Contributor

ELHS Begins to ‘Read Woke’

Teachers unite and reveal projects to encourage diversity education through literature and conversation

Noelle Avena

The ELHS library has not been stagnant
over quarantine and the summer. Two new
programs have recently sprouted from the
efforts of librarian Jeannine Barber and the
support of other staff members.
“There’s two groups, there’s an anti-racist
book club that some of the teachers are doing,
and then there’s also a Read Woke movement
in the library that we’re starting with teachers
and students,” Ms. Barber said. “In May
and June, some teachers were talking and
decided that if we weren’t going to have the
opportunity to get formal training on how
to be anti- racist as teachers, that we should
educate ourselves.”
Kim Buckley, Shannon Saglio and Ms.
Barber invited the whole school to read either
How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi,
or White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo.
“I’ve been a teacher who’s wanted to talk
about those issues but I wanted to make sure I
had a better understanding. I wanted to make
sure that I’m coming from the right place with
the right information. I also wanted to work

with my colleagues who wanted to create a
safe space for our students,” Ms. Buckley said.
There was a great response of around 30
staff members who were interested in joining
this book club. Unfortunately, reading is
a challenge in today’s climate. According
to neuroscientist Oliver J. Robinson, a
neuroscientist and psychologist based at
the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at
University College London, terror, anger, and
sadness are all reasons for why people have
been recently physically unable to focus and
read.
“We literally can’t read right now because
of the biology of all the stress we’re under,”
Ms. Barber said. “Some people had said that
they’d only read a chapter, or hadn’t been able
to get into it, but we still invited everyone to
be part of the discussion because the intent
was there and life is just hard right now.”
This discussion was a Zoom meeting
on Sept. 23.
“The meeting was a little over an hour. We
talked about the book for about 37 seconds,
and the rest of it was about the work: what do
we need to do, what are our weaknesses, what
are we happy to see that’s already happening
in our school community,” Ms. Barber said.
Each Wednesday, Ms.
Barber sends out something
small to the group, which
could be something to read
or work on. They plan to
Zoom about once a month
about what they’re working
on intheir individual
classrooms with students.
“As an English teacher,
I was talking about how it
was like in the classroom,
trying to bring some non-canonical literature,
some other voices in when possible. I can’t
change the curriculum, obviously, and
anything I want to supplement with has to be
short enough so everybody can access it,” Ms.
Barber said.
The group also discussed the possibility of
teaching history in a less chronological way
to include the history of different peoples
who are mostly excluded from the traditional
American curriculum.
Despite what one might assume, the group
consists of teachers from diverse departments.
“It’s not really the people you would expect.

It’s not just a bunch of humanities teachers.
There’s a lot of science teachers on there.
They’re definitely people who, in their work,
in the ELHS community, just really want to
make sure that everybody’s voices are heard
and everybody’s stories are told, whatever
that looks like,” Ms. Barber said.
The other project is inspired by Ms. Barber’s
trip to the NCTE (National Council for
Teachers of English) convention in Baltimore
last fall where she discovered Cicely Louis,
school librarian of the year, who began a
program in 2017 called Read Woke. Read
Woke isn’t just a reading challenge, it’s about
finding empathy.
She created a list of 10 books, each telling a
story of marginalized people. The list includes
books with diverse themes
including obesity, mass
incarceration, Jim Crow,
mental illness, addiction,
LGBTQ stories, and
the Holocaust.
In addition to Ms.
Barber’s work, it is
important to note that
the East Lyme school
district did have a
professional development
day on Oct. 9 to move more of this diversity
education forward.
“The idea is to educate ourselves on other
life experiences,” Ms. Barber said.
Those themes are from books that are part
of Louis’s original 10, but Barber’s version of
Read Woke may include as many as 20 to 30
titles, or it may be broadened to anything that
meets this requirement:
“As long as you’re reading about somebody’s
story whose experience is significantly
different from your own, you’re opening your
eyes and learning. You’re enriching your life,”
Ms. Barber said.

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