Today on the podcast we’re handing things over to Heinemann Fellow Julia Torres. Julia is a librarian within Denver public schools who works to make her library a place for students to seek answers to questions that intrigue and excite them, and to reignite a love of reading through developing rich, culturally and linguistically diverse reading lives.
In this episode, Juila sits down with Suzi Tonini to discuss culturally responsive teaching. Here now, is Julia...
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Julia: My name is Julia Torres and I'm a librarian here on the Montbello campus in Denver public schools in Denver, Colorado. Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. I appreciate the time that you're willing to give to listen to me, have a conversation with one of my very favorite colleagues and people. Suzi Tonini has done some really important work with regard to collaboration and culturally responsive librarianship in the district. I'm hopeful that folks will look to her as a role model and the other folks that we have on our team when they're thinking about how to diversify texts and how to make sure that the library collections we have truly reflect the students who are reading books from them.
This is Julia Torres and I am here with Suzi Tonini. She is a collection development specialist here in Denver public schools with me and we are both part of team DPS's library services. Today we're going to be talking about culturally responsive librarianship. I'm really excited to be here with you, Suzi, because you helped my work so much and we did a really exciting project with three or four other folks from library services this year where we genrefied the library and we worked on ways to help the students get in contact with our new culturally responsive and more culturally diverse titles.
So I'm going to start with a series of questions. Sound good?
Suzi: Sounds great.
Julia: Is there anything that you want to tell the audience about your time before you joined DPS or library services or any background info that you want to share?
Suzi: I actually started my career in education, gosh, over 20 years ago as a classroom teacher. I think back to that time and my classroom library, it was really challenging to find books that reflected my students. I was teaching in an elementary school outside of DC. Most of my students were language learners, primarily from Mexico and Central America. And I distinctly remember being ecstatic finding Magic Dogs Of The Volcanoes because it was the first book I found that reflected my students from El Salvador.
And at that time I was very lucky to be surrounded by other educators who taught me how to create a culture of storytelling in the classroom. I think of Kathleen Phase, Suzan Whaley, and Emily Parker, these amazing educators who taught me how to encourage kids to share their stories, publish their stories, and that's how we created a culturally responsive climate at that time. And fast forward today, there has been a lot of change. It's exciting to see where we've come from, but there's still some things from back in the old days that I feel are just equally valuable to continue to do.
Julia: I value you so much because you and the other folks on library services like Janet Damon and Caroline Hughes and Laurie Mitchell and Amanda Samlin and Terry Faulkner. Yeah. We have so many good colleagues that we work with. I learned so much about librarianship because it's a steep learning curve for me. I'm just barely getting started and there's so much that I still need to know, but I know that I have a passion for books and I think that's a big reason why I was chosen to do this job is that I would be able to have my book love spread to the kids. And I think that folks felt like it was contagious. And then I think also being somebody who is a person of color, I naturally gravitate towards those texts that are going to reflect the lived realities of my community and of the students in our community.
So it's so awesome to be able to link arms with you and to be able to do the work that we do together. It helps me so much. I will never forget the time that we went to go see The Hate You Give and you are one of the only white people in the theater. We were in Montbello and it was a theater full of black people and you sat right next to me and you saw The Hate You Give. That was one of the first moments... I think that might've been the first time I met you. I think so. Yeah. Because Janet brought you in and she was like, "This is Suzi." It meant a lot to me that you were willing to go in there and have that experience.
When I think about you being a white woman in education, and education is predominantly white women, I think that it is an example to other folks that you are willing to really get in there. And if you have vulnerabilities or areas where you're not as knowledgeable, then you continually work to try to help us all be better and to try to help us all just grow from in the areas that we don't know. So the first question that I really have for you is how has librarianship changed with respect to culturally responsive librarianship? Kind of more specifically as a profession overall.
