Read, lead and succeed with Princeton Middle School’s book club

Hipp Grant project tackles literacy and reading reluctance 

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

Princeton Middle School teacher Lisa McGhee could see there was a problem: too many of her students hated to read.  

“I began my career in education as a basic skills teacher,” McGhee says. “But too many of my students hated to read. They asked me, ’Why can’t we read books for fun and not be tested on them?’” 

McGhee agreed with her students. Working with school librarian Carolyn Bailey, she decided to hold an extracurricular book club for students where they would read books that interested them that were about people who looked like them, sounded like them and who faced similar issues. They would read them together so they could discuss the books and help motivate each other to read for enjoyment. 

In 2021, McGhee won an NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Grant for Education Excellence for $5,000 for the Read, Lead, Succeed Book Club.  

“Our school librarian runs a Project Lit Book Club,” McGhee says. “Project Lit is a national literacy movement. It is an online community where educators, students, and authors decide on a list of books to read during the year.”  

McGee explains that Project Lit book clubs from across the nation come together online to discuss the books, talk to the authors, and explore their thoughts and ideas about what they’ve read. The novels chosen represent various genres and promote diversity and equity.  

“Many of my sixth- through eighth-grade students involved in this project have been in basic skills reading classes for several years,” McGee says. Due to this, their motivation to read and their self-esteem has declined because they felt they don’t have the ability to read well.” 

McGhee and school librarian Carolyn Bailey select books that are relevant and appropriate for students.

Addressing a national reading crisis 

What McGhee and her colleagues were observing in Princeton is part of a national reading crisis.  

According to Reading is Fundamental (RIF), the oldest and largest nonprofit children’s literacy organization in the United States, 67% of fourth graders read below grade level, contributing to 8,000 students dropping out of high school every day.  

The National Assessment of Educational progress (NAEP) reports that “the shares of American 9- and 13-year-olds who say they read for fun on an almost daily basis have dropped from nearly a decade ago and are at the lowest levels since at least the mid-1980s.”  

The slump in reading has significant economic costs for people. According to RIF, 93 million Americans read at or below the basic level needed to contribute successfully to society. They estimate that 43% are functionally illiterate, which prevents them from accessing jobs, government resources, and more.  

“We know that literacy helps people escape the bonds of poverty and live longer,” Marcie Craig Post, executive director of the International Literacy Association, said in a panel discussion at the Institute of International Education in New York City in 2015. “We know that people who are literate are more inclined to vote, take part in their community, and seek medical help for themselves and their families. They’re also better equipped to take advantage of knowledge jobs, which are growing at explosive rates.” 

The literacy crisis disproportionately affects lower income and minority students. Male students also score lower in reading assessments than female students.  

While New Jersey’s reading scores are higher than the national average, too many students struggle with reading. Isolation and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the literacy crisis among students, and with summer break on the horizon, all children are at risk of losing some of the learning they obtained during the school year. Unfortunately, students who lose reading ability over the summer rarely catch up, according to RIF.  

Book club members follow along as McGhee reads aloud and leads discussion.

Inspiring a love of reading 

The Read, Lead, Succeed Book Club is working to challenge lost learning opportunities and inspire a love of reading in students.  

According to McGhee, “The purpose of this project is to help students see the value and entertainment of reading in hopes to make them lifelong readers. In addition, the book club helps the students use reading strategies to demonstrate comprehension and increase their fluency by reading aloud. We want them to connect with their peers across the U.S. to discuss the novels they read, and to view themselves as successful readers.”  

Monthly, McGhee and her students attend an online Project Lit discussion group. During these meetings, the students share their thoughts about the book with their peers and educators across the country. At various times throughout the year, the author of the book makes an appearance and allows students to ask questions about the novel.  

The book club reads four novels over the course of the year, with the option of adding a fifth novel, if possible. McGhee measures their objectives with a pre/post self-reflection survey and a pre/post comprehension and fluency assessment 

With the $5,000 grant from the Hipp Foundation, McGhee purchases the books and makes them available for free to students. The books belong to the students and can help to encourage the creation of a personal library and hopefully influence other students and family members to read more.   

Participation in the extracurricular book club varies by season. During swim season, for example, fewer students are able to fit it into their schedule.  

Some of the books McGhee and the students have read include All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir, When You Get the Chance by Emma Lord, Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas and Jackpot by Nic Stone. McGhee worked closely with the librarian to choose high interest, award-winning books. 

McGhee has won several Hipp grants to fund projects for her students.

A multiple Hipp grant winner 

McGhee has successfully written four Hipp grants. Her first grant, in 2019, was for a project called Finding our Voices Through Creative Writing. In 2020, she won a continuation grant and expanded the program to include writing and reading. The Read, Lead, Succeed Book Club began in 2021 and won a continuation grant in 2022 for an additional $5,000.  

For McGhee, administering the book club and working on Hipp grants has had personal benefits, as well. 

“These are stressful times in education and we’re tackling big issues,” McGhee says. “We can’t solve them overnight but working on these projects has really given me a sense of ownership and optimism about what we can do.”

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to She can be reached at

Apply for an NJEA Hipp grant 

NJEA Frederick L. Hipp grants help educators bring creative ideas to life. The only foundation of its kind in New Jersey, the Hipp Foundation supports initiatives to promote excellence in education. More than $2.4 million in grants for innovative educational projects that represent a bold, fresh approach by public school employees have already been awarded.  

Apply for a Hipp grant and bring your innovative ideas to life. The portal will open July 1 and the deadline is March 1, 2024. Grants range from $500 to $10,000. Learn more at

Summer reading suggestions 

Make a fun summer reading list scavenger hunt. Provide a short list of must-read books and create a flyer enticing students to read by teasing clues to the plot.  

Create a “must read” list curated by the people in your school, from the school secretary to the custodian to the librarian/media specialist, and anyone else willing to share their favorite age-appropriate book. It’ll give students someone to discuss the book with and show the diversity of interests that books can explore.  

Organize a book swap of age-appropriate books. Anyone in the school can participate. The goal is to put good books in the hands of engaged readers. 

Select a “Book of the Summer” that families, students and staff are encouraged to read and promote the book through the classroom communication tools, the school newsletter, website and social media.  

Promote reading the works of New Jersey artists and create a community connection about readers and writers. New Jersey’s Judy Blume has many books that are widely available, and a new movie coming out this summer that can help inspire students to read.  

Plan a “Drop In & Read” where students, families, staff and the community can meet at a park, local library or community center. Everyone can bring their own book or choose one together.