The Library: A hub for Social Justice Conversations

By Samantha Evans

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes a practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world”- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 

I am passionate that our schools become an instrument that allows our learners to practice true freedom. One of the ways in which we are doing things differently at St John's D.S.G. is in our Junior School Library. We have changed our library lessons completely: from what was known as book education, to social justice conversations. The topics we discuss are centred around our social identities of race, gender, ability, nationality, language, and so on. 

The vision

The vision

We need to stop and think more deeply about what we are doing and why. We need to ponder the purpose of education and how we are fulfilling that purpose as schools. If we accept that oppressive systems and cultures exist in our schools, then we need to understand that by doing nothing, we collude with and sustain these. 

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In times of crisis, it is important to move beyond the survival mode that so many of us find ourselves in. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a definitive break in the status quo of schools. We have all had to adapt our traditional school cultures and become innovative with even the most foundational ways in which our schools function. Pairing this, was the Black Lives Matter movement, which was highlighted after the death of George Floyd. Although originating from a foreign country, the movement has begged us to confront issues of social injustice in our context. Private schools in particular were questioned and prompted to reflect on how we oppress members of our school communities and support oppressive systems. This place of disturbance from the norm in our schools has presented the opportunity for action in which we can move beyond despair into a new, more future-focussed space. This time of change has presented us with choices to make: whether to return to the ways we functioned before, or to make our schools more progressive, socially just and relevant.  


One of the ways in which we are doing things differently at St John's D.S.G. is in our Junior School Library. The library is a space that is in danger of being left behind in a modern world where our students learn technological skills from early on. It is also, however, a space with enormous potential. The library in our school is visited by every child at least once per week. This is both scheduled on the timetable and voluntary visits and presents an opportunity for the discussion of ideas across the school on an ongoing basis. In a move from despair to hope, we have changed our library lessons completely: from what was known as book education, to social justice conversations.

Children’s Literature as a Method

The vision

The primary method used in these social justice conversations is through the reading aloud of children’s literature. Scholars around the world concur (Anand, 2020; Boutte & Miller, 2018; Crosthwaite, 2015; Kesler, Mills & Reilly, 2020; Quin, 2009; Reygan & Steyn, 2017; Steiner, 2018; Welch, 2016) that there is an essential role for informed discussions between educators and learners in the interruption and avoidance of reproducing systems of inequity and oppression, such as racism, sexism, or ableism. Children’s literature provides educators with a powerful tool for such conversations to take place effectively (Boutte et al., 2018).

The interactive nature of reading a story out loud to children provides multiple opportunities for them to speak about social justice topics with the facilitation of the teacher, learning by and through conversation. The interactive process of conversation allows for a stable context from which learners can think deeper about the complex issues which appear in the children’s literature they read. 

Books as Windows, Doors and Mirrors

The vision

Bishop (1990) developed the metaphor of books as windows, doors and mirrors in her influential work to convey the power and function of books and reading, illustrating why it is important for learners to read books about children similar and different from themselves. These ideas of Bishop’s have guided and inspired me to use children’s literature to have these conversations with students. Bishop (1990) describes books as windows because they can provide views or sights of worlds that are fictional or envisioned, familiar or foreign. These views into worlds can go from being windows to being sliding glass doors when readers metaphorically walk through the door to become immersed and part of the world created by the author. These windows can be transformed once more when “lighting conditions are just right” (Bishop, 1990, p. xi) into mirrors. Literature has the power to transform human experience and reflect it to us. In this reflection, we can see our own being- our experiences and lives- as part of the larger shared experience of being human. Through this, Bishop (1990) declares that reading becomes a mode of self-affirmation. Our students then seek their mirrors in books. 

Books as Windows, Doors and Mirrors

This understanding highlights the importance of the representation of all identities in the children’s literature that we stock in our libraries. When children cannot find their reflections in the books we offer them, or their reflections are distorted (often in the forms of myths, stereotypes and caricatures), those children are sent a powerful message about their status and value in the school and society. On the other hand, when children find only their reflections in books, they learn that they are the standard definition of ‘normal’, which all should aspire to conform to.

Books that foster social justice conversations

The vision

Most of these titles are available in a variety of South African languages and via the Ethnikids online store, Exclusive Books, or Bargain Books

 

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o
How Many Ways Can You Say Hello? By Refiloe Moahloli
How Many Ways Can You Say Goodbye? By Refiloe Moahloli
Shudu Finds Her Magic by Sudufadzo Musida
We Are One by Refiloe Moahloli
Mpumi and Jabu’s Magical Day by Lebohang Masango
Mpumi’s Magic Beads by Lebohang Masango
Wanda by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali
Skin We Are In by Sindiwe Magona and Nina Jablonski
When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina
The Best Meal Ever by Sindiwe Magona
Journey to Joburg by Beverly Naidoo
Refiloe by Zukiswa Wanner
My Coily Crowny Hair by Zulaikha Patel
I Have Brown Skin and Curly Hair by Karen Theunissen
Hair Love by Matthew Cherry
Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival
Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival
Sunflower Sisters by Monika Singh Gangotra
The Mega Magic Hair Swap! by Rochelle Humes
Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai
What is a Refugee? by Elisa Gravel
A Planet Full of Plastic by Neal Layton
The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Sisulu
Hands Up! by Breanna McDaniel
All About Diversity by Felicity Brooks and Mar Ferrero
Dear Earth by Isabel Otter
Wild Violet! by Alex Latimer
Pumpkin Finds her Queen by Bianca Flanders
Greta and the Giants by Zoe Tucker
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes
The Mommy Book by Todd Parr
The Daddy Book by Todd Parr
Ingenious Jean by Susan Chandler

