Field Notes: Loud in the Library: Creating Social Activists at School

I am the librarian in an elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a city of socioeconomic extremes, but dedicated to the mission of equity in public education; every classroom in each of the twelve public elementary schools maintains a 60/40 ratio between paid and free lunch students. In addition to being the home of Harvard and MIT and a leader in tech and biotech, Cambridge has a reputation for being a crunchy, grassroots-y, community-activist-y place. No better place to start raising awareness of the wider world and our responsibility as citizens in it than in the elementary school library.

The library after school is a place for families. Photo: Liz Phipps Soeiro. The library after school is a place for families. Photo: Liz Phipps Soeiro.

School libraries have a built-in audience — our staff, our students, and their families — and the school library space can act as a community gathering place. My library after school is probably the loudest place in the building — toddlers rolling around on beanbag chairs, kindergartners reading with their families, teenagers waiting to pick up their younger siblings from the computer lab. I give out Band-Aids and stickers as readily as book recommendations. I walk kids home when their moms are sick. I hold babies. Okay, so I will admit that in library school my dream was to buffer acidic paper, quietly in some basement, by myself. And therefore it would be a lie to say that my inner Gollum doesn’t rear its head sometimes: “preciouses, don’t touch my preciouses, my books!” But the benefits far outweigh the anxiety.

One way I have been able to engage students is by piquing their sense of justice through read-alouds, current events, and small-group discussions about books such as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Kathleen Krull and Yuyi Morales’s Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. Kids react to injustice because of their strong sense of what is fair, so many of the projects I do with students have a social justice aspect to them. What I find is that children become engaged and passionate when trying to remedy a situation they feel is unfair. I have some favorite picture books that I read aloud to spark conversation and reflection. These books allow us not just to look at an injustice singularly but also examine the greater social context that created it. Then we can look critically at ourselves and our practices and what changes we can effect — it’s a “think globally, act locally” model at work.

This has led to some validating civic experiences for my students; they have led the charge to effect tangible change. After first-grade students read about the environmentalist Green Belt Movement and its founder Wangari Maathai (Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler), they met with a city councilor to talk about how their neighborhoods could be beautified to benefit not just the residents but also the Earth. They talked of planting flowers and picking up trash. These students went on to make posters and educate other students to be better recyclers in school and use fewer paper towels when washing their hands. Their actions and energy modified others’ actions for the better.

Fifth graders were dismayed when they learned the truth about Christopher Columbus and what his “discovery” meant for the indigenous people of Hispaniola and beyond. Our city’s vice mayor came into library class to educate them on how to build on their outrage: how to organize and grow a movement to achieve the change they’re looking for. And while these fifth graders have not (yet) been successful in changing the name of the holiday from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in Cambridge, they learned a valuable lesson about committing yourself to and organizing others for a cause in which you believe. [EDITOR'S NOTE UPDATE: "The Cambridge City Council has voted unanimously to change Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day."]

Third- and fourth-grade students outside Cambridge City Hall. Photo: Liz Phipps Soeiro. Third- and fourth-grade students outside Cambridge City Hall. Photo: Liz Phipps Soeiro.

After another group of fifth graders read excerpts from Discovering Black America: From the Age of Exploration to the Twenty-First Century by Linda Tarrant-Reid, we invited one of the founders of our city’s Black Lives Matter chapter to come into the library to answer questions, teach us what an ally can be, and empower our students to be proud of who they are. The children wrote poetry, came up with rallying cries, learned to support each other, and made plans about how they could speak to younger students about the racism and prejudice that continue to plague our city and the world. These students were also given a tour of City Hall by our vice mayor. While sitting in chambers, they were able to ask him about his personal experiences with racism and prejudice as a Dominican American child growing up in Cambridge.

Little_Lib The Little Free Library at Sennott Park. Photo: Liz Phipps Soeiro.

Third- and fourth-grade students tackled the issue of book access in our community by lobbying the city to fund and post a Little Free Library in nearby Sennott Park. The students very carefully chose this location. They looked at the surrounding apartments, schools, senior housing, and daycares and decided that this was the spot that would have an impact on the greatest number of people. The kids then wrote letters to the city council, mayor, and city manager. They worked directly with our city’s educational liaison and the Department of Public Works. Students even testified at City Hall, persuading city officials and others that the Little Free Library must open! Lo and behold, the library was installed, complete with a ribbon-cutting by our mayor, city councilors, school committee members, PTO members, school administration, teachers, students, and families — whew!

I wanted to continue to reach my school population during the summer break, so I reached out to families in our school and district, leading to a crowd-sourcing effort for a bicycle that would deliver books to kids over the summer months. Eventually, after partnering with several other city organizations, this became the “Book Bike,” a full-on summer program in Cambridge.The Cambridge Book Bike has delivered nearly three thousand new, free books over the course of two summers to kids from toddlers to teenagers, at parks serving free lunch in the city.

The collaboration among books, families, students, and library doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Each of these relationships affects the others in a cycle that can look something like: library to families, families to community, community to library, library to students, and students to community. When I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness aloud in library class, a third-grade girl stood up in the middle of it and apologized for treating another girl in the class poorly, then they hugged with zero prompting. Our students have the ability to make positive impacts, small and large; all they need from us is a space in which they can do this.

From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Collaborations. For more, click the tag Collaborations. Read the second-graders' playground petition to the City here.

Liz Phipps Soeiro

Liz Phipps Soeiro is an elementary school librarian in the Cambridge, MA, Public Schools. She is an advocate for inclusive libraries and active in her community to create spaces that are welcoming to all students.

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Shanno Betts

Libraries are uniquely positioned to unite community resources and promote social change. I, too, taught in district of socioeconomic challenges here in CT. The district literacy specialist and I created a family literacy center in our K-5 library, complete with active programming for children and parents (visits by pediatricians, nutritionists, early childhood education speakers, authors, musicians etc). I described the center in some detail here: Bravo to you for extending your library, your skills and your heart! I can think of no better place and guide to help children lift their voices and feel the power of stepping up

Posted : May 01, 2017 05:02

Laura Shovan

Thank you for this essay, Liz. As a visiting poet-in-the-schools, I'm lucky enough to work with students all around Maryland. Encouraging young people to have a voice in their schools and communities is a great way to effect change. It also gives the student activists a sense of pride and ownership. In this way, they are not only students, but full members of or partners in the community they hope to change.

Posted : Sep 04, 2016 11:52

Jen Cullerton Johnson

Thanks, Liz for mentioning Seeds of Change in your post. I truly hope many young people are empowered to look to make systematic changes through reading and dialogue. Most importantly, I hope young people learn to trust their voices so that their trust in themselves can lead to understanding we are all connected. Best, Jen Cullerton Johnson

Posted : Jun 14, 2016 05:38


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