Social Justice Conversations Through the School Library

In times of crisis, it is important to move beyond the survival mode in which we find ourselves.

We have all had to adapt our traditional school cultures and become innovative with regard to even the most foundational ways in which our schools function. Additionally, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, highlighted after the death of George Floyd in the United States, has challenged us to confront issues of social injustice within our own various contexts.

Private schools in particular have been prompted to reflect on how we oppress members of our school communities and support oppressive systems. This disturbance from the norm has presented an opportunity for action: we can move beyond despair into a new, more future-focussed space. We now have choices to make: whether to return to the ways we functioned before, or to make our schools more progressive, socially just and relevant.

Conversations start in the library

One of the ways in which we are doing things differently at St John’s Diocesan School for Girls in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, is the way we hold conversations in our Junior School library. In many schools, the library is a space that is in danger of being left behind in a modern world where students learn technological skills from early on. It is also, however, a space with enormous potential. At St John’s DSG, 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.

The library in our school is visited by every child at least once per week. This is both scheduled on the timetable and encouraged through voluntary visits. This presents an opportunity for the discussion of ideas across the school on an ongoing basis.

Children’s literature as a method

The primary method used in these social justice conversations is through the reading aloud of children’s literature. Scholars around the world concur that there is an essential role for informed discussions between educators and learners in order to interrupt or avoid 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. The interactive practice 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 more deeply about the complex issues that appear in the children’s literature they read and listen to.

Books as windows, doors and mirrors

In her influential work, US author and expert on multicultural children’s literature, Dr Rudine Bishop, developed the metaphor of books as windows, doors and mirrors to convey the power and function of books and reading. She illustrated why it is important for learners to read books both about children similar to themselves and about children different from themselves.

Bishop’s ideas have inspired me to use children’s literature to have these conversations with learners. Bishop describes books as windows, because they can provide views 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 in the world created by the author.

When ‘lighting conditions are just right’ these windows can be transformed into mirrors. This reflective function of literature allows readers to see their experiences and lives as part of the larger shared experience of being human. In this way, says Bishop, reading becomes a mode of self-affirmation: learners seek their mirrors in books.

This understanding highlights the importance of representing ALL identities in the children’s literature that we stock in our libraries. When children cannot find their own reflections in the books we offer them, or if their reflections are distorted (often in the forms of myths, stereotypes and caricatures), this lack of acknowledgement sends them a powerful message about their status and value.

Over representation of one group is equally distorting: when children find only their own specific reflections in books, they get the impression that they are the standard definition of ‘normal’.

It is becoming easier to source books that feature diverse characters in various ways, and which have themes of social justice. One such source is a South African online bookstore called Ethnikids.

How our conversations work

Each week, during social justice conversations in the library, a topic is covered across all our Junior School classes with the selected literature tailored to each level. The topics are introduced primarily through children’s literature.

The aim is to help our learners become socially just citizens who make a positive impact on the world. The selection of a common topic across the school allows for the conversation to continue outside of the lesson, between grades and with various teachers. This ‘spill over’ of what is discussed in the lesson time means that social justice becomes embedded in the culture of the school.

The topics we discuss are centred on social identities: race, gender, ability, nationality, language, and so on. There are a few principles upon which these weekly conversations are based, beginning with guidelines that establish a safe/brave space. A key skill we aim to develop in the learners is to navigate constructive conversation with others who do not feel the same way about a given topic. The conversations are experiential and participatory in nature. The content focuses on the experiences the learners share, and thus does not follow a formulaic pattern.

An important outcome of these lessons is to convey the idea that there are not necessarily right and wrong ways of being in every situation: to normalise feelings of ‘unfinishedness’; to accept grey areas; and to get comfortable with the idea that these conversations rarely have a neat end where every person in the room agrees with each other. In other words 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 constantly try to identify and celebrate differences, and to focus on similarities. Lastly, we incorporate real-world problems and wherever possible relate these to the literature through our experience and knowledge.

At this moment, all schools need to ponder the purpose of education and how we are fulfilling that purpose as institutions of learning. 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 them.