I am never one to turn down a free lunch. So when the invitation was extended by Khristi Jenkins (school librarian) and Wrenn Heisler (English teacher) at Patuxent High School to come and join in a lunch-time book discussion, I thought to myself, “Sure, why not?” As the district’s specialist for 22 school libraries, I always love to see what is happening in our school libraries and was extremely excited about the idea of the school-wide book club offering.
During April, every student at Patuxent was offered the opportunity to participate in reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Teachers were also invited to participate in the book reading and discussion. Twenty-three students and 20 teachers signed up to read and participate. (In a previous blog post, I talked about how we have one-hour lunches to allow for clubs and extra tutoring.)
My colleague, Sandy Walker, who is our supervisor of equity, and I drove down to the school, not knowing what to expect. When we arrived, we found all of the teachers wearing matching shirts to celebrate the book discussion. In the library, we found pizza, salad, dessert, and the book club student participants filling their plates and taking their seats. Some looked excited, others looked nervous like they were not sure about sharing their thoughts, feelings, and ideas in the group.
Around the room, quotes from the book had been blown up to poster size and were hanging on the walls and windows:
“When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me. One was the usual birds and bees…The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.” (Starr, p. 20) [Thomas, 2017]
“Ho-ly ****, Starr! Seriously? After everything we’ve been through, you think I’m a racist? Really?” (Hailey, p. 112) [Thomas, 2017]
“I want my kids to enjoy life! I get it, Maverick, you wanna help your people out. I do too. That’s why I bust my butt every day at that clinic. But moving out of the neighborhood won’t mean you’re not real and it won’t mean you can’t help this community. You need to figure out what’s more important, your family or Garden Heights. I’ve already made my choice.” (Lisa, p. 180) [Thomas, 2017]
“But Ms. Ofrah said this interview is the way I fight. When you fight, you put yourself out there, not caring who you hurt or if you’ll get hurt. So I throw one more blow, right at One-Fifteen. ‘I’d ask him if he wished he shot me too.’” (Starr, p. 290) [Thomas, 2017]
“If I face the truth, as ugly as it is, she’s right. I was ashamed of Garden Heights and everything in it. It seems stupid now though. I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me? That’s like being ashamed of myself.” (Starr, p. 441) [Thomas, 2017]
As the students settled in, facilitator and English teacher Wrenn Heisler kicked off the discussion by pointing out the quotes around the room. To put the students at ease, she noted that students were not required to talk, but that everyone’s input was welcome and went over the norms for the discussion. The norms included allowing everyone equity of voice, having one speaker at a time, respecting each other’s views, and respectfully disagreeing if needed. In addition to these norms, students were assured that the school library was a safe space for this discussion and were asked to ensure stories they shared about their experiences would stay within the group and not be broadcast around the school. Students also understood that the broader lessons learned about experiences with race, equity, and diversity during the discussion should be carried out into their lives. This was especially important because students were opening up and sharing personal stories about their lives and experiences with race and equity. Looking back on the experience, setting the norms and creating a safe space was key for a successful discussion.
At first, the students were hesitant, but not for long. One, a sophomore, raised her hand and volunteered to speak first. She talked about how one quote resonated with her. And with this one statement the book discussion was off and running. Students shared feelings that were open, honest, and raw. They shared experiences of growing up in multiracial families and seeing things from multiple perspectives. Students offered up what it was like to move from one area closer to Washington, D.C., to the quiet (and as they put it boring) Calvert County. Teachers shared experiences that were different than that of students, and the whole hour-long discussion felt natural, organic, and respectful of thoughts and feelings.
As I left, I felt like the entire experience had been a huge success. Khristi and Wrenn had brought together students and staff from all different backgrounds and succeeded in reading one book and having one discussion that met the needs and validated the feelings of so many different people in the room.
In talking with Khristi and Wrenn a couple weeks later, I asked them how they were feeling about the process. Here are some of their thoughts:
- The students who participated enjoyed the experience of reading the book and really got into the idea of being able to voice their opinions and feelings openly.
- It was surprising at how many kids came to get the book and how quickly. The books were gone within the first few days after we started advertising! Books were available in the school library, free of charge, on a first come, first serve basis. Funding for the books came from the school’s equity team and activity fund.
- Another school-wide book club offering will take place next year…though they are not sure what book. Khristi and Wrenn are tossing around Dumplin’, but are not quite sure! They would like to increase the number of student participants next year. That’s a given.
- It would be beneficial to have students get on the announcements and talk about why they liked the book.
- Next year, they may have a few meetings along the way instead of just one big one at the end.
- Overall, it was a total success – they wanted the experience to feel “adult” and casual and they believe that was a draw!
I’m really excited to see what book the school rolls out next year for it’s school-wide offering. I’m looking forward to seeing if we can move this school-wide model out into more of our buildings and provide funding to purchase sets of books to use.
Thomas, A. 2017. The Hate U Give. Harper Collins. New York.
Author: Jennifer Sturge
Jennifer Sturge is a Specialist for School Libraries and Digital Learning for Calvert County Public Schools. She has been an educator and librarian for 28 years and is always looking forward. She is a member of ALA and AASL,was the 2020-2021 President of the Maryland Association of School Librarians for 2020-2021, a 2017-2018 Lilead Fellow, and Chair of the AASL Supervisor’s Section of AASL..