Justin Marquez lay atop a blanket in the Mitchell High School gym, his elbow propped on a pillow, his gaze fixed on a thin paperback.
The story was about the Holocaust — Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel's haunting memoir of his life from the ghetto to the concentration camp. A narrator's voice boomed over the loudspeakers, sharing the bleak tale, as Martinez and his classmates followed along Thursday.
The nearly 500 freshmen spent their day on blankets and sleeping bags, taking in Night's full message of the horrors of war and genocide. By the final chapters, as the final bell neared, teachers and even some students admitted that a loss of focus from the 14- and 15-year-olds wouldn't have surprised anyone.
But they were rapt.
"It's actually really fun," Justin said during a snack break. "It's better than a real school day."
He found following the book along with the reader to be intense, driving home the meaning of Wiesel's experiences.
"You can hear it in his voice," Justin said. "I think it hits you harder than if you were reading it on your own."
Teacher Danielle Desiante, who came up with and organized the daylong reading, intended for the students to feel the full force of the trauma that Wiesel endured.
"This is something we wanted the students to remember," she said.
By having them complete the book in one day, Desiante explained, it would enhance the lesson while also ensuring that it got done.
"One of the problems is, reading an entire book tends to lose its popularity as they increase in grade level," she said. "So often they never finish it, or they ask their friends what happened. We thought if we did this, they would understand why this memoir is iconic."
It worked for Danny Schwindt, who said he usually gets bored while reading his assignments.
"It's a good idea," he said of the lesson. "I'm reading the whole book."
Jillian Kirkpatrick said she liked how the teachers interspersed videos and activities with the reading, to give a more full experience to the students.
They watched Oprah Winfrey interview Wiesel and connected paperclips across the gymnasium to get a sense of how many people died in the Holocaust.
"This is more in-depth than just reading on your own," Jillian said. "I understand it more."
Information communications technology coach Susan McNulty said she was thrilled with the students' response to this first-time event.
"I think they feel successful when they finish the book in one day, and they have a deeper understanding of the Holocaust," McNulty said.
She noted that the lesson offered other benefits, as well. Florida's new standards place an emphasis on speaking and listening skills, she noted, which this initiative employed.
The "Day of Night," as the school called it, also tied together reading with history, rather than keeping them as separate academic areas.
"I would love to see us expand this to the 10th, 11th and 12th grades," McNulty said.
That's a possibility. First, though, Desiante said, the students will get to respond to a survey offering their thoughts on the lesson.
They got to give their input on whether to do the first one, she said, so it makes sense that they should have a say after having experienced it.
Students said they'd highly recommend a repeat.
"It's the first time I've read a book in one day," said Zhamal Hudson. "I like history books. I like reading about the past. I enjoyed it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]