Today, School Library Journal and Scholastic named Cicely Lewis the 2020 School Librarian of the Year. The award recognizes K–12 library professionals for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens by fostering multiple literacies.
Cicely is a school librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, Georgia. She is dedicated to creating programming that celebrates the diversity of her students and their world. She is the founder of Read Woke, an initiative encouraging students to read books that challenge a social norm or the status quo, give a voice to the voiceless, have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group, or provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised. She also hosts reading-focused events for students throughout the school year, including a book fashion show, and she visits districts nationwide to stress the importance of libraries and certified librarians in every school.
Learn more about Cicely and her incredible work here, and in the Q&A below. Congratulations, Cicely!
Q: Why did you decide to pursue a career as a school librarian after being a classroom teacher for so many years?
Cicely Lewis: I would host these huge events in my classrooms, like poetry cafes and Harlem Renaissance celebrations, and other students in the school would come by and say, "I wish I could be in your class so I could participate." I would also help students in the library so much that an ELA teacher with whom I work told me that I should be the school librarian. I realized that it was the perfect job for me because I wanted to have a bigger impact on the student body as a whole.
Q: What inspired you to create the Read Woke initiative?
CL: These are volatile times. Across the country, parents of color are having “the talk” with their kids about how to prevent the police from seeing them as a threat because of their skin color or how they dress. Families are being torn apart and deported. Each day on TV, we witness acts of social injustice. I come to school and talk about these events with my students, many of whom have opinions, but not much knowledge about their rights.
Every year, I have a theme in my school library. In 2017, it was Harry Potter. This year, in our current political and social climate, I knew that my students were hurting and needed something different. After coming across the Stay Woke edition of Essence magazine, I launched Read Woke at my library. Learn more about Read Woke in this excerpt, which originally appeared in School Library Journal.
Q: How have you seen a book change a child’s life?
CL: One of my students read Rest in Power by Trayvon Martin's parents. She came running to me and she said, "I know what I want to do with my life now. I want to be a civil rights attorney because I want to make sure this doesn't happen to another person of color. I saw the protests on TV and I never knew what it was about because my mom wouldn't let me watch it. I literally cried when I read what happened. That was my first read woke book."
Q: Why is it essential for every school to have a certified school librarian?
CL: Every student deserves a certified school librarian. At a time when students are being bombarded with information, they need someone to help them navigate this information. Also, libraries are a safe haven for many students, and having someone who truly understands the role can make a difference. A certified school librarian knows the impact of an effective school library program.
I thought I knew it all about the school library until I started my studies at Georgia Southern University and realized that I had so much to learn. I had never been in a program where every class was beneficial and applicable to my growth as a school librarian. Every assignment, project, and article, I would implement into my own library the very next day. I would call my favorite teachers and say, "Listen, I have a new tool to try!" This passion can only come from someone who loves the role enough to become certified. And when you know the plight of the school librarian, then you can truly advocate for the profession.
Q: Do you have any advice for fellow educators and librarians on how they can support students, and each other, while schools are closed?
CL: My advice is to practice self-care first. You can't take care of anyone unless you are okay. Put your oxygen mask on first. Next, create video tutorials for teachers and send them out via social media or directly to teachers to help provide resources about databases and other instructional tools. Promote your ebooks and audiobooks! This is a great time to get students acclimated with these materials. If your school doesn't have any, connect them with free digital resources like Audible and Junior Library Guild. Most importantly, listen. Find out what your school and community needs and be there to support them. This is a time for school librarians to step up to the plate and take the lead. We have been at the forefront of technology instruction so this is our opportunity to shine. Now with digital learning becoming a must, librarians are needed even more.
Q: What book are you reading right now?
CL: I am currently reading Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi.
Photo by Fernando Decillis for School Library Journal