If You Build it, They Will Read by Marjorie Light
After being hired for my current teaching position at J. D. Clement Early College High School (ECHS), I couldn’t wait to jump into my new role. The student-to-teacher ratio is low and applicants are all college-bound, so I was ready to implement some exciting and challenging reading programs. We are a specialized public high school on the campus of North Carolina Central University (NCCU), serving first-generation college, under-represented minorities, and children of poverty. Acceptance into our program allows students to earn 40+ college credits while in high school.
Before the new semester, the principal took me on a tour of the 1930s-era building, which is a brick four-story. Although it was remodeled in 1970, much of the character and original details remain. My room was one of the largest in the building, over 1200 sq. feet, and basically empty except for about twenty student desks. As we walked by science rooms and offices, there was something missing.
“Where is the library?” I asked, as we descended from the top floor. We’d peeked in every room, and hadn’t come across one yet.
“Oh, the students here are allowed to use NCCU’s facilities,” the principal replied. “The college library is beautiful and just down that path,” she pointed to a walkway, gesturing past a fountain and gazebo. I made a mental note to bring my new students on a field trip.
When I unpacked my books from New York, students eagerly placed them on a few shelves I’d purchased at the Habitat Restore and another I found in my neighbor’s pile of castoff curbside furniture. Most hadn’t seen an Advanced Reader’s Copy and were interested to hear about my trip to the annual American Library Association (ALA) convention in Boston. I showed them the autographed copies I’d picked up at the New England Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s spring conference. Those went on a special display in the deep windowsills.
Unfortunately, the storage closet contained only had a few boxes of books for World Literature, but they were great ones: Night by Elie Wiesel and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Despite this austere beginning, our library has more than doubled in the past year. When I shared our situation on social media, my author friends began mailing boxes of their own works, as well as favorites pulled from their shelves. Some people, like Nikki Grimes, Kelly Ramsdell, Teresa Bunner, donated over twenty books each. Dozens of individuals responded to our plight. Not only that, but my husband and I found bags of classic novels for ten dollars at the Durham Public Library sale, augmenting our shelves. Another time, colleagues helped me cull books from a closed school’s media center. With the help of my principal, Ms. Woods-Weeks, and having the head of media services, Mary Gray Leonard, as an advisor and backer, the students watch their choices expand month by month.
Many students confess until they arrived at ECHS, they weren’t readers. Whether it is our variety of choices, our strong independent reading and literature circles, or setting aside time in class for devouring books, the teens at ECHS keep the library circulating. My new colleague, Alice Dominguez, has brought a depth of knowledge, as well as the speediest GoFundMe campaign I’ve ever seen for two favorite titles! Her love of magical realism will enrich our students and prepare them for the rigors of university classes.
Since our student body is so diverse, it is imperative our books reflect their lives. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement began shortly after we bought real bookcases to house our growing collection. Having Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, and Aisha Saeed shine the light on the necessity of reflecting all youth helped guide me toward books my students needed and introduced new authors to my students. It’s heartwarming hearing teens squeal when we open a box of books. This year we had our first author Skype and our first author visit here at ECHS. It’s through the generosity of authors and book enthusiasts championing our children who this dream a reality.
Here, in the words of ECHS students, is the proof – a love of reading:
“I don’t have many books at my house. A library at my school has opened up many opportunities to increase my reading level. Not having to go to the county library is a big time savings.” ~ Pedro M.
I love reading realistic fiction. The library has a huge amount of books for me. In my old school we had child-like books. Now I can find books I can relate to. ~ Leslie G
The ECHS Library has helped me as a reader by providing me with books that catch my eye. I love the availability of the books since there are multiple copies of many titles. My favorite genre would have to be Realistic Fiction. ~ Malana T.
Having access to the library has helped me because I can go and find book for my interests. ~ Nathaly P.
It has helped me as a reader because the way I think now is more sophisticated than it was before. ~ Mateea W.
Marjorie Light was selected as a Durham Teacher of the Year, top five finalist, after her first year in the district. She started her career in New York and has taught at the middle school, high school, and college levels. Traveling and learning are her passions. As a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the American Library Association, her greatest dream is having a book with her name imprinted on the spine. When not packing her suitcase, she is most often found at a keyboard – writing books or researching classroom grants.