Suzi: Well, I think that when I would go to the school library as a classroom teacher, it was difficult to find books that reflected my students. The availability was just... I remember again, thinking about that classroom library collection I had as the classroom teacher. We just didn't have books available that reflected all of our students' identities. I can't name a single book in my classroom collection that had an LGBTQ character, or a neuro diverse character, or a character experiencing homelessness, or the foster care system. And in that school every collection as well, I think about the books that my students access to and I'm so excited about the work and the possibilities because the availability is improving. That being said, we have a long way to go. I mean, if you look at the children's book publishing industry and what was published in 2018 for kids. And gosh, 5% LatinX representation, 7% Asian, 10% African-American. We have a long way to go.
Julia: Yeah, we really do. And one of the things that I come across a lot when I work with different educators around the country is that folks are looking for someone to tell them the books to buy. They're looking for somebody to give them a book list. They're just looking for somebody to do that work. And I'm so grateful for you because you really helped me in terms of knowing what texts I... You're kind of filling in the gaps. I remember sending you a whole bunch of texts that I wanted for a recent order and then I just kind of ran out of what I knew and I still had money to spend. So I was relying on you to help me kind of fill in those spaces.
And there is something to be said for folks going to people who are experts in their field and looking to them for suggestions about texts to buy. But we also have to cultivate our own skills with regard to culturally responsive texts, librarianship, education, curriculum, all those things. So a question that I have for you is, we have a culturally responsive librarianship pilot program in our district, which is really exciting. Can you tell us a little bit about how that got started? Who started it? What their thinking was? What the hope is for the program? And what it is?
Suzi: So we've always been looking for books that reflect our kids, but as we're really moving into just how can we be more intentional with this work, how can we ensure that we have equitable collections that reflect every single student? We know from authors for people like Melanie Gillman, who tell us how important it is and how important it would have been to her as a kid to have an LGBTQ plus character represented in just one book. So we know the importance. And now it's all about how can we just be more strategic and more intentional?
And with this pilot group, we're exploring some different ways. Some of that is really auditing our selections. We know that if we go in and audit our collections in most of our DPS libraries, if not all, we're going to find them lacking in representation, especially of marginalized groups. And so if we are being incredibly intentional about what we're putting in... Because we know those books are coming out, that's part of the weeding process. If we're being really intentional and thoughtful about how we're selecting, that to me is the most powerful way. And I can't take credit for these ideas. This is work that came from my team, and this is all work that we're trying to move forward together.
Julia: And hopefully I'm considered part of that team.
Julia: All the teachers who are on the pilot program. And the reason that I joined it is because I trusted the expertise of folks in DPS. I think that there is that shared goal, that shared mission of making sure that we are serving our students to the best of our ability with regard to making sure their education reflects their lived realities. So we're doing our best. It's not perfect and there's a whole lot of things that can definitely be changed, but I do think that the people who are committed to cultivating, curating, purchasing, and maintaining collections, that's a big part of that work, of making sure that our students' reading identities are reflective of their lived experience.
Suzi: When I think back to just last week, I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer.
Julia: Oh, great.
Suzi: And there's this one part where he's describing the slave owners and he describes how, "They know our names, but they don't know us as people." And I'm paraphrasing here, but basically it creates... Because part of their power is not knowing. And I feel like these library collections that are culturally responsive, they have the power to disrupt that imbalance. And when you walk in the footsteps of someone else, you can't unsee their soul. And these stories create those connections with others that truly have the power to bring us together, and truly have the power to make sure every student feels seen. And I know that this group of people that we have... Whenever you have changed to make to bring together like minded people to learn from one another and to encourage one another, I feel like this group has that potential to really move the work forward.
Julia: I hope so. And I hope that we can inspire other folks who didn't join the pilot program to maybe still participate in the conversations. And that's something that I've noticed people struggle with is they might be the only person in their building, or they might be the only person in their district if their district is really small, for example. There's some folks who I've worked with who are the only language arts person for K through 12. So there'd be only person who's in charge of getting books to add to curriculum for K through 12. We're relying on the knowledge and the cultural responsive awareness of that one person. That's a lot of responsibility to carry. So I'm hoping that the teamwork that we do can help strengthen other folks who are in other areas and other communities outside of DPS.
