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Junior High literacy effort begins

Josh Holtz, 12, and his dad, Dan Holtz, of Willmar, look over a copy of "Touching Spirit Bear" by Ben Mikaelson Tuesday at Willmar Junior High School. Tribune photos by Bill Zimmer

WILLMAR -- About one-third of the students at Willmar Junior High will be participating in a family literacy effort this school year.

About 200 students and their parents have made a commitment to read a book together over the next few months. They will all read "Touching Spirit Bear" by Ben Mikaelson.

In March, Mikaelson will visit Willmar and meet the students and their families at a dinner.

The students and their parents picked up their books Tuesday evening at the Junior High.

"We're trying to get a connection between parents and kids reading at home," said Sara Rucker, a communications teacher at the Junior High.

The book's topics can be controversial, Rucker said in a telephone interview. The main character is a troubled boy who causes serious injury to another boy in a fight. He then faces circle justice in his community. A restorative justice program called circle sentencing is practiced in Kandiyohi County. The idea has come from American Indian tradition and uses a community- based approach to work with youthful offenders.

In the book, the boy is sentenced to live alone on an Alaskan island. Rucker said the dinner in March will include foods similar to those eaten by the boy in the book.

The communications teachers chose a book that included serious issues so that it might spur some good discussion between parents and children, she said.

The teaching staff will offer suggestions for operating the "family book club," but it will be up to each family to find what works for them. Some will want to read the book aloud to each other, but others may read chapters separately and get together for discussions, she said.

Communications teachers will also be reading aloud to their students from another book by Mikaelson, she said.

The teachers will time it so that they will all finish the book on the same day. "Otherwise, somebody will tell," and ruin the ending for others, she said.

The family literacy program is supported by several grants, including one from the Willmar Public Schools Foundation, Rucker said. The only cost for the families participating is the cost of the book.