How one book has lifted an entire school district in recent weeks

A seed of a second-grade school project idea has grown into a source of joy for students and teachers of all grades across the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek School District.

In its inaugural year, the project, coined “BellBOOKS” is planned to be an annual reading of a selected book across the entire school district over the course of a few months. Each chapter will be read and video-taped by a different teacher or staff member in any grade, preschool through grade 12, then uploaded for families to watch together.

Many already feel this project has the roots to grow into something much larger than originally planned.

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It started this winter at Stephen Bell Elementary when all the second-grade teachers bought the book “Wishtree” by Katherine Applegate to end the school year with a big class project.

“Needless to say, those plans changed when we learned school would be taking a different form with distance learning,” said Jill Culler, second-grade teacher at Stephen Bell. “As we all tried to wrap our minds around teaching students in this way, our hearts also went out to the senior class.”

“Wishtree” would turn out to be an extremely timely choice once coronavirus turned the school year on its head. Culler reached out to Donnie Phelps who teaches high school English-Language Arts, as well as advanced Spanish classes, and the two shifted their mindset to begin planning a district-wide read for all students to experience together.

“The best way to create unity in an academic setting is through literacy — the foundation of all learning,” states the district’s project website where more BellBOOKS information can be found.

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Teachers across different grade levels are able to use the project and shape it into what they want their own students’ experience of the book to be.

Betsy Chadd, director of curriculum and gifted services for the school district, said her so-far favorite line in the book captures why “Wishtree” is the perfect book for what’s going on around the world and in her school district.

The book reads from the perspective of a tree planted in the middle of a community:

“But sometimes things happen that aren’t so good. When they occur, I’ve learned there’s not much you can do except stand tall and reach deep.”

The book has turned into a conversation starter for teachers and parents to connect with their kids and discuss what is going on surrounding COVID-19.

“‘How do you guys feel right now? Being home, isolated from your friends — give me an example of how you’re standing tall and taking root right now,’” was the example Chadd gave to how the book has been useful for meaningful check-ins.

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“I think educators everywhere, just in general, are really trying to connect with kids right now as humans and families and support them during this unprecedented time,” Chadd said.

Phelps said the project has turned many of the seniors’ feelings of despair and loss for typical rites of passage before graduation, into feelings of having a unique and special memory the senior class gets to experience together.

“Wishtree” is also being read in Spanish, a parallel format of the project organized by Phelps.

“The teachers are really hoping to, at the end of this thing, maybe plant a tree and we call it the Wishtree,” Chadd said. Then maybe this is the beginning of an annual, spring, community read. … Anyone who connects with what we’re doing (can participate) and see where this thing goes.”

Anyone who wants to follow along with the district's reading of "Wishtree" should visit for either the Spanish or English reading.

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