Reading series teaches students about inclusion
By EMMAJEAN HOLLEY
Jan. 16, 2018
CLAREMONT, N.H. (AP) — Blue was a mild-mannered, peaceful color.
He enjoyed simple activities, like sky-gazing and puddle-splashing, and even though he admired Orange's boldness and Green's vivacity, he was pretty happy with the way he was — until firecracker Red blustered in and told him, "Red is hot. Blue is not." The other colors felt badly that Blue was being picked on. But what could they do?
So goes the premise for Kathryn Otoshi's One, a children's book about gathering the courage to speak up about bullying. One was Thursday's pick for the second installment in a monthly reading series, "Diversity and Inclusion through Children's Literature," the result of a partnership between Claremont schools and Rural Outright, the LGBTQ support program of the Claremont-based nonprofit TLC Family Resource Center.
On the day of the reading, tentatively the first Thursday of every month, students from the Gay, Straight and Transgender Alliance at Stevens High School, joined TLC program coordinator Liza Draper to make the rounds at a number of Claremont locations, where they read aloud and facilitated conversations about timely social issues, with an emphasis on welcoming those who are new to such conversations.
"I think children's literature is an art that we have to continue to cultivate in society, to show people how powerful the written word can be in tackling really tough stuff," Draper said in a phone conversation last month.
In the brightly colored Maple Avenue Elementary School library on Thursday, Draper sat and addressed about a dozen students from an after-school program of the Green Mountain Children's Center, a childcare facility with a base in Claremont.
"Let me ask you all a question," she said. "Has anybody ever gotten called a name they didn't like?"
Almost everyone raised a hand. Draper murmured sympathetically. "Now, has anybody ever called someone a name when you were feeling sad or angry?"
Sheepishly, up went a similar number of hands. Draper nodded. "It happens," she said. She explained to the room that it was No Name-Calling Week, and that she and the students in Stevens' Gay, Straight and Transgender Alliance, or GSTA, were embarking on a "kindness tour" around the city that day to talk about ways of dealing with bullying behavior. In the words of Otoshi's book, "it only takes one" to make a difference, Draper reminded them. And what are some ways to make a difference?
"Standing up for yourself and your friends," said Colby Lamont, 8.
In the discussion that followed the reading of One, it didn't take long for the elementary school students in the room to apply the story of Blue and Red to their own lives, and to the world around them. One student shared that a classmate wouldn't stop throwing snow at her face; another student confided that a peer had called him "the worst student in the school"; another said that his friend "was racially discriminated against" and ended up getting hurt.
Colby pointed out that sometimes people will zero in on what makes you different from them, such as race, but "if we work together to make it so black and white are treated the same, we can create a better community together."
Draper encouraged students to seek out the help of trusted adults, such as teachers, when they feel like bullying is taking place, but also to develop their own strategies for speaking up. The student whose friend was injured said he'd written letters to the parents of the kids involved in the incident, explaining his concerns; the parents even wrote back, he added.
"Wow," said Draper.
Rural Outright's readings will, when possible, coincide with national conversations around particular themes, such as No Name-Calling Week. February's book selection will likely relate to Black History Month, with potential future topics to include women's rights in March, autism awareness in April and homelessness and adoption awareness further down the line, said Kathleen Bunnell, the curriculum, instruction and assessment coordinator at SAU 6.
"We, as a community, want to be able to meet lots of diversity needs, and increase people's awareness of others' experiences," added Bunnell, who helped implement the reading program.
December's reading — the first in the series — was I Am Jazz, based on the true story of a young transgender girl, which took place on the Human Rights Campaign's national I Am Jazz School and Community Reading Day. The reading day started in 2015 after an anti-LGBT group pressured a Wisconsin school into canceling a reading event it had scheduled in support of one of its students. Some 600 community members showed up at the school to protest this decision, a show of support that has been celebrated annually since.
Though the incident at the Wisconsin school happened "far, far away — which makes it sound like Star Wars, I wish it were," said Draper, "intolerance exists in Claremont, too. . But it's not just a Claremont problem, either. It's a community problem in all of the Upper Valley schools and towns."
In Claremont, ninth-grader Skylar Ford, who is transgender and part of the GSTA at Stevens High School, had read I Am Jazz at Maple Avenue Elementary last month. Afterward, he answered questions from the audience, even though he was nervous; he'd never put himself out there like that, he said. He was surprised by the number and mix of people who showed up, many of them older students and adults.
"But then I kind of got comfortable with it, because the people were all so nice," he said. "There were quite a few people who were new to this and didn't know as much as they wanted to. . They said they really learned a lot by the end of it."
Most questions had to do with what it was like to come out as trans in an area that's not necessarily known for having rainbow flags out on every lawn, to which he said, "it's just different for everyone," and probably depends most heavily on how a person's family feels about LGBT issues, and whether people at school are accepting of someone's name and pronoun preferences.
"I cannot say enough about (students') courageousness in putting forth themselves and openly answering audience questions about what it's like to be trans, or (non-binary), in rural, west-central New Hampshire," Draper said. "It's not always easy. Sometimes it's really hard."
Skylar said he doesn't mind teaching people the basics, such as what it means to be transgender, cisgender or non-binary, and how a person's gender identity can affect their lives. (Being transgender means you identify differently than the sex you were assigned at birth; cisgender means you identify as the same; non-binary means your gender identity is neither entirely masculine nor entirely feminine.)
"I've really grown attached to educating people, I guess ever since I met Liza," last year at Claremont Middle School's first GSTA meeting, he said.
Bunnell acknowledged that some conversations can be tricky to initiate without alienating anybody, especially because "not everyone is starting at the same place of understanding." Some may feel intimidated by the nuances and terminology that can make newcomers in discussions about, say, transgender issues, feel lost — that's why she feels children's literature is such an effective medium for meeting people where they're at, and making these conversations about inclusion more inclusive.
"(One) is a really cute book. It described things that all ages can understand. I think it's really smart," he said.
"Maybe adults should read more kids' books."
Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com