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Rancho Milpitas Middle School’s Book Club is turning the page on a new chapter, since it kicked off 10 years ago by English teacher Brenna Dimas.
To mark the milestone, Dimas said this year the club has been running a few special events including the Decade of Reading Challenge, where any student who reads one book from each of the years is going to receive a special challenge buster shirt. There’s an additional challenge where anyone who wants can try and read all of the books, 46 titles, and there was a March Madness style book battle, where Wonder was selected as the school’s favorite book.
On April 30, award winning author Gennifer Choldenko spoke to Rancho students during an assembly about her book Al Capone Does My Shirts, which was from year one of the Rancho Reads Book Club.
The Newbery Honor Book and New York Times Bestseller is historical fiction about living at Alcatraz in 1935 and 1936 not as a prisoner, but as a civilian child meeting some of the most famous criminals in history, including Al Capone.
“I got the idea for Al Capone Does My Shirts from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about kids who lived on Alcatraz when it was a working penitentiary,” Choldenko said at the assembly. “…As soon as I saw that article I thought, ‘Wow, How cool to grow up on this island so close to maximum security prisoners.’”
In researching for the book, Choldenko volunteered to work on the island. She met many people, including a man who was a kid when Al Capone was there. Choldenko also learned that if you lived on Alcatraz, your laundry would not be done by your mom, your dad, or the laundromat down the street. Instead, your laundry would be done by the convicts.
“And that really intrigued me because as I interviewed people I found there was kind of an interaction between the civilians who lived on the island and the convicts,” she said. “It is true that Al Capone’s first job on Alcatraz was in the laundry room. So when I found that out I got really excited because I already had the first title in my head.”
The Rancho students provided personal notes to Choldenko as a gift and Dimas made it into a book for her.
“It was really amazing to hear how an author of so many well-written books thinks,”
seventh grader and Book Club member Anthony Overton said, adding that he has read all three of the Al Capone books.
Dimas said developing students’ love for literacy is just one of the many important reasons she founded Book Club 10 years ago. She was inspired to create the group after attending a summer workshop where she heard about a book club designed for students, teachers, and parents.
“That seemed like such a great idea to bring together students, especially at the middle school level who are struggling to sometimes see the connections that they have with adults, and to give them that opportunity to not only share their thoughts with one another but to get other perspectives as well,” she said.
The club, which meets five times a year, opens with a potluck followed by an icebreaker game and then a discussion about the book that the group is currently reading; otherwise known as the three Fs (food, fun, and fiction). Depending on the amount of people who attend, the group is divided into smaller tables of 10-12 people for discussion, and must include a mix of adults and students.
“It is a place for kids to go to learn about each other and learn about themselves,” Dimas said.
Members of the club recently met to talk about their experience with the group, and some of the favorite books they have read since joining. Among the fan favorites this year were Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson, The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau, and OCDaniel by Wesley King.
“Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day was probably one of my favorites because it talked about appreciating
your teachers,” eighth grader Chloe Nguyen said. She joined book club in seventh grade, seeing it “as an opportunity to throw myself into a community in which I could relate.. … I feel that Rancho is more united as a whole with Book Club.”
For eighth grader Matthew Wheeler, who has also been in the club for both years, it “has helped me become less shy and become more vocal about my thoughts.”
Math teacher Ken Chiu said he has seen Dimas’ dedication to Book Club since she founded the club 10 years ago with former librarian Liz Lewis, whose position was cut. Because of that, Chiu is now the person who scans the book when students borrow it to read.
“She plans the entire Book Club event,” he said. “There's no stipend or extra duty points for running it. Her motivation is to share her love for books to our students.”
Chiu added the club is important, especially in this day and age.
“Book Club is refreshing at a time when education is so focused on screen time,” he said. “Book Club brings out face to face interactions. You hear how kids analyze themes and critically think about stories. The Rancho community is so fortunate to have such an advocate for literacy in Ms. Dimas.”
Dimas said Book Club is “her baby” but it couldn’t have thrived without the help of supportive colleagues over the years. And she has learned a lot along the way. This year, Dimas has been focused on the diversity of the protagonists, selecting books that connect with Rancho’s demographic.
“I’ve definitely, as the years have gone on, made more and more effort to include diverse voices in books,” she said. “That was one of my big goals this year. ...Just trying to have stories that represent our student body, that are stories that need to be told and they need to be told by people who have lived those lives.”
Each year, depending on the group, Dimas said different things emerge. A few years back, for example, one of the members said he really appreciated the book club because he felt that it was the only place on campus that he belonged. Other times, they’ve had people attend who were so excited about the book the seats were all taken so they sat on the floor. She recalls this happened in 2012-13, when members discussed the physics and philosophical ramifications of time travel that came about from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
“Regardless of whether it’s eight kids that end up coming or a year where we have 50 or 60 members, having that space for them I think is really important,” Dimas said.