Inspiring Students to Change Their Communities through Social Justice Biography Project

In 2019, I attended my first AASL National Conference. I attended a session titled “Truth, Justice, and the School Library Way: Integrating the AASL and Social Justice Standards for the Win!” In this session, the presenters identified the relationship between the AASL Shared Foundations and Learning for Justice’s Social Justice Standards. We also looked at how one district incorporated these standards into its elementary school library curriculum. I knew immediately that I had to bring it back to my school and district.

At Gwin Elementary School in Hoover, Alabama, where I am the librarian, we have a district and school diversity initiative. One of the core beliefs of this initiative is that “We will serve the Hoover City Schools community by creating a positive change for students who may not be receiving equitable treatment.” The Social Justice Standards and the elementary curriculum lessons I learned at the AASL National Conference fit this belief and allowed me to create a positive change for students with my lessons in the library.

The project that was that was awarded the 2021 AASL Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey Social Justice Award was titled “Empowering a Diverse Community of Learners through Biographies.” It was a collaborative cross-curricular biography project engaging students in researching Black Americans. The goal of the project was to bridge ideas on social justice and Black Americans using biographies as a tool to expand students’ ideas and connection with real-world struggles.

The project was completed with third graders at Gwin. Hali House, a third-grade teacher at Gwin, and I shared a vision for this project and co-taught and co-planned the entire project. Through the collaborative project, our students gained a better understanding of Black Americans, their influences, struggles, and contributions to our world. We accomplished this by studying Black History Month and Black Americans. In addition, we used Learning for Justice Lessons, specifically those on identity and empathy. We also incorporated lessons on digital literacy, information literacy, research skills, and state reading and writing standards.

At the end of the unit, students had to reflect on the person they researched in-depth by examining their impact on the world and how they could empathize with their struggles. As a result, our students are empowered and inspired to change their communities.

Roald Dahl once said, “If you’re going to get anywhere in life, you have to read a lot of books.” Reading inclusive books allows students to learn about and understand the world around them. We strive to have books that represent all our students in our school library and classroom libraries to use literature to authentically learn about all topics, even some that can be challenging to discuss with students. We are so excited to receive $5,000 worth of books from Penguin Random House to help with this mission.

What did I learn from this?

  • Attend AASL National Conferences. National conference out of the question? Apply for AASL grants or awards that include travel stipends. You can also look for state-level school library conferences. The people you meet and the knowledge you learn from others at these conferences can be invaluable. There are many great resources shared that can help shape the way you teach!
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Hali and I started talking about this project a month or so before we sat down to plan. This gave us time to mull over ideas before we started planning. We designed this project while our school was on an alternate schedule due to COVID-19. No students were in the buildings on Wednesdays, and we were fortunate to have that time to sit down together and plan each part. Even if we didn’t have this time, it is worth it to find time to collaborate! We started with an outline of what we wanted to cover and who would lead what. Then, each of us planned the lessons we would lead. The class came to the library every day, and we co-taught the lessons. Hali and I reflected each day to decide what to teach the next day. This project took about two months to complete, including the time for students to create a written slideshow and final technology creations. We hope to expand this project to include other ethnicities and races in the future.
  • Don’t underestimate your students. We completed this project with third-grade students. They are more than capable of understanding social justice issues. We need to talk about social justice issues with students at a young age, so they feel empowered to change their communities. These students blew me away with their impact thoughts and how they empathized with the people they researched.

I’ll leave you with a quote from The Minpins by Roald Dahl, “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” Remember to capture the magic in books to engage students to look at the world around them through others’ eyes because we can learn the secrets of life by reading about others.

Author: Jennifer Northrup

Categories: Awards Spotlight, Community

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