That brings us to a question that is something that I think about a lot, maybe too much. I think about the barriers that exist to the work. I spend a lot of time in that space, but I've been thinking about how far we've come. I think that's just part of my nature as somebody who's always kind of looking for what's next. Okay, that's great. We have this, but what's next? In your experience, what are some of the barriers that you have faced to doing culturally responsive librarianship work?
Suzi: I think the biggest barrier is the reality of what's happening in so many of our school systems, that are our students don't have equitable access to libraries with robust collections of books that encourage them to read, that reflect who they are. And most importantly, they don't have some adult in their life who is that person who's connecting them with those books, who is passionate about reading, who's passionate about their lives as readers, who is not focused on their test scores and who wants to make sure that they're developing that lifelong love of learning. And those two things I think are the biggest barriers. We have to make sure our kids have access and we have to make sure they have that person.
Julia: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree. That's been something that has been kind of nice. We had our snow days recently, but before we didn't have... We had some weird HVAC stuff going on in the building and it got really cold, and so everyone was bringing their classes to the library. And the teachers came too. It's always a struggle when people want to send the class with a sub or they don't want to come at all, so that's a struggle. But when the teacher comes too, and so it's these classes with their teachers... I know the library is a safe haven for folks in this building and that is something that makes me really happy, because for a long time I was Googling up old pictures of the library. It just didn't look this way and it didn't serve this purpose. So it makes me really happy to have this be that container of sort of healing and community and connection for our building. That is these five schools basically. So that's kind of awesome.
Suzi: When you think about all of our students who are struggling with their mental health, it's typically our most vulnerable students who need that safe space in the library the most.
Julia: Yeah, I've noticed that. And I think when people get quote unquote kicked out of class, which we would hope that that would not happen, but the reality is that it does. Somebody gets kicked out of class and the library is the place they choose to go? There could be so many worse places to go. So I'm all about yes, come in here, you got five minutes or you can have 10 if you need it. I like to be that person, and I'm really excited about the possibilities. I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to nurturing reading in terms of intrinsic motivation, because so much of building the reading culture in our building is still extrinsically motivated just because we hadn't had our library for so long. I'm really working to try to build confidence and interest for the students to just self select into... If you put it an interesting display, will they go toward it? Will they take something? Still really working on that.
Suzi: I'd like to underscore that that library doesn't become that safe space if it's not staffed by someone who cares about kids and cares about their lives as readers.
Julia: Yeah, I think that's been-
Suzi: I think that gets overlooked a lot. I know budgets are tough, but that's the potential of that one person in the building and that one safe space. It serves all kids.
Julia: It does, especially when that person is actually able to do what they're supposed to do, which is be a librarian. Because a lot of us are asked to do a lot of things that are not actual librarian jobs. And that can be tough when you're trying to build a program of literacy and you're trying to cultivate the collection. You're dealing with circulation, you're training student assistants, and you're trying to do community outreach, all of those things. But then somebody is having you cover test prep or...
Suzi: Lunch and recess duty. We see it every day. It's hard to even get a professional development schedule because we know that it will be a challenge for people to be released from their buildings.
Julia: I'm very, very lucky that I have a lot of support from administrators in the building to be able to prioritize building a reading culture for our students. I've always considered you to be somebody who is really knowledgeable and unapologetic. Who are some of the people who influenced you to be so knowledgeable and unapologetic when it comes to building library programs or just supporting folks who do that work? Who are your influences?
Suzi: In my personal life I think of the moral compass of my parents and my husband. My good friend Liz Wieden, she is unapologetic and always courageous about standing up for what she believes in. I think about it in my professional life, I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by incredible educators, incredible principals, my GPS library services team. They're just passionate about making sure that kids have access to books. There's so many incredible people doing this work. And I really am inspired every day by the community. I'm pretty much a Jack of all trades kind of person, but I think my best talent is to surround myself with really smart, talented, passionate people like you, and that really buoys the work. And that's my biggest inspiration.
