Fifth graders reflect on race in library display

21 Oct

Talking about race issues and racism is uncomfortable for all of us. But recently, more than 30 Schlegel Elementary School students tackled that difficult subject, as part of an important project coordinated by the Webster Central School District and the Webster Public Library (WPL), in conjunction with the Gandhi Institute.

In June of 2021, students were shown a video in which Alex Hubbell from the Gandhi Institute introduced the topics of antiracism and inclusion, which also provided questions for educators to discuss with the classes. The students were then encouraged to think about those questions and write down their answers.

The resulting, thought-provoking exhibit, called “Kids Talk About Race,” is now on display through Saturday Oct. 29 at the Webster Public Library.

The project was a long time in the making. The idea first came to WPL Outreach Coordinator Jason Poole in February of 2021. He and Adult Services Librarian Jennifer Paxson worked together on a grant for the Harold Hacker Foundation to create a new curriculum for antiracism education in Webster’s elementary schools.

Because of Covid and schedule-related delays, progress on the grant was put on hold for several months. Then, last March, Schlegel Rd. Elementary School librarian Jamie Palmer hopped on board and enlisted the school’s three fifth-grade teachers, finally bringing the project to fruition by the end of the school year.

Jamie explained that she got involved because,

I felt it was important to have conversations with the fifth grade students, as it shouldn’t be a topic to shy away from. Kids have thoughts and questions and are trying to make sense of our world daily. If we ignore them and don’t just get them out on the table, they think it’s something bad and wrong to talk about instead of talking and working through their thoughts with each other.

And that really was the main impetus behind the project. The idea, Jason said, was to

facilitate these kinds of discussions (about race) happening during the school day. My belief is that kids should be learning about these things in an educational setting. They need to have a safe space where they can talk about it and figure out what they think. Not all the answers are neat and cut and dried. Some are puzzling.

After watching the video from the Gandhi Institute, the students were asked to reflect and write down their answers to these questions:

  • What did you know about race and racism before?
  • What do you know now?
  • Why is it hard to talk about race and racism?
  • Why is it important to do it anyway?
  • What do you plan on doing to make a difference in your community?

After the presentations, professional photographer Denise Batiste took portraits of the students (with parental permission) for the display.

The exhibit will be on display at the library through Oct. 29, after which it will be transported to the Central Library in downtown Rochester for display there (dates TBD).    

Presenting the exhibit to both the Webster and City of Rochester communities was an important part of the initial grant application. It’s being displayed here in Webster — a primarily white suburb — first, where people can see and talk about it. Then it goes downtown for people who aren’t in the suburbs. It hopefully demonstrates that “there’s at least some kind of effort being made to have these discussions,” Jason said.

If you’re able to check out the exhibit, take a close look at some of the things the kids have written. Clearly they were moved by what they learned. The fifth graders (now sixth graders) wrote some pretty insightful comments, and were inspired to make change. Take these answers, for example, to the question, “What do you plan on doing to make a difference in your community?”

  • I plan to tell others about how racism is wrong and how we are all equal and deserve to be treated the same as others. I plan to step in if someone is being discriminative.
  • I plan on telling my friends who didn’t do this activity why whatever you say can hurt anyone’s feelings. And I will tell them that your actions matter just as much as your words. I will also tell my family all of what I learned and how it inspired me.
  • What I plan on doing in my community is in my school. Anyone that has a different color I will include them. And if they are bullied I will make sure I will stand up for them. I will make them all feel equal and included.

There’s hope for this world yet.

The Webster Public Library is located at 980 Ridge Rd., at the back of Webster Plaza.

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(posted 10/21/2022)

4 Responses to “Fifth graders reflect on race in library display”

  1. CUSHMAN STEVE October 21, 2022 at 9:21 pm #

    No proof readers to correct the spelling in your headline re “relect”?

  2. DPD October 22, 2022 at 9:13 am #

    Best news I’ve read all week. Thanks Missy.
    I knew Mr. Hacker many years ago; I think he would be proud of this project.
    This project reminded me of a quote from Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank) [paraphrased] ‘When people are talking, they aren’t fighting.’
    Certainly would be nice if MCLS could leverage technology and post this exhibit virtually on their website. I’m of the opinion that the public library system, especially in Monroe County is one of the best returns on our collective tax dollars. Oh, and while you’re at WPL, check out the cool vintage typewriter s on display, too; no auto-correct or spellcheck on those beasties.

    • websterontheweb October 22, 2022 at 2:37 pm #

      Yes, I saw those machines. Wondered how many kids would know how to use them.

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