By Kathryn Coulibaly, NJEA Communications
Cumberland Regional High School language arts teacher Jessica Palys and chemistry teacher Tiffany Simons-Palmieri are making sure nothing stands between their students and the books they crave.
Beginning in spring 2023, the two colleagues reinvigorated a book club at the high school and named it Overbooked. They wanted to make a space and time for students to read whatever they wanted, and give them a chance to discuss what they were reading.
They began meeting in Palys’s classroom until the group expanded to more than 30 students. They now meet in one of the areas known in the school as the commons. With three commons in the building, Palys and Simons-Palmieri thought they were the perfect places to set up mini libraries where the students could take any book they want, for as long as they want, without any expectation of returning it.
“We tell the students to take a book, read the book and pass it on to someone new,” Simons-Palmieri says.
The books are primarily “banned” books, or books that have been challenged and made it onto the most-banned list.
“We found that a lot of our students didn’t have access to books, or felt like they weren’t reading enough just because they were reading two books a year,” Palys says. “But we reassured them that whatever they are reading is worthwhile.”
Nestled in farmlands in the southern part of the state, Cumberland Regional High School students are about an hour from the closest major bookstore. Palys and Simons-Palmieri are working to fundraise in order to take field trips with the students to visit bookstores and book events in the region. With the cost of busing and insurance, it’s a long road. During Banned Books Week, they held a dress down day fundraiser and staff paid $5 to be able to wear jeans and support Overbooked.
“We’re raising money for the club, but we’re also trying to bring awareness to Banned Book Week,” said Simons-Palmieri.
Cumberland Regional High School administration has been very supportive of Overbooked and the efforts to promote Banned Books Week. During Banned Books Week, they include trivia questions and facts about banned books during morning announcements. Thanks to a donation by the local Starbucks, the trivia winners receive a free bag of coffee.
“When administrators get questions about books, they don’t just pull the title,” Palys says. “They talk to the teachers about how to handle the situation.”
Incidents of book banning have risen exponentially over the past year. According to the American Library Association, there were more than 1,200 attempts to censor library books and resources in 2022, the most since the ALA began compiling data 20 years ago.
Even in New Jersey, a state known for having the best public schools in the nation, people have testified in front of the NJ State Board of Education, asking to ban books. In other parts of the state, issues have arisen at the local level.
For Palys and Simons-Palmieri, the message is clear: students deserve the freedom to read.
“People who ban books never end up on the right side of history,” Palys says. “I’m glad we are in a community that supports reading, and that we have an administration that sees its importance.”
Palys and Simons-Palmieri are working to provide more books to their students. If you are interested in supporting their efforts, contact Kathryn Coulibaly below.
Banned Books Week
LeVar Burton has been named the 2023 Honorary Chair of Banned Books Week. In 2022, Burton spoke at the NJEA Convention. He has become synonymous with literacy efforts and cultivating a love of reading in children thanks to his PBS children’s series “Reading Rainbow.” He continues to inspire readers on his “LeVar Burton Reads” podcast.
Learn more about the most banned books and how the American Library Association, and librarians across the country, are working to protect students’ right to read.