Passport to Empathy Reading Challenge - Building an Inclusive Reading Initiative within a Conservative Community
Encouraging students to read inclusive books in the South can be difficult even in the best of times. The influx of misinformation and the growing population of community members focused on removing stories from the narrative of society has made it even more so as we entered this school year. Not only are books being targeted for removal across the state, we've been faced with a rational fear of retaliation in our school communities for pushing back and promoting the freedom to read, let alone encouraging a reading challenge focused on increasing our student's exposure to multiple perspectives.
As school librarians, as educators, as advocates for productive citizens in our society, we know the importance of reading books that acknowledge, teach, and celebrate diverse populations. Many of us are familiar with the wise words of Rudine Sims Bishop, in which she said
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (1990, p. ix)
Reading has the ability to transport us into another character’s mind, allowing us to see and feel what they do, exposing us to a life very different from our own. Through reading, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, or age. It can introduce us to what it's like to lose a parent, be at war, be born into poverty, or leave home to immigrate to a new country. By experiencing an author's world, we can build a deeper understanding of the complexities in our world, which influences how we relate to others in the real world. And we don't always just learn about others. We see ourselves and can feel less alone. We're able to spend time reflecting on ourselves, our own experiences, and how we interact within our society.
Our students deserve educators who are going to see them, share their stories, and encourage free thought. Who are we without our stories? Where would we be without these stories?
Luckily, I work with some amazing school librarians. In a conversation with another high school librarian down the road from me last semester, we brought up all these points and we asked ourselves what can we do. Sitting back isn't it anymore. Sliding books to students on the sly isn't it anymore. What message are we sending when we do not face the problems our students are facing head on and choose to not openly support all of our students? I used to have a quote at the bottom of my email signature from Edmund Burke (at least I believe it is from him) that stated "“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Find a supportive friend and colleague like mine who encourages you to do something!
It's because of our students that we felt the need to develop a reading challenge to help support them in their path to discovering themselves and others by reading a mile in their shoes and challenging their own biases. By stepping outside of ourselves a little at a time, I hope to encourage a love of reading while supporting their character development.
But how do you start a program like this in a conservative, Southern community when you have parents picketing outside the school because of masks? How do you promote a reading challenge that encourages students to step outside of themselves when we have families who believe January 6th is a hoax? How do you share a reading challenge like this when we have staff members who are being told to hide their true selves for fear of community pushback?
We do it gradually, gracefully, and by treading lightly.
Our reading program is heavily influenced by Read Woke and Project LIT, but we can't call it that, so let's call it what it is: A passport to empathy. Let's change the narrative with the books we read and choose to consume. Let's face our community with the language necessary to defeat the false narratives. Inviting staff members and parents to participate in this reading program helps model thinking openly.
How does the program work?
It's easy - just read!
Each month, we listed 7 books that focus on a specific theme. January is a brand new start, so we picked the theme of journeys to showcase characters who have had to start over somewhere new through immigration. The last book is a book of choice as long as it fits in the theme. I firmly believe students should always have a choice.
Once students or staff members read a book, they log their book in Beanstack (our county purchased this for every school, so this is not something I purchased for students). For every book a student reads, they earn a ticket for our monthly drawing that includes things like movie tickets, signed book copies, gift cards, etc. Other students can receive squishies or fidget toys, sticker decals, or reading buttons. The larger prizes we work with our local business partners to cover and the smaller ones I purchase myself. We also have a button maker we want to make reading badges with!
Templates for Reading Challenge
Bishop, R. S. "Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. 6 (3), ix-xi." (1990).
School Librarian Advocating for Student Voice in Metro Atlanta