Julia: And I look at you and sit next to you and I feel the exact same way. And I know when the microphone's off we're going to laugh and we're going to talk about things that we always... We laugh together a lot. And I appreciate that because there are a lot of things about education these days that, if you get real serious one to get so sad about, but you help keep me grounded and help me stay motivated and stay focused. And whenever I'm feeling like I'm not so secure about this particular component of my job, you really strengthen me and I know that you do that for a lot of other people.
So I'm happy to be a part of the library services team because I just feel very, very supported in ways that, to be quite honest, I did not as a classroom teacher. There was a lot of different pressure. I just feel like the library world is all about, okay, how can we support you? Yes we love what you're doing. How can we lift you up? And that is a very different energy from: how can you do test scores, and how can we use you to further these goals, and how can you push these kids harder? That was definitely the energy of being a classroom teacher.
And so there is sort of an intersection now, right? Because we have these classroom libraries that we're encouraging folks to have, in addition to the central library, which is your school library. So a question that I have and one of our last is, how can we involve students in the work, given the fact that they are mostly assigned to be in classrooms, but then we want them to choose sometimes to be in the library, or for their teachers to bring them to the library too?
Suzi: I really think it's having, again, that one person who creates, who can develop those relationships with kids to make sure we're incorporating their voice and making sure that they are exposed to an incredible variety of books. We don't know when that student walks through the door of what's going to be that book that hooks them to either reconnect with their life as a reader or continue on. And again, I just come back to that relationship piece. I think it's making sure every building has a person who is passionate about the reading lives of our kids and has the ability and the bandwidth to be able to serve in that role, because otherwise we're losing their voice. If we don't have the relationship, they're not going to trust us to share what truly will engage them. They may not know. If we don't have a robust collection that really reflects who they are, then we're not providing them with the choices they should have to be able to move forward in their reading life.
Julia: Yeah, I would say that that's something I'm hoping to do more of. I'm working with different staff members at the different schools to really try to focus on empowering students to recognize the moment of discomfort in whatever it is that they're reading, and then figure out what steps need to be taken to engage with a more complex text or an easier quote unquote easier one. But removing the stigma about picture books, about graphic novels. One of the things that I love is that if I need the hookup with regard to an ebook or an audio, then I know that I can email you real quick and you can always find a way to help me out. That helps me to be able to help the student. And it's usually a one day turnaround. So it's amazing that we have that capability, given the fact that we're now living in a world where digital librarianship is so powerful and so pronounced and then just utilized a lot more than I think I ever foresaw way back in the '90s, but it possibly could be.
And what an accommodation for students who really benefit from listening to texts and who enjoy that. Audio books I feel like are underused right now. I feel like we are going to see a wave as people catch on and recognize how powerful this can be. I think we're going to see a wave of interest in connecting kids with audio books. I have been able to double the amount of reading I do in my own life through audio books. I think it's another great way to hook kids back in.
Julia: I love Trevor Noah's Born A Crime, right?
Suzi: Oh, yes.
Julia: That's still one of my very favorite audio books to listen to because I would listen to it as I was driving to work and just laugh by myself in the car, just laughing.
Suzi: That scene in the hospital when his mom says, "Now you're the prettiest one in the family."
Julia: Uh-huh (affirmative), yeah.
Suzi: To hear his voice tell that. I mean it's just a different way to experience these stories. Love it.
Julia: I love it. I also do, yeah. So our final question is, what are some key action steps that you wish each librarian or literacy instructor with a classroom library would take? So we're sort of thinking now with regard to culturally responsive librarianship. What are some key steps that somebody with a classroom library could take?
