Guest Blogger

Intergenerational Book Clubs: How to use reading to raise social justice awareness

We are living in complicated times. There’s plenty we can reflect on about 2020 and its impacts on our families, our professions and our relationships. And with the arrival of 2021, the conversations have only become more complex. Explaining the world to our children and our students is no easy task. In order to set up our students for success, we need to seek out culturally and linguistically diverse viewpoints. 

Intergenerational book clubs – a template for teaching unity

One way school librarians can achieve this is through an intergenerational book club. At Elmbrook Schools (WI), we use books – both ebooks and audiobooks and print books – to bring together not just students and their families, but people of all ages through our book club, FACEBrook. 

In this case, “FACE” stands for “family and community engagement.” Through partnerships between our schools and the public library, we established this reading program as a way to bring our community closer and to fulfill the Wisconsin Department of Public Education’s initiative to Promote Excellence to All. 

Whether our socioeconomic circumstances, age, race or ethnicity differentiate us, books can help bring us together. This is a goal for our school district, and this model can be replicated across the country in order to help our students and our communities understand this year, and more importantly, each other.

Strengthen family & community engagement

One of the best ways to get everyone on the same page (literally) is to have them read the same book, whether it’s in digital or print format. In our book club, we encourage whole families to participate, along with school board members, district leaders and seniors. This gives members of the community something to debate and discuss. It opens the door to move beyond small talk.

Since the public schools belong to everyone, we all feel a personal commitment to engaging the community and encouraging equity. Programs like intergenerational book clubs are one way we can serve as a driving force for learning for all. 

Choose inclusive books to introduce new perspectives

For FACEBrook, we choose titles with social justice themes in order to encourage varied perspectives and to jumpstart potentially difficult – but important – conversations across all ages and reading levels. Some of the titles we discussed include Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond and Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. The books all cover different upbringings in order to reflect the lived experiences of members of our own community.

We have also reached out to other school districts to participate in our book club in order to increase diversity. We want our students and their families to interact with people whose circumstances are different than theirs.

Know and understand each other to embrace the differences

Whether someone is elderly, from an impoverished community or of an ethnic and/or racial minority, books can give underrepresented communities a voice. In Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, the main character’s journey from Honduras to the United States to reunite with his mother centers around a theme we can all understand: love of family.  

By encouraging people to tell stories about their own backgrounds and their own journeys, we can all learn and understand.  In school, students’ assumptions are challenged once we provide them with a book that outlines a life unlike their own, so that rather than otherizing the child who comes to school wearing hand-me-downs or whose skin is a different color than their own, they’re able to better understand and connect with their peers.

Prepare your students to become global citizens

Our students have never known a world without smartphones. They can access articles from other countries and see what’s happening around the world in an instant, connecting with people and stories from other countries more easily than ever before. So, it’s imperative that we prepare students for entry into the global community, one in which their neighbors might not speak the same language or have the same lived experiences they do.

It’s not enough for our students to simply become global citizens. We also have to teach them to absorb what others are telling them, and if they don’t understand, to become educated. An intergenerational book club provides that opportunity. Our children can learn from us – and we can learn from our children. The script can become flipped at any time, and we are all the better for it.

Establishing an intergenerational book club: 5 key steps

While we’ve found our intergenerational book club hugely beneficial, one drawback is the complexity of launching a community-wide project like this one. It requires the backing of the community, technology and money. The five basic steps necessary are:

  1. Form a team
  2. Secure funding
  3. Select a book or ebook
  4. Plan and market
  5. Set event agenda

Once we had a team formed, we reached out for grants in order to help subsidize the cost of the books. My district uses the Sora K-12 reading app in order to distribute ebooks to students, and the Libby app to send that same book to readers through the public library. We also used  grant funding to get hard copies to seniors. 

We reached out to administrators and school board leaders in order to get further community involvement. Through our website and newsletters, we made sure to get the word out to all of our families. Once the agenda was set and the Zoom line was booked, we were ready to launch FACEBrook.

While the process can seem daunting, school librarians have a duty to their students and the community as a whole to embrace diversity and promote understanding. Through intergenerational book clubs, we have the power to navigate complex topics across different age ranges. In 2021, social justice issues are more prevalent than ever – but we also have the means to work through them, one page at a time.

Today’s guest blogger is Kay Koepsel-Benning. Kay serves as the Director of Library Services for the Elmbrook Schools in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and is a PhD student in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis Wisconsin Idea Executive Cohort at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is privileged to work with a talented Library Services family, and is passionate about strengthening community partnerships and leveraging digital content to promote literacy and student engagement.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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