My Own Invention

Mary Nix, column editor

Building a Bridge of Books: An Inner-City/Private School Partnership.

by Gail Goodwin

A former teacher of children's literature at the elementary school level, Gail Goodwin is now director of Children's Literature for Children, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing children and books together.


It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations - something that will help them make sense of their own lives...I want them to see the nature of the game we are all engaged in so that they may make purposeful moves.
From Sense of Wonder by Katherine Paterson

Fifteen years ago at a parents' meeting at my children's private Christian preparatory school, Westminster, a parent spoke about her volunteer experience in an inner-city children's literature program. She dismissively concluded her remarks by saying, "When I go down there, I don't wear my fancy clothes, and I take off my gold jewelry."

These words, discomfiting at the time, returned to haunt me only a few years later. By then, I had not only joined the Westminster school faculty, but I had also become the third and fourth grade children's literature teacher. I was released one day a week to direct the children's literature program at Campbell Elementary, an Atlanta inner-city school in the heart of the Carver Homes public housing project.

As I began teaching, I quickly realized I wanted to do more than just maintain the ongoing program. I wanted to develop a relationship between Westminster and Campbell students. I had not forgotten the volunteer's words from years before, and I vowed not to perpetuate a patronizing attitude of "rich to poor" as I created links between the two schools. (Of course, my teaching attire was appropriately professional, and my jewelry matched or was holiday-themed. Jewelry in any form was greatly enjoyed by the children!)

However, except for myself and a handful of volunteers who were once Westminster parents, the only "school to school" connection between Westminster and Campbell was a fall book drive that augmented the Campbell library. Beneficial as it was, the book collection perpetuated the idea that "we who are rich" are giving our "leftovers" to "the poor people." My first goal in linking the schools was to shift the terminology in discussing the book drive: "We who have an abundance of resources are sharing - not with generic 'poor' people - but rather with people who do not have as many 'book' resources." To ensure quality donations, we asked the Westminster students to share only two books, two "favourite" books. My next goal was to encourage more involvement of the current Westminster parents to volunteer, and to promote greater awareness of the outreach. Working with the Parents' Council president, I established a council liaison position for the purpose of recruitment and communication.

Then I turned to the goal of linking the children themselves. I wanted the children to get to know each other, to recognize their differences as well as their points of commonality. I wanted them to have opportunities to share their excitement about books - and to experience authors whose writing appealed to both socio-economic populations.

In the initial school to school exchange, the Campbell third graders and their teachers came to Westminster to see a third grade class play and visited the third grade classrooms for refreshments and "sharing" of "favourite" books. Campbell third graders returned the invitation a few weeks later by hosting their Westminster "buddies" and presenting a program on friendship which included dance, music, and speeches.

One Westminster student, Bryan, whose mother volunteered with us, brought his buddy a pencil because his mother told him how special pencils were to Campbell students. But Campbell student Darshani best summed up the value of the experience when she exclaimed, "My buddy Dorothy and I are just alike; we both like to swim, ride our bicycles and read!" Once the idea of friendship had been established between the children, I wanted to have a meaningful author exchange. I didn't want an African folktale writer, and I didn't want a poet. I didn't want a white writer nor did I want an author whose writing was too difficult for the inner-city children to read on their own.

I wanted an African-American narrative fiction author whose stories incorporated people of colour and whose themes touched on the universality of childhood experiences. If this was not enough, I wanted an author who could come during Black History Month in February.

Vaunda Nelson, an African-American author living in New Mexico, agreed to come. Her book Mayfield Crossing had won the 1995 Georgia Book Award, and Possibles was nominated for the 1999 Georgia Book Award. Across America, elementary children learned the names of the states, loved the game of baseball, and understood the pain of feeling different and the hurtfulness of prejudice in any form. Mayfield Crossing had all of those elements plus a good story complete with a good fight told in direct, clear language. Possibles, appealing to older elementary students, took on the themes of struggling to grow up, death, and making ethical choices.

The third to fifth graders of both schools read Vaunda's books. She spoke four times in one day, twice at each school. Westminster third graders went to Campbell; Campbell fourth graders went to Westminster.

The Campbell students gave the "gift" of a warm welcome to Vaunda and Westminster. Campbell proclaimed the day "Vaunda Nelson" day. Dressed in their best, the students welcomed her with an introduction speech and thanked her with red roses. They celebrated their Westminster friends and Ms. Nelson with a dance routine and banners. The mood at Campbell School was celebratory and appreciative, and the visit was a highlight of their school year. The Westminster students stood and sang the "Fifty Nifty United States" - the song Meg, the main character, sang in Mayfield Crossing.

After "presenting" at Campbell, Ms. Nelson, along with all Campbell fourth graders and several teachers - came to Westminster. The Campbell teachers joined a few Westminster teachers for a private lunch with Vaunda. Then she spoke to the fourth graders. To conclude the exchange, the fourth graders from both schools joined up with their buddies from the previous year for lunch in the cafeteria.

Although Westminster had hosted several authors during the year, and the students greeted Ms. Nelson with less fanfare than at Campbell, their enthusiasm for her visit was apparent. Her personal warmth and understanding of children was obvious during her presentations. Her clear writing on universal themes was appreciated by all the children and hopefully helped them make sense of some part of their own lives or the lives of others, irrespective of race or socioeconomic status. The Vaunda "exchange" was a huge success. In the week following Vaunda's visit, a Campbell teacher asked for a copy of the "Fifty Nifty United States" song. A month later, I knew the circle of exchange was complete when her students came into the library asking if we "library ladies" would like to hear them sing it. "Yes," we said, and "thank you."


Gail Goodwin

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"Building a Bridge of Books: An Inner-City/Private School Partnership"
© