Ten years ago, on June 20th, 2007, the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books presented an institute entitled “INDIVISIBLE: Teaching for Social Justice through Literature for Children and Adolescents”.
The full day event featured talks, workshops and seminars by notable experts in the fields of education, librarianship and social justice. Topics spanning issues of poverty, gender identity, sexual orientation, civil rights and racism were all explored through the lens of children’s and adolescent books.
As the ten year anniversary of the original “Indivisible” event drew near, we reflected upon some somber realities—that as a nation and a world we still wrestled with the same social justice issues and that we were still striving for respect and equality.
Thus we commemorated our continuing commitment to social justice with this year’s October 14th institute: “Indivisible 10 Years Later: Conversations in Social Justice Through Children’s and Adolescent Literature”.
Our day opened with a riveting and starkly honest conversation between our keynote “conversationalists” award-winning author Kwame Alexander and literacy reform leader Cornelius Minor.
Together they set a challenging and action-oriented tone for our 100+ attendees that resonated throughout the day. They also laid the groundwork for our overall focus on engaging with the day’s issues through active conversation rather than classic lecture-style, maintaining a shared commitment to creating a safe space together where honest questions and sharing could take place.
Breakout sessions followed next, offering attendees six different sessions to attend, each led by a leader in education, librarianship and/or social justice:
Laura Beltchenko-Educating the Whole Child: Utilizing Multicultural and Culturally Diverse Children’s Picture Books to Support Cognitive and Affective Development of Elementary Students
Betsy Bird-Finding Religion in Books for Kids: Collection Management and Spiritual Diversity
Amina Chaudrhi-Multiracial Stories: Windows, Mirrors and Gaps in Children’s Literature
Elisa Gall-Interrogating Whiteness
Ronell Whitaker & Eric Kallenborn-Diversity in Comics
Brian Wilson-Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
Using children’s and adolescent literature as the lens through which the various breakout session topics were viewed, attendees were able to dive deeper into specific facets of social justice, engage in conversation and embrace the inherent challenges and points of vulnerability.
At lunch break attendees were treated to a Skype visit by poet Janet Wong, who shared her own perspectives on social justice followed by a reading of several of her poems.
The afternoon panel, “Reading, Responding and Resisting: Anti-Racist Advocacy in the World of Education, Librarianship and Children’s & YA Literature” narrowed our focus more closely upon the benefits, challenges and set-backs in wielding literature as an agent for change. Mediated by Deerfield Public Librarian and “Reading While White” contributor Elisa Gall, our panel offered diverse perspectives and a breadth of experience and knowledge including Research Librarian and blogger Edi Campbell, Associate Professor in MLIS and author Sarah Park Dahlen and Boston University children’s literature lecturer and researcher Laura Jiménez.
Together they informed and challenged our attendees across a broad range of social justice issues, drawing powerful example from their own experiences and across the breadth of children’s and adolescent literature.
We began the day committed to using conversation as the primary vehicle for engaging with social justice issues and children’s and adolescent literature. Sparked and modeled by our keynote conversationalists Kwame and Cornelius, our attendees took up the challenge and in doing so, became agents of their own learning. At each break time and through lunch attendees could be heard actively discussing social justice topics raised by speakers and breakout session leaders. Many attendees actively sought out speakers for further clarification or simply discussion.
At the close of the event attendees were invited to take a moment to share, if they chose, their thoughts about the day. A number of attendees volunteered, and offered not only their thanks, but also carefully considered insights and suggestions for moving forward. This same thoughtful—and thought-provoking—commentary continued on the feedback attendees shared with us in the post-event questionnaire. Attendee responses spanned a range of topics and ideas, such as:
“I took away the notion that we should prioritize children's safety within a classroom (not just physical but emotional safety) and that if students are having behavioral issues in a class, we should be asking different questions. Not ‘what is wrong with these students?’ but rather, 'What is going on in the school or class that is leading to students having trouble engaging?’”
“One thing that the diverse children's literature panel said stood out: ‘Listen to us’ when they say that a book or its characters are not accurately presenting a cultural perspective. It is important to look to people from the culture and believe them when they say it is not an accurate representation.”
“Gave me ideas for how my library can support social justice work in classrooms; the panels inspired me and gave me courage to continue this work in a hostile environment.”
“It exceeded my expectations by challenging my thinking and providing me with sources to help me explain what I learned.”
“I needed to know that I am not alone in this work. “
Herein lies the deeper value in engaging with issues in social justice that affect our lives so deeply: in creating a safe space to share our wisdom and ideas as well as our weaknesses and uncertainties we are creating communities of trust and honesty. There is nothing easy about guiding our young people towards a better future, nor towards educating ourselves away from stereotypes, prejudice and intolerance. It is our hope to offer more events and spaces of learning and sharing such as this, where educators, librarians and anyone committed to guiding young people can gather to find ways to use the power of our stories to teach and inspire.