Summer book bonds freshman class

Robert Taylor

Credit: Steve Schirra

On their first day attending a class at Kent State, incoming freshmen took in the usual pep talks and lists of expectations from the instructors of their University Orientation classes.

But then something new and different happened: All freshmen students participated in a classroom discussion of a book they were assigned to read over the summer.

The book was The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. The novel told the story of Ruth McBride Jordan, a woman who married twice and raised 12 children.

A number of activities were created for the new project, beginning with a discussion of the book in freshmen orientation classes and culminating with a Sept. 14 visit by McBride, who will sign books, lecture and give a jazz performance.

The project took almost a year of planning across several branches of campus, the cooperation of over 150 volunteers to act as facilitators for classroom discussions and the participation of University Orientation faculty and student instructors, said Gary Padak, dean of undergraduate studies.

“We tried to establish a common experience for an entire community,” Padak said. “There is diversity in what every freshman student does. … Part of the purpose in coming to college is to find your identity and change as a result of the experiences you have, and they should seek out new things, and that’s what this was set up to do.”

Padak said the project originated from talks held two years ago at an academic deans’ retreat with Carol Cartwright. A committee was formed to select a book that would introduce students to aspects of diversity.

The committee narrowed its choices to 12 books last December.

The Color of Water was on that short list of potential choices and was eventually selected as the first choice.

With the book chosen, the committee came up with a game plan for how to implement its idea by the time the PASS program began. It asked for volunteers across campus to serve as facilitators of classroom discussions about The Color of Water and informed the faculty and student instructors who were teaching in the fall.

Lauren Pernetti, academic program coordinator for undergraduate studies, said the instructors were not given any training materials for the book.

“I was delighted to find out how many of the instructors came prepared and jumped into it so comfortably,” Pernetti said.

Potential facilitators swamped the Undergraduate Studies offices, all volunteering their services. Cartwright volunteered for the responsibility, as did numerous deans and professors.

“We had over 150 volunteers and about 100 facilitators in the end and we knew this was going to be a campus-wide initiative,” said Terri Capellman, director of first-year experience.

“Some individuals signed up because they wanted to interact more with students,” Padak said. “People who don’t deal with or work with students every day felt that if you work in a higher education environment, you should be involved with the community as much as possible. Staff members have as much a need to belong and the need to create their own identity as anyone else who is part of Kent State.”

After months of preparation, the book’s first day in class came and went without much upset.

“I’ve had three indicators of success,” Padak said. “My own class read the book and the majority of them were well prepared and took the discussion away from our original plan because the discussion was rich and found its way into topics we didn’t intend to discuss.

“I had the opportunity to observe many staff members as they came back from their classes, and they came back more excited and on a better instructional high than ever before. They said the students were engaged; there were no sleepers or people who zoned out. Yesterday, the committee met, and we debriefed, and everyone was involved in leading a discussion or monitoring a discussion, and overall the reaction was really positive.”

Undergraduate Studies awaits feedback forms from the freshmen, Pernetti said.

Though the day they had long been planning for was over, the experience of The Color of Water was not.

In cooperation with Undergraduate Studies, the Honors College invited McBride on campus to be part of their guest-speaker series.

“We think that the fullest experience isn’t just to read a book and have a single discussion, but to continue to work with the book after and integrate the book with some of the courses that are taught here,” Padak said.

“We’d like to see the book become a recurring theme for the year, but since this was our first year, we didn’t want to over-reach that objective.

“We wanted to do something we thought we could accomplish successfully but not become too challenging and overwhelming because we were doing too much.”

Getting McBride on campus, Padak said, was a nice halfway measure. He said it will make the author appear more real to students and allow them to interact with him and ask questions the book didn’t already answer.

Padak said he is optimistic about The Color of Water’s future.

“It worked one time, but how we work with the book now and how we work with the book after McBride comes to campus is really unexplored territory,” Padak concluded.

“Most schools would end it right there, but our goal is to integrate it more with the fabric of the university. We’re going to do it again next year, and we have new ideas, and I can’t wait to get started.”

Contact undergraduate and graduate offices reporter Robert Taylor at [email protected].