I’m the Colour of Honey by Caroline Faysse
Splash! by Sharon Davey
Astro Girl by Ken Wilson-Max
Tidy by Emily Gravett
Tall Tilly by Jillian Powell
Where’s the Elephant? by Barroux
The Seed by Frances Stickley and Bao Luu
The Trouble with Dragons by Debi Gliori
I Am Perfectly Designed by Karamo Brown
Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary and Rich Chamberlin
Thuli and the Seed of Truth by Abgelika Anastasis
I Don’t Want to be Small! by Laura Ellen Anderson
I Don’t Want to be Quiet! by Laura Ellen Anderson
I Love Being Me! by Mechal Renee Roe
Welcome to Our World by Moira Butterfield
Boogie Bear by David Walliams
The Girl with 21 Questions by Boitumelo Mothupi
Little Leaders: Visionary Women Around the World by Vashti Harrison
Florence Frizzball by Claire Freedman
Start Now! by Chelsea Clinton
Kids Fight Plastic by Martin Dorey
Born a Crime (kids edition) by Trevor Noah
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
House Without Walls by Elizabeth Lard
I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda
I Am Malala (kids edition) by Malala Yousafzai
500 Words: Black Lives Matter by Chris Evans
Ouma Ruby’s Secret by Chris van Wyk
The Seed of Compassion by the Dalai Lama
Kantiga Finds the Perfect Name by Mabel Mnensa
The Pink Hat by Andrew Joyner
The Little Green Chicken by Alison Murray
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
We Are All Wonders by R.J. Palacio

How the conversations work

The vision

Each week a topic is covered across our Junior School during social justice conversations in the library. The topic is the same for each grade, but the content, selected literature and delivery of the lesson is tailored based on the age and level of the class. These topics are primarily introduced through children’s literature. These conversations aim to stimulate conversations that foster social justice and equip our learners with the skills they need to engage meaningfully in these conversations, with a view towards becoming socially just citizens who make a positive impact on the world. The continuity of the topics and timing between grades allows for the conversation to continue outside of the lesson, between grades and with teachers. This spilling over of what is discussed in the lesson-conversation time into the rest of the school is vital to ensuring discussion around social justice becomes embedded in the culture of the school.  

The topics we discuss are centred around our social identities of race, gender, ability, nationality, language, and so on. There are a few principles upon which these weekly conversations occur, beginning with guidelines that establish a safe/brave space. A key skill we aim to develop in the learners is to navigate a constructive conversation with others who do not feel the same way about a given topic. The conversations are experiential and participatory in nature, which means that much of the lesson content focuses on the experiences the learners share, and thus do not follow a formulaic pattern. An important outcome of these lessons is to normalise ‘unfinishedness and greyness': to get comfortable with the idea that these conversations rarely have a neat end where every person in the room agrees. 

The conversations encourage our learners to move beyond binary thinking that leads us to stereotype and judge others. We are learning that social problems are complex and that we need to examine them on multiple levels. The conversations also aim to foster emotional maturity: for learners to listen to their emotions and inner voice, and reflect on and recognise what these mean. We verbally identify and celebrate differences, and focus on similarities. Lastly, we incorporate real-world problems and relate these to the literature wherever possible through our experience and knowledge. 

Conversation Guidelines

The vision

Additional Social Justice Resources

The vision

Social justice implies a fair and mutual obligation in society where everyone is responsible for the welfare of all people, including the self. Children's Rights Education enables the child to analyze the value of social justice in creating a society that understands and values human rights, freedom, equality, and dignity. Finding a way to promote these conversations is very important to me. Here are some fabulous resources;

Classroom posters

The vision
Classroom posters

Get a copy

Get a copy

Get a copy

Closing thoughts

The vision

We need to begin to stop and think more deeply about what we are doing and why. We need to ponder the purpose of education and how we are fulfilling that purpose as schools. If we accept that oppressive systems and cultures exist in our schools, then we need to understand that by doing nothing, we collude with and sustain these. 

 

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes a practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 

 

Let our schools become an instrument that allows our learners to practice true freedom. 

References

The vision

Anand, D. & Hsu, L.M. (2020). Think outside the book: Transformative justice using children’s literature in educational settings. Journal of Curriculum Studies Research, 2 (2), 122-143. https://doi.org/10.46303/jcsr.2020.13

Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. 6 (3).

Boutte, G. and Muller, M. (2018). Engaging Children in Conversations About Oppression Using Children's Literature. Transformations in Literacy and Technology. 30 (1). 2- 9. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/347504796_Engaging_Children_In_Conversations_About_Oppression_Using_Children's_Literature/references

Crosthwaite, J. M. (2015). Literacy and Social Justice: Understanding Student Perceptions and Conceptions about Literature. University of Nevada Las Vegas Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. https://dx.doi.org/10.34917/8220097

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.

Kesler, T., Mills, M. and Reilly, M. (2020). I Hear You: Teaching Social Justice in Interactive Read-Aloud. Language Arts. 97 (4). 207-222.

Quin, J. (2009). Growing social justice educators: a pedagogical framework for Social Justice Education. Intercultural Education. 20 (2). 109-125. https://doi.org/10.1080/14675980902922192  

Reygan, F. & Steyn, M. (2017). Diversity in Basic Education in South Africa: Intersectionality and Critical Diversity Literacy. Africa Education Review. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/18146627.2017.1280374

Steiner, S. F. (2008). Teaching about Peace through Children’s Literature. Journal of Peace Education and Social Justice. 2(2), 229-244. https://creducation.net/catalog/cat-item-539/