Cassy Lee of the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, CA, was named School Library Journal Librarian Champion of Student Voice in 2018.
What can each of us do as educators in 2020 to help make our classrooms, our libraries, and our schools places where all students feel a sense of belonging and have equitable access to good teaching and learning?
In my 13 years as an educator, I have worked at the extremes of schools in our California education system, from severely underfunded urban schools, to one of the richest suburban school districts in the country, to an independent school where the supply closet never runs empty. The inequities I have seen are head-spinning. We know the statistics. EdBuild’s recent report on divisive school borders called attention to the $23 billion funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite public school districts, which are sometimes right across the street from each other. And that report doesn’t even include independent schools, or the ways education is inequitable in this country beyond funding. We all know the education system is not serving every student equitably. How can any one of us help turn the tide?
No matter where we are, in the most privileged or most disadvantaged setting, there are things we can do to move the needle toward equity. For the past few years, I have committed to planning everything I do as a school librarian through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’ve rooted my programming, professional development, committee work, and teacher collaborations in deepening my own and students’ and fellow teachers’ understanding of diversity and social justice issues such as institutional racism, and have created opportunities to empower folks to take action. Stepping into the work of dismantling systems of oppression that we are conditioned not to see takes courage, humility, and persistence, and many educators aren’t sure where to start. Here are a few ideas, based on my own experiences:
It starts with you, as an educator, making a commitment to understanding the systems and structures that create inequity in schools and how your own biases and beliefs affect your instruction and engagement with students and colleagues.
Try reading Paul Gorski’s Ten Commitments for Equity Literacy, and if you aren’t sure what they mean, start building your equity literacy. Ask your school to send you to professional development or to bring qualified speakers and trainers in. If your school can’t provide that, seek out resources on your own. There are extensive resources available to help you learn about and improve upon equitable school policy and educator practices, including books, websites, podcasts, etc. Ask your librarian to help you find some, and dig in.
Consider starting a book club with your colleagues to learn together and hold each other accountable to growth. I have been actively learning about inequity in education for many years and still have huge knowledge gaps. Being willing and open to having our own blind spots pointed out by friends is essential.
I was honored to be selected as the 2018 School Library Journal Champion of Student Voice because of my intentional focus on including student voice at the planning table. I started a student news crew, a student library advisory committee, and I’ve just recently launched a student diversity, equity, and inclusion team (self-named “The DEI Hards”) at my middle school. I hoped at least a few students would show up, but so many came that we couldn’t fit everyone in the classroom at the first meeting. Students are eager to give input, to have their voices heard, and to jump into the work with the teachers. Do you invite students to speak up and help shape the curriculum, school policies and programming based on their needs, interests, and perceptions of what is inequitable? Give it a try.
You will never feel truly equipped to jump into equity work. You might feel like an imposter. You might be scared. You will make mistakes. That’s OK. That’s where the growth happens. We tell our students to have a growth mindset and to accept that failing is part of the process. Be willing to learn, have an open mind, and lean into the discomfort. Jump right into the learning pit, and choose an area to focus on this year. It could be committing to improving your own equity literacy, maybe by watching the Leading Equity Virtual Summit Sheldon Eakins put on the first week of January, or attending one of the many educational equity-related conferences available. It could be reevaluating your curriculum through a social justice lens and developing a new lesson based on Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards. It could be gathering students and teachers to start a DEI committee to assess and work on your school’s commitment to dismantling inequitable policies and practices. Consider planning a Human Library event at your school to foster conversations around prejudice and discrimination to help students learn to not judge a book by its cover. It could be advocating for more fair and equitable school district funding in your city. Pick something, commit to trying it, and take the leap.
In 2020, how will you foster equity in your practice as an educator?
Be sure to also check out this blog post from Ali Schilpp, 2018 School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year:How “Going Global” Can Support Multiple Literacies and Digital Citizenship.
“23 Billion.” EdBuild, 2019, edbuild.org/content/23-billion.
Gorski, Paul. “Ten Commitments for Equitable Educators.” Equity Literacy Institute, 20 May 2019, www.equityliteracy.org/ten-commitments-equity.
“The Human Library.” The Human Library Organization, humanlibrary.org/about/.
“The Leading Equity Virtual Summit 2020 Registration.” Leading Equity Center, 2029, www.leadingequitycenter.com/summit2020?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.leadingequitycenter.com%2Fa%2F20056%2Freoq86oh.
“Social Justice Standards.” Teaching Tolerance, www.tolerance.org/frameworks/social-justice-standards.
Photo via Cassy Lee