impressed with how excited Nicky was to tell me about the guest speakers. He really enjoyed the book Refugee, but meeting these speakers brought things to an entirely different level.”

The mission of the Holocaust Council is for students to “go home and tell others one thing that you remember about today’s stories. You are the last generation who will hear the stories from the survivors and you must pass them on,” according to the organization.

“Experiences like meeting a war hero and Holocaust survivor make a lasting impression on our children,” parent Jennifer Schock said. “My son, Nicky, was very moved by what Bob and Hanna shared during their visit at SMS. Thank you to Sparta Middle School for providing thought-provoking opportunities for our students.”

According to Hassenplug, the value of the summer reading program and book chat “is in the stories. When students have choice and find a compelling story, they can get lost in books. That, essentially, is our ultimate goal.”