Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book-It Repertory Theatre and Literacy

Book-It Repertory Theatre is asking many questions relating to literacy as part of their A-ha! project. They have provided an Evaluation Plan that outlines their process and seeks to answer numerous questions. Their plan and story so far...

To be honest, I feel like I’m just getting started. Through this grant, I have been hired as the Literacy Assessment Director to research, develop systems, provide data, explore, question, and answer all things related to literacy and how those things intersect with the work of Book-It. The dream is to have our own home – a literacy-based theatre center. In the beginning, I spent a lot of time developing a plan that outlines exactly what we hope to do over the course of the year. We have some big ideas and lots of questions and it became clear, that we needed to stay focused – the plan helps us achieve this and is included in this posting.

First, a little background on the Book-It Style. Book-It’s mission is to transform great literature into great theatre through simple and sensitive production and to inspire our audiences to read. Book-It adapts works of literature for the stage in the signature Book-It Style which activates the narrative text through the characters in the story. You can see/hear an example on our website or go directly to: Book-It Rep Theatre's Channel
The evaluation plan is a framework I've morphed from various consulting companies. Its purpose is to: identify the key areas of investigation; develop core questions for exploration; name the ways in which those areas will be investigated and how data will be gathered; and finally to state how this knowledge will be shared with others, or, the deliverables.
So, literacy. What is it? And, what is it in relation to Book-It’s mission? During one of our interviews with Literacy Source – a local non-profit provider of adult education, I asked “What is literacy?” The Executive Director laughed at me – it’s such a big question. She told me to do some street talk. Go on corners and ask the people – it can be interpreted so many ways. Even though she was joking, I think we should do this.

The first wave of our work was to create a staff baseline. We drafted questions to be answered for ourselves and our departments. We completed a vision exercise to draw the new “space” and the programming that it will house. This helped us see the possibilities that are floating around in our individual brains. We drafted lists of all the organizations and people Book-It has partnered with over the past 20 years. These will shape who we talk to and think of as potential future partners for the space and programming.

The questions we brainstormed are rich – they are risky because they make no assumptions about the work we’re doing and they go beyond our theatre and into our culture. Here’s just a few of these questions:

1. What stimulus and at what age triggers a person to become a reader? If this stimulus is not triggered, what can shift this behavior?
2. What does Book-It mean when they say that they encourage audiences to read – read what? How much?
3. What is it about reading that keeps us engaged as citizens?

So…What is literacy? We have started to gather statistical data for our region on illiteracy rates, programs, immigrant populations. We are doing a literature review that includes the NEA’s study around reading literature/poetry. We’ll be doing interviews and focus groups with the community and literacy-based organizations.

The next wave will be to take this knowledge and hone-in on what literacy means to Book-It. We want to measure the impact of our work for the mainstage and education programs. We want to know how to use the Book-It Style intentionally within the world of reading. I think once we’re educated on all this, the lines can begin to blur. Book-It already does this in many ways, but it’s helpful to name the similarities and differences.

Actually we are entering this phase now. We completed a baseline survey of our mainstage audience in response to our first show of the season – A Confederacy of Dunces – and will refine it in upcoming shows to try to understand the impact of our work on reading behaviors of our adult audiences. We are in the process of doing program evaluation and student learning assessment in our education program, Book-It All Over, with one of our Page-to-Stage residency programs. We will be evaluating our teaching methods with an eye toward “the language of possibilities” – I believe this idea comes from Shirley Brice Heath. This is not traditional instruction. We hope to compare the average classroom with a Book-It classroom when analyzing text. We will also set student learning goals for the project, which we've never had before. Fortunately we can develop and test the methods this winter, then revise for the spring when we work with another group of students.

These questions we’re grappling with are not new, but they are so important for us to address and answer as deeply and honestly as we can if we are to transform as an organization. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, but the conversations they prompt among ourselves and with others in the community are so exciting that I keep chasing them, trying to pin them down and analyze them in the context of the bigger picture for Book-It.

For now, I’ll stop here and will check back in a month. Thanks for reading and if any of you out there are doing similar work or have thoughts on where we are so far, we’d love to hear them!

-- Gail Sehlhorst, Literacy Assessment Director, Book-It Repertory TheatreGail has more for us regarding the Evaluation Plan and you can view the actual document here:


The evaluation plan is a framework I've morphed from various consulting companies. Its purpose is to: identify the key areas of investigation; develop core questions for exploration; name the ways in which those areas will be investigated and how data will be gathered; and finally to state how this knowledge will be shared with others, or, the deliverables.


  1. Dear Ms Sehlhorst,
    I am a huge fan of books and of theater, and therefore I love Book It Theatre and what you all do to inspire people to enjoy the performing arts and the written word.
    I wanted to answer your questions about reading. I was read to by my mother from infancy.Because my mother made the stories come alive for me, I wanted to learn to read books myself, so that I might travel to far away lands, meet magical people and animals and learn about different cultures and superstitions. I learned to read when I was 4 years old, and spent a majority of my childhood in the library, checking out books and reading about places and people that fired my imagination. Because I had asthma and allergies, I wasn't allowed outside very often, so while I couldn't go places physically, I could travel far from Iowa's green farmlands to England with Jane Austin, or Middle Earth with Tolkien, or even the dry and sunny pastures of California with John Steinbeck. I fell in love with the wild speculations of Science Fiction and fantasy novels when I was 7, and I was thrilled by the future societies presented by authors like Ursula Le Guin and Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Heinlein. I think getting a child to read is one of the most important jobs a parent has, because good reading skills serve children for life.
    Your work at Book It encourages your audiences to read the works you have brought to life, because you are giving them a window into that author's world and characters. You are fascinating them with stories of other times and places, and you are showing them what fine work these authors have done in bringing us art, a word-painting of a time and place set down in brilliant, often poetic prose. I was enthralled by John Steinbecks "Travels with Charley," and though I had read the book several times, Book Its rendition was so fresh and vital, it made me want to travel around America and see how it had changed in the years since Steinbeck traveled about in a disreputable truck with a standard poodle.Your productions make people look at the classics anew, and desire their company. You bring characters from ancient, dusty page to life, and that can only excite people and make them want to engage those characters again between the pages of a book. I think that reading is a splendid way to keep our minds supple and engaged in learning, growing, thinking and having fun. I don't think I could bear life if I couldn't read. Thank you for all that you do to keep Book It alive and telling stories for all to hear. The role of storyteller as a culture-bearer to society is an ancient and noble one. Long may you wave!
    DeAnn Rossetti

  2. A quick posting to say that I am THRILLED about the direction you are heading, and as a teacher who believes in the power of your method, I would like to volunteer my services/input/energy/ideas to go forward with your work in this area. I am currently implementing the "page to stage" lesson plans that I developed last year, thanks to the BTIC program. The feedback I received from students who did the Book-it work with me last year was overwhelmingly positive, and I'd be happy to share them with you at any time. Please contact me when you have time and let me know what I can do to support your work.