By Lesley Machon
(AJNews) – Each year, Calgary Jewish Academy’s student council raises money for a project that supports the school’s values of community, sustainability and inclusivity. This year, they decided to upgrade the library.
Student council raised $1,500 dollars, and compiled a list of diverse content titles to take book shopping. Their selections include picture books, graphic novels, novels in verse, and chapter books—all with intentionally varied representation. The colourful stack of paperbacks features characters who are deaf or in a wheel chair, some who are LGBTQ, and some who are navigating mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder. Protagonists have different cultural backgrounds, skin colours, body types, and challenges.
Having a wide range and diverse selection of books is important for two main reasons. First it invites students’ cultures, voices, and stories into the classroom by giving language to their experiences. Secondly, it introduces students to a range of different perspectives and experiences, completely unlike their own. This concept is often referred to as “mirrors and windows,” and was introduced by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop in her iconic essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” The main idea is that diverse books are important because they help students feel a sense of belonging, while also expanding their capacity for empathy and compassion.
Libraries are the heart of many schools and communities, and it’s especially important in the digital age to invest in shared spaces that aren’t oriented around technology. Spaces of calm and quiet, where we can slow down and engage our imaginations, and connect with one another in real time.
Research shows that free reading of all kinds, including that of marginalized genres, brings readers five distinct kinds of enjoyment: i) the immersive pleasure of play, ii) intellectual engagement, iii) social fulfilment, iv) the pleasure of functional work, and v) the pleasure of inner work (Wilhelm 2016). In other words, when students are engaged in free reading, not only are they gaining new knowledge and enjoying it, but they are also finding ways to connect and regulate. Play and pleasure signal our nervous systems to relax, allowing us to be more receptive to learning, and facilitating better connections with ourselves and each other. Students learn best across all subjects when they are able to have these kinds of experiences in and out of school.
It’s as if student council intuitively sensed this. Students were so excited about this project, and raced to sneak peeks as new books came in, clambering and calling “dibs” on who got to read which one first. A summer of reading lays ahead!
Lesley Machon is the Jr. High Humanities teacher at Calgary Jewish Academy.