— -- When students returned to Biloxi Junior High School this month, the buzz was not just about their summer vacations but about reading and books, and it is all thanks to two teachers.
Elizabeth Williams and Stacey Butera, eighth-grade English language arts (ELA) teachers at the Biloxi, Mississippi, school, had the idea to transform eyesore lockers in the eighth-grade hallway into literary works of art.
The two teachers, assisted by a team of about 40 volunteers, spent the summer painting book titles onto the lockers so that the hallway is now a life-size library that they say has infused the school’s nearly 1,300 students with an excitement for books.
“We’ve gotten exactly the response we wanted,” Williams, who is also the ELA Department chairwoman, told ABC News. “Students who never thought about reading are now asking questions.”
Echoed Butera: “Students are bragging about the books they’ve read. All of a sudden it’s this badge of honor to be able to say they’ve read these books in the hallway.
“All they want to know is where are these books and how do I get my hands on them,” she said.
Butera and Williams say they spent hours “arguing and fighting and crying” over which book titles would go on the hallway's 189 lockers.
“We wanted books that were high-interest that they would want to read, but that would also cover all different reading levels,” Butera said. “We looked at lists like, ‘100 Books to Read Before You Graduate,’ and also just picked our favorites and made sure the classics were represented.”
Once the book titles were selected, Williams and Butera secured a small grant to help cover expenses and then put out a call on Facebook seeking donations and painting volunteers.
The response, they said, was overwhelming.
“It took on a life of its own,” Butera said. “We had a math teacher who is good at art volunteer, teachers from other schools, two retired English teachers, cheerleaders and student clubs.”
After “basically living” in the hallway for “a few weeks,” Williams said of the time commitment, the refreshed lockers were ready Just in time for the students’ return.
“When the students came to register for school in late July, the first thing they would ask is if they could come up and tour the lockers,” Williams said.
“We’re constantly catching students out of bounds because they want to come up and peruse the titles,” Williams said of the school’s younger students not typically allowed in the eighth-grade’s hallway. “You can’t hardly punish a student when it’s for academic interest.”
While opening the students’ eyes to new books, Williams says the project has also opened teachers’ eyes and “re-sparked” even their own love of reading.
“It’s made us think about things that we didn’t think about before,” she said. “Teachers tend to assume that, for example, everyone knows there is a local library but some of our students don’t and it’s opened our eyes to things maybe we were naïve about.”
Williams and Butera are now fielding inquiries from schools around the world who saw what they did and are inspired to do something similar.
“It’s so simple and yet it’s struck such a chord,” Butera said. “Teachers are now looking at lockers as a canvas and I think that’s something they’ve never done before.”