Suzi: I would say auditing what they have and then auditing what they add. For an entire school library collection, it can be an overwhelming task to audit your entire collection. But for a classroom library collection it's very doable. There's some amazing tools out there where you can assess what you have, who's represented, who's in charge of the narrative. And not just who the main characters are and how they're represented, but who are these authentic voices?
And so looking at that and then identifying gaps, and then being very thoughtful with your selection. So selecting recently published books. We need to move into... We often get stuck with what we know. What's really going to grab kids' attention is going to be some of these newer texts that really delve into things that connect with their lives. So we have to be courageous about, again, being readers ourselves, diving into these books, being knowledgeable about what's newly published, and then being really careful about what we're selecting to make sure we're filling in those gaps and representing all kids.
Julia: And I also want to make sure that we talk a little bit about what happens when folks come up against community pushback or parental pushback against a culturally responsive or diverse text. What happens? What would you recommend in that regard? I know that as librarianship evolves, we're kind of talking more about the difference between selection and censorship. When you're a classroom teacher, you're actually using this as an instructional tool, so it becomes even more restrictive. Whereas in the library, it's usually offered as a choice texts that someone is choosing to read. So can you just talk to me a little bit about what folks can do as an advocacy piece when they come up against pushback?
Suzi: Well, I'm all about prevention. So initially having those conversations with your school leader about, these are the texts that I have in my classroom library and this is why. And really being thoughtful about explaining the importance of having these kinds of texts for kids to engage with. And then with pushback, it's important that we are being courageous about standing up for kids' right to read what they choose. They have a right to read what they choose. I know with libraries it becomes more difficult, but that's truly what librarianship is about, is providing access.
Julia: I love it. Thank you so much. This has been amazing. I'm really grateful that you were able to give me your time today. I'm always just happy to hang out with you and I know that we're going to hang out after I shut off the mic for a little bit, but I appreciate you. I appreciate the work you do. I appreciate being a part of our team, library services staff. I mean, the book delivery guy, the people who put together the reading festival, so many folks just I feel surround me in just this giant hug. That's what it feels like. And so it's such a nice change to feel that way versus being in the classroom for so long and feeling like... Really, I was scrutinized and I was just sort of continually under a magnifying glass and continually facing this conversation when it comes down to language arts educators about us not being enough and not doing enough and not helping enough.
And so it is important to me to try to build that bridge between language arts and librarianship because I know that when we can find a way to work together, it's only going to be better for everyone. And I hope that some of the joy and fun and love and the support that I have received from my library services team is felt by other folks in their districts, by their library services team. And I hope that language arts teachers will reach out to their librarians and ask how they can support them in this work. Because we know that libraries and librarians across the country are sort of, I don't want to say disappearing, but there are things happening with regard to libraries and schools that are disturbing. And so it's going to take all of us being aware of what's happening and coming together to prevent this from going any further than it already has.
Suzi: Every kid deserves that person like you in the building who's connecting through our books.
Julia: Thank you, Suzi. I appreciate you. You're awesome.
Julia E. Torres strives to empower students living and learning in historically marginalized or disenfranchised communities. Currently, she is a language arts teacher/librarian within Denver Public schools. Julia works to make her library a place for students to seek answers to questions that intrigue and excite them and to help reignite their love of reading through the development of rich, culturally and linguistically diverse reading lives and identities. She has served as a Regional Affiliate President for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and is the current NCTE Secondary Representative-at-Large. Additionally, Julia serves her colleagues as part of the Culturally Responsive Teaching leadership cohort within Denver Public Schools.
Follow Julia on Twitter @juliaerin80
Suzi Tonini is the Collection Development Supervisor for Denver Public Schools supporting library programs around the city. Suzi received her M.Ed. in K-12 English as a Second Language, Early Childhood Education and Special Education from George Mason University and a M.A. in Information and Learning Technologies from the University of Colorado at Denver. She is a librarian with twenty years of experience serving ECE-12 students in Virginia and Colorado. Suzi is passionate about ensuring library collections reflect the unique identities and lived experiences of every student and supporting equitable access to high quality library programs.