Busload of Books Research Project

    Faculty and students from Washington College are collaborating with The Busload of Books Tour, a yearlong project, led by author Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr, to promote literacy and raise awareness of the challenges facing our nation’s public schools. Over the 2022-23 school year, Robbi and Matthew are touring the country with their 4 children (and family dog) in a renovated school bus. They will visit Title I schools in all 50 states (plus DC) and give out 25,000 hardcover books to students and teachers.

    Researchers in front of School
    April 29, 2022: The Busload of Books Research Team piloted the student and teacher surveys at H. H. Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown, MD.

    The Departments of Education and Sociology have partnered with Robbi and Matthew to conduct a major research project on the impact of author/illustrator visits on elementary student attitudes about reading and creativity. In addition to surveying students, we will also collect survey data from teachers and administrators in 29 states.


    Busload of Books Research Project

    Children - Busload of books

    Any children’s author or illustrator will tell you that school visits create tremendous excitement, positive energy, and engagement—while spurring reading, creativity, and collaboration for students and teachers alike.


    But any teacher, school administrator, or literacy advocate will tell you how difficult it is to quantify the impact of these visits when trying to secure funding or write a grant proposal.

    In spite of being sought by many, data demonstrating the effectiveness of author/illustrator visits has long been elusive—because it can be difficult to measure something that only happens once, especially at the necessary scale.



    The Opportunity

    Magnifying glass

    One of the most exciting (and potentially far-reaching) aspects of the Busload of Books Tour is the related research project being conducted by education and sociology scholars from Washington College to scientifically measure—for the first time ever at this scale—the impact of author/illustrator visits on elementary student attitudes regarding literacy and creativity.



    The Research Project

    As we travel the country presenting to 25,000 students, teachers, and administrators at Title I schools in all 50 states, we’ll collect a massive, demographically diverse, national data set that allows a rare glimpse into:


    • How K-6 students and educators think and feel about reading, writing, and drawing

    • How these attitudes and beliefs vary according to social, cultural, and economic factors that shape literacy experiences in the classroom, school, and community

    • How an author/illustrator visit and book giveaway impacts these student attitudes, beliefs, and practices. In short—does the experience make students more likely to read, write, or draw?



    The Potential Benefits

    The impact of this research will be particularly important for students in Title I-eligible public schools, for whom there is a demonstrated achievement gap and opportunity gap when compared to students at more affluent schools (Loeb & Bassok 2007Borman 1996).

    Opportunities for such enrichment experiences as author/illustrator visits come with a range of associated costs—from speaking fees and travel expenses to books to instructional materials—that often put these experiences out of reach for low-income students.

    Demonstrating the benefit and impact of these experiences could help many students, teachers, administrators, grant writers, and literacy advocates by promoting sustained funding for future literacy programs and legitimizing their integration into school curricula as standard learning experiences.

    This research will yield insights that help teachers best foster student interest and engagement with reading and lifelong learning—while disrupting the narrative that learning disparities are the product of unmotivated or disengaged learners.


    The Research Team

    Headhot of Sara

    Sara Clarke-De Reza

    Assistant Professor of Education; Director of the Museum, Field, and Community Education Minor

    Sara spends her research-life trying to figure out how to create amazing learning experiences in the places where schools meet communities. In her teaching-life, she’s worked in middle and high school classrooms, as a curriculum coordinator, and even (briefly!) as a school principal. At Washington College, she teaches courses in the historical, cultural, and psychological foundations of American education. In her life-life, she’s a mom, a dog-mom, a maker-of-things, and a collector of thrift store art.

    Learn More about Sara

    Headshot Bridget Bunten

    Bridget Bunten

    Associate Professor of Education; Department Chair; Coordinator of the Elementary Education Program

    Bridget’s path towards being an educator began when she was a student in a middle school Spanish classroom. It was the energy and passion of her teacher that inspired Bridget’s interest in language, learning, and teaching. Before coming to Washington College, Bridget taught students ranging from 5 to 80 years old as a Spanish immersion teacher, an elementary classroom teacher, an ELL teacher, and an adult ESL and citizenship teacher. Educating future teachers to meet the myriad needs of the culturally and linguistically diverse student population in today’s public schools is Bridget’s focus in the college classroom. Beyond the classroom, she enjoys staying active by running, biking, or chasing one of her three young daughters with the help of her husband.

    Learn More about Bridget

    Nick Garcia Headshot

    Nick Garcia

    Assistant Professor of Sociology

    Nick loves two things: telling dad jokes and solving mysteries.Sometimes solving mysteries just means asking the right questions. Sometimes it means finding the right evidence. As a research methodologist, Nick has surveyed, interviewed, and mapped the world to investigate everything from the effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act to professional wrestling. At Washington College, Nick’s Sociology courses address social inequalities, environmental justice, community development, and food insecurity. He’s always asking how communities shape and are shaped by underlying inequalities. In this project, Nick will collect evidence from the Tour, complemented by US Department of Education and Census datasets, to examine how sociocultural factors impact literacy and creativity.

    Learn More about Nick


    Avery Castellani '24

    Avery is a writer first and a human being second. When she ran out of books to read as a kid, she started creating her own, all of which were written and illustrated on construction paper and received critical acclaim (from her mother.) Now that she’s at Washington College, her projects are even more advanced. As a Human Development major with a double minor in English and Psychology, she’s been lucky enough to screen for and have work published in literary magazines, participate in a variety of research studies, begin field experience in real-life classrooms, and more. Some of her life goals include becoming an elementary teacher and acquiring as many platform shoes as she can.



    Riley McHugh '24

    Riley is a student in every aspect of her life. As a Psychology major with minors in Secondary Education and Public Health, Riley has been able to explore her existing interests and develop new ones…despite the initial goal being to narrow the list and figure out which of her interests she wants to pursue professionally. Whether it is through more traditional learning environments (such as her position as a Toll Scholar or working as a tutor in the Quantitative Skills Center) or through extracurricular activities (like being a member of the Washington College varsity volleyball team) the opportunity to learn more and help others along the way is one she will never turn down. Outside of school, Riley’s habitual student-ism is demonstrated via a love for travel and trying to develop new hobbies.

    Brooke Thomas Profile Photo

    Brook Thomas '26

    Brooke reads because she’s eager to learn about anything and everything. Her reading journey began with a well-known title: the Merriam Webster’s Children’s Dictionary, which helped her discover that words could come together to form new worlds and stories. By upgrading to chapter books, to novels, and now to textbooks, she has been able to learn a plethora of useful (and sometimes irrelevant) information. With a major in Sociology and a minor in Social Welfare, Brooke hopes to use all of her acquired knowledge to help others and make a positive difference in the world.

    Erin Counihan

    Erin Counihan

    Coordinator of Secondary Education; Lecturer in Education

    Erin is pretty much all about books.  At work, she teaches about and researches books and literacy and language, and she teaches her students how to teach about books and literacy and language—all with an emphasis on what it means to be a good reader and communicator in the 21st century. Before she joined Washington College, Erin was a middle and high school English teacher . . . teaching about books. She even reads books and talks to people about books for fun! When she’s not reading books with her two cats, Erin likes to spend time outside with her husband, often chasing turtles.

    Learn More about Erin

    Headshot Michelle Johnson

    Michelle Johnson

    Elementary Education Field Experience Coordinator

    Michelle loves to think about how people learn.At work, she teaches students who want to be teachers. Her students learn how to teach math and science. They also learn how to teach students who may think and learn differently. Before she came to Washington College, Michelle taught elementary school in Washington D.C. and loved to take her students on walking trips to museums and parks. When she is not teaching, she likes to spend time reading, crocheting, and video chatting with her three children.

    Learn More about michelle