Sharing Your Purpose and Talents with the World by Jacqueline Liesch
We walked as a group up the red dirt road, past the schools, up the gravel walkway to the library. The hand-carved doors to the library show different parts of the reading process: between mother and child, a child carrying books, reading around the fire, while symbolizing opening the doors to the community’s future through the power of literacy. As they opened, his face lit up. I saw the years of work and challenges flash through his mind and come together to change countless lives. Windows flooded the space with natural light while symbolizing the potential and hope for that free access to literacy brings.
Visiting the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Panafrican Culture, Kakum National Park, and the Cape Coast Slave Castle, introduced us to the history, beauty, and tragedy of Ghana’s past. Then, the real work began, the reason we were there. Joining LEAP for Ghana in 2018 as part of the group that opened the Barbara E. Alexander Memorial Library and Timber Nkwanta Health Post was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. Kwame’s words from that morning about combining your purpose and talents to change the world rang in my head.
We have likely all heard of anchor charts and anchor texts. Anchor authors are the authors whose books you know will be top with your students and children in your life. I met Kwame Alexander in June 2017 at the American Library Association conference in Chicago. After saying a handful of words to him, I left with a signed copy of Solo, which he wrote with Mary Rand Hess. That fall, having read more of his books and learned about his work with LEAP for Ghana, I was even more excited to see him during his book tour for Rebound. Following him on social media provided me with the opportunity to donate to the library project and receive a personal call from Kwame and Randy Preston, including a song. By this time, when I was in the signing line, I commented on Kwame’s commitment to give back through his co-founding of the LEAP for Ghana initiative. He thanked me and suggested that I join the group that summer for the grand opening. I was shocked that he would consider me but took the information. Upon further research, I was even more amazed at the work that LEAP has done for the community of Konko and Ghana. So, as Kwame does, I said yes, took a leap, and submitted my application materials. Soon after, I was notified of my acceptance and part of a conference call to meet others in the group and learn about the trip. We received emails confirming flights and coordinating plans. Then, a reading specialist, who was also joining the adventure, and I collaborated online to create training for volunteer library attendants. Kwame and I surveyed the space and designed the library layout while community members attached spine labels to the books as they were unpacked and attached book pockets and labeled book cards.
One of the first things I learned was that Kwame is the same person online and in person. The genuine, generous, kind and caring individual many of us know is the same person who met us at the airport and started our journey together by gifting us each a book related to our trip. Along with Queen Mother Botwe Nana Adobea II of Konko Village, Kwame’s wife and one of his daughters, and colleagues and friends he has known for years joined us, making the experience that much more personal. As we toured the country by van, Queen Mother and Kwame shared stories of the start of LEAP to the start of Kwame’s career.
My background and experiences have taken me around the world to share the love of literacy with students from nursery through grade twelve in formal and informal settings. Sharing Kwame’s books with students helped me connect instantly with kids of all ages. Students seeing mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors through Kwame’s characters is invaluable. Sharing writing prompts from his sessions as NPR’s Morning Edition as Poet-in Residence gave secondary students an opportunity to express themselves and share with peers. Activities from The Write Thing encouraged students from drafting through publication and presentation. Kwame connects with students to show them the power of poetry.
A best friend led me to apply to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Doctor of Education program in Educational Sustainability. Again, I took a leap, and applied. When I started to narrow my research topics for my dissertation, I kept thinking of Kwame’s approach to connect his purpose and talents, making my decision for me. As poetry found Kwame, inclusive children’s literature found me.
Now starting my second year in the program, I am amazed and humbled by the diverse members of our program all studying sustainability (social, economic, and environment) from their lens and perspective. My friend who encouraged me to apply and is also in the Ed.D. program, and I have decided to combine our expertise and focus our research on the integration of inclusive children’s literature with preservice teachers to utilize the power of the multiplier effect and deepen our impact. For the last year, she and I presented to her undergraduate and graduate classes about analyzing texts used in classes. We have also presented this information in our classes and at national and international conferences.
Reflecting on the last few years, I am continually reminded of how Kwame’s words have changed my life. Throughout our friendship, he has modeled saying yes, advocating for all kids, and living authentically. Everyone should have an anchor author who impacts students’ lives as well as their own.
As a teacher and library media specialist, Jacqueline Liesch has worked with students and staff from PK-12. Formal and informal international experiences have strengthened her commitment to connecting students worldwide. An active member of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), she enjoys collaborating with fellow educators around the world. Currently, she is an Information Specialist for the Department of Defense Education Activity. She is an Ed.D. student in Educational Sustainability at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Find her on Twitter @jdliesch.