This past November, tragedy struck my elementary school community when one of our fifth grade students died. Within hours of her passing, reporters and cameramen showed up on school grounds, filming our children on the playground and through the windows of the cafeteria, placing blame for her death on bullying at our school. In all the chaos, we didn’t have time to process anything. There really aren’t words to describe how difficult this experience was for us. We were grieving – not only for our student, but also for our community.
After an emotional staff meeting, I realized that all of us needed something positive to rally our community around. Since we are located in a suburb of Denver, and ALA’s Midwinter Conference was taking place here in February, I began contacting authors in hopes of coordinating school visits.
First, I reached out to Marley Dias’s agent with Scholastic. Scholastic was overwhelmingly supportive. Not only did Marley offer to visit our school free of charge on the Friday before ALA, but Scholastic sent all 200 of our fourth and fifth graders a free copy of her book.
Next, I partnered with a local independent bookstore, The Tattered Cover, which offered to bring Matt de la Peña and Loren Long to our school on that following Tuesday to promote their new book, Love. We decided to incorporate the book and its message into a school-wide kindness campaign.
In the month leading up to our two author visits, students nominated their peers to be recognized for acts of kindness. For each remarkable act of kindness, we photographed students and quoted their peers’ descriptions of their kind acts. We placed these photos on large banners hanging from our hallway beams under the words, “Love is…” Soon, teachers and students alike were stopping in their tracks to read the banners. We immersed ourselves in love and kindness.
Marley Dias’s visit came one week after her book’s publication, and within days of several national media appearances. Our fourth and fifth graders were beside themselves with excitement, and Marley came full of energy. She spoke passionately about how our students could become agents of positive change in our community, and it was clear they saw their own possibilities within her. It wasn’t until I saw how hopeful my students seemed in those moments, that I realized how hopeless we’d been feeling until then.
Four days later, we welcomed Matt de la Peña and Loren Long with a red carpet and students lining the hallway chanting, “Love! Love! Love!” Hundreds of students held construction paper signs with references to the book, saying “I am love” and “I am the face in the mirror.” Looking around me, I felt as though my heart was bursting – while our path to recovery was still very much a journey, in that moment we were full of hope.
These experience have validated for me importance of connecting my students with authors and illustrators. Despite financial obstacles, publishers and booksellers rallied behind our cause to make these visits possible. They helped return a sense of pride and hope to our wounded community, and validated for me that it is worth every bit of my effort to make these moments happen again in the future.
Susie Isaac has been the librarian at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado for eleven years. She currently serves on the School Age Programs and Services Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through www.sunrisenewberyclub.com. Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.