May 4 Books Give First-Year Students Unique Common Experience

Before she attended her first class on campus, Kent State University freshman Hayley Simons had already acquired broad knowledge of the May 4, 1970, shootings from her father and brother, who are both graduates of the university.

But it wasn’t until this summer when she read two books about May 4 as an assignment for the university’s Common Reading Experience that Simons learned crucial details about the events preceding the Ohio National Guard's shootings of 13 students, four of whom died. 

“I hadn’t realized how many protests there were prior to the shootings,” said Simons, who had recently participated in a discussion about the two books with other first-year students. “I didn’t realize how tensions had built up for three days. This has been educational and eye-opening. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read the books. My brother and dad want to read them.”

Kent State’s Common Reading Experience is an opportunity for first-year students to read university-selected books and share a common experience with their peers. The goal is for freshmen to gain an understanding of the university’s values and to build and maintain relationships that foster success with faculty, administration and staff.

May 4 Common Reading Experience Books
This year, with the 50th commemoration of May 4 approaching in 2020, the Common Reading Experience created an opportunity to incorporate “This We Know” by the late Carole A. Barbato, Laura L. Davis, Ph.D., and Mark F. Seeman, Ph.D., and “Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State” by Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts.

“I think it’s great that ‘This We Know’ was chosen for the Common Reading Experience and it was paired with a book that provides another perspective,” Davis said. “‘This We Know’ is small, it’s meant to be read in one sitting and meant to really give people the facts, the verifiable facts.”

Book selection for the Common Reading Experience is usually the responsibility of Yvonna Washington-Greer, director of Student Success Programs in the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. This year, the offices of the President and Provost, the May 4 Task Force and Mindy Farmer, Ph.D., director of the May 4 Visitors Center and an assistant professor of history, chose the books, Washington-Greer said.

“Usually, we choose a book that is more idealistic,” she said. “Because this book is more factual and about Kent State, they wanted to have a hand in choosing the book.”

Final Projects

In past years, all first-year students were required to reflect on the readings from the books in a written assignment and participate in book discussions. As a new twist to this year’s experience, students could write an essay or use tools from Adobe Creative Cloud to create a podcast, video or Adobe Spark® microwebsites. They also had access to the university's collection of images, videos and audio clips for use in their reflections. Nearly 300 students submitted Adobe reflections. 

“Most first-year students through First-Year Experience courses will participate in activities around May 4, such as visiting the May 4 Visitors Center,” Washington-Greer said. “Since we are going into the 50th year, we wanted to use this opportunity to get them up to speed on what happened and engage them using this format.”

To facilitate the use of Adobe Creative Cloud, Washington-Greer collaborated with Adobe, J.R. Campbell, executive director of the Design Innovation Initiative, and John M. Rathje, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at Kent State.

Students who chose to use Adobe suites will be eligible to win $1,000 and have access to the creative file for a year. Washington-Greer and her staff will evaluate the essays and select a few to be read at a luncheon with Interim Senior Vice President and Provost Melody Tankersley, Ph.D. Campbell and the Design Innovation team will evaluate the podcasts, video and webpages.

Encouraging the students to use the Adobe tools for the Common Reading Experience is one of the many ways that the university’s Design Innovation Initiative is trying to address challenged-based innovation.

“I’m really excited about how it gives us an opportunity as a university to, in a rich multimodal way, capture how our students are thinking and to showcase their incoming talents,” Campbell said. “From a design innovation point of view, one thing that stood out is that without prompting, many incoming students worked together in teams. This resonated with me with what we are trying to do with design innovation. The video clips were instantly compelling. The students had no challenges in putting together seamless video presentations with the archival video and their own personal interviews.”

During KSU Kickoff academic day, Student Success leaders facilitated conversations about the two books for more than 4,200 first-year students.

“May 4 is a huge deal, and it’s really important to Kent State,” Sarah MacPherson, a Student Success intern, told Simons and other students in a discussion group. “I’m really glad that they picked these books. We talk about May 4 so much because it affected the entire country and the entire world. You will see people here from all around the country visiting.”

Reading and discussing two very different May 4 books will help students develop the critical thinking skills they will need to exhibit in the college classroom.

“People can see if they agree or disagree,” Davis said. “This is a good examination of sources that students use during college. It is valuable training.”

For more information about the Common Reading Experience, visit

To learn about the 50th May 4 Commemoration, visit

POSTED: Thursday, August 22, 2019 10:57 AM
Updated: Friday, December 9, 2022 08:26 AM
April McClellan-Copeland