June 12, 2019-- Toms River Regional Schools must be doing its NEA Big Reads right, because the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest recently selected the district to host the program for a third consecutive year, providing a $15,000 grant to do so. TRRS, which became the first public school district to ever be awarded NEA Big Read in 2017, is one of only 78 organizations nationwide to receive the grant in 2019.
NEA Big Read showcases a diverse range of titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, aiming to inspire conversation and discovery. The main feature of the initiative is a grants program, managed by Arts Midwest, which annually supports dynamic community reading programs, each designed around a single National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection.
“It is inspiring to see both large and small communities across the nation come together around a book,” said National Endowment for the Arts Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter. “We always look forward to the unique ways cities, towns, and organizations, like Toms River Regional Schools, explore these stories and encourage community participation in a wide variety of events.”
For its 2019-2020 program, the district selected as its book of choice Burning Bright, a novel through which author Ron Rash “gathers several of the finest stories anyone could hope to read,” according to the Irish Times.
“This is the next step in Toms River’s evolution through NEA Big Read,” said Tonya Rivera, high school ELA supervisor and NEA Big Read co-director. “We experienced so much success this past year with The Things They Carried, and now Burning Bright-- a positively stunning and beautiful novel, and my personal favorite within the NEA Big Read canon-- will steer us through even more collaborative, honest, and inspiring conversations and activities.”
Burning Bright is a novel comprised of 12 stories that cover the time from the Civil War to the present day, collectively telling a story about Appalachia and exploring topics of poverty, violence, meth, and relationships. Despite its bleak setting, its deeply-flawed characters “rely on gritty fortitude, shadowed compassion, and a bone deep alliance to the land and the people they came from to carry on, day to day,” according to the Huffington Post.
In its application to host the program for a third straight year, the district made comparisons between the ruralness of Appalachia and life on the Jersey Shore: Toms River is a community that, on its surface, appears to be the picture of middle-class idealism. However, an underbelly of addiction has affected nearly everyone and goes largely undiscussed. Addiction has produced untold trauma and pain in our community. The novel’s setting echos a very particular element of TR: Like the characters in the novel, many end up living their whole lives where they were raised, and thus our collective experiences- our successes and struggles- span generations.
“Our entire Big Read experience with The Things They Carried was extraordinary” said Christy Downs, intermediate ELA supervisor and NEA Big Read co-director, “From the kickoff event involving a local Vietnam vet to our culminating Tim O'Brien field trip to the Grunin Center, Toms River's intermediate students gleaned more from this unit of study than we had ever anticipated. We're hopeful that our work with Burning Bright is as rewarding and inspirational.”
Through the program, the district hopes to witness its students and community members establish connections between rural life in Appalachia and experiences here in TR; increase literacy skills and literary analysis; and open the line of communication regarding addiction and a pathway to healing.
NEA Big Read: Toms River will run from May 4 through June 5, 2020. Its primary partner for the program once again is Ocean County Library, and Ocean County College and the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts will play critical roles in the program’s implementation. Relative to the novel, the district also aims to enlist new partners such as Ocean’s Harbor House and the Toms River Family Health and Support Coalition.
As it has the previous two years, the district has secured an appearance from the author of its selected novel. Ron Rash will visit Toms River June 4, 2020 and provide a keynote presentation to conclude the month of programming.
“The awareness and success of NEA Big Read: Toms River is clearly trending upward after last year, and we think this book can build on that success,” said Mike Kenny, coordinator of the office of grants and communication for the district. “Our schools and teachers have taken this program and run with it, and once our students, staff, and community members read this book and realize just how beautiful it truly is, they’re going to want to talk about it. This program will foster those conversations, and help make the connections that can only happen through the simple but profound act of reading the same book.”