A few months ago, I wrote about Books of Our Roots, an idea I came up with to celebrate diversity in my high school library and facilitate conversations among students. The goal was to survey students about their families’ backgrounds, and then display books that corresponded to the various countries. Last month, the week before the Thanksgiving break, I put my plan into action. The outcome was even more rewarding than I expected. Not only did students eagerly participate in the project, but they showed a genuine interest about the issues related to their ancestry. Each and every student had some sort of story to tell, and most of them immediately knew where their family came from. It made me realize that teenagers feel a strong connection to their background, if only by knowing the name of a country of origin.
The project also reminded me how seldom people share their history with others. Teenagers are notorious for lacking communication skills, or I should say not communicating about the things that adults think are important (every time I ask my 12th-grade daughter for an update of her friends’ college plans she says, “We don’t talk about that!”). But as I walked around the library with my two-column table, watching students fill in names and countries, I noticed how almost all of them scanned the list to see what others had written. It was not uncommon to hear students show excitement about close friends or even those they didn’t know: “Sophie’s family is from Egypt?”; “You have roots in Lithuania?”; “There’s someone in this school from Jamaica?” The exchanges that started, and apparently kept going after I walked away (I heard many related snippets as students walked past my desk on the way out of the library) seemed to awaken a formerly dormant area of interest in the students’ minds.
Once my surveying was done, I created a spreadsheet on Google Sheets, listing all of the countries and pairing a work of literature with each one. Some of the books were written by authors from the specific country; others were stories that took place in the country; but all of them in some way celebrated or highlighted a particular aspect of the culture. I chose as many books as I could from my high school library collection, and the rest I found in my local library or on my own shelves at home. I displayed all of the books, putting Post-its on each one with the name of the corresponding country.
In his article “Empathetic Skills and School Libraries: Critical for Both Students and Librarians,” Doug Johnson points out that “with a global economy, our empathy needs to extend beyond the next-door neighbor. Multiculturalism and global awareness simply means understanding, not necessarily accepting, the values, motives, and priorities of unfamiliar cultures” (Johnson 2019). Even though displaying books is not the same as reading them, exposing students to diverse literature is at least a start in the right direction. I watch students who are avid readers browsing the display curiously, and notice others commenting on the titles, looking to see if their country is represented. In the coming weeks, I’m planning to walk through the library and book talk as many of the books as I can, showcasing the way each narrative reveals some aspect of a culture.
Using the library to start a dialogue about the roots of our high school community will hopefully spark interest and intrigue among the students, who will then be motivated to continue the quest for multicultural knowledge on their own time.
Johnson, Doug. 2019. “Empathetic Skills and School Libraries: Critical for Both Students and Librarians.” Teacher Librarian 46 (5): 8+.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.