Six years ago my mentor, Mercedes Muller, informed me about a local NYC book drive that gives away books to teachers who work in Title One schools that serve many low-income students. Every year since then, I have greatly benefited from the books I receive.
Working in schools in communities that struggle economically has made me acutely aware of the importance of teachers obtaining the resources students need to have a fighting chance at an equitable education, regardless of what a school administration provides. I’ve learned over the years how to write grants and letters to donors and others in positions to help us financially with requests for what we need. For the most part, this has proven to be fruitful, especially for building my classroom library. Those books are of particular importance because many of my students do not regularly take out books from their public library or have books at home of interest to them, if they have any at all. As an English teacher and Literacy Specialist, I know how vital it is for children to be immersed in a print-rich environment. Just as important is the ability for students of color to see themselves represented in a variety of ways in the books they choose or are given to read.
This past Sunday, I attended Project Cicero, intent on finding a diverse pool of books to add to my already diverse classroom library. I am fortunate to teach in a school that participates in a Middle School Quality Initiative which places a heavy emphasis on reading and writing for students in grades six, seven, and eight. I get to order books to build my classroom library a few times throughout the year. This year, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been very intentional about creating a diverse classroom library. To be clear, by diverse I mean books that include main characters from marginalized groups. This includes Black and Brown people, students who identify with the LGBTQ community, students who affected by incarceration, students who are coping with mental illness, and students dealing with traumas, seen and unseen. I was so sure that Project Cicero would have exactly what I was looking for that I had already mapped out classroom literature circles and book talks.
Boy, was I mistaken.
To say that there were little to no books of diversity for middle and high schoolers is an understatement. There were some, but hardly a fair representation of the books that are currently available.
According its own website,
Project Cicero is an annual non-profit book drive designed to create and supplement classroom libraries in under-resourced New York City public schools.
Since its inception in 2001, Project Cicero has distributed 3,250,000 new and gently used books to more than 20,000 New York City classrooms, reaching over 700,000 students. We receive donations from more than 100 independent, public, and parochial schools each year, and also receive generous contributions from many publishers.
All these donors from all these people/organizations, and nobody thought to order/request books with characters who aren’t lily-white females? This is me shaking my head all the way back to my classroom full of Black and Brown girls and boys. It just goes to show how minority students are far off the trajectory of mainstream educational channels. Many other teachers of color who were there who voiced the same concerns that I did. The difference is that I took my concerns beyond complaining amongst fellow educators and voiced them to a member of the executive board of Project Cicero, Susan Fisher. As an advocate, it’s never enough to just feel and speak on the outrage. The next step that I am learning along this advocacy journey is to use that outrage as the springboard into an actionable step aimed at bringing about the desired change that I am seeking. I am happy to say that Ms. Fisher was genuinely interested in what I had to say, especially when she heard that I’ve been a long time supporter of the Project Cicero book drive. She not only invited me to be interviewed on camera for a video for their website, but to be a member of the board so that I could be among the decision-makers when it comes to future book selections for future book drives.
Not too shabby, huh?
Why do I share this with you? Not to give any glory to myself. Instead, to encourage you, as a teacher, to be an advocate for children. You are a voice for educational equity because you teach students everyday. Too often in education, teachers are not seen as the experts and we defer our expertise and knowledge to people who don’t know half as much as we do about what works and what doesn’t work. Sunday I was heard because I spoke to the right person, the one in a position to make a change. I went outside the walls of my classroom and spoke about an inequity and I was heard. Let your voices be heard too, my fellow educators.
It’s 2018 and inequity in education is running as rampant as it did pre- Brown vs. Board of Education. In many ways it is worse. I can’t sit idly by without doing something to reverse this sick truth. Who’s with me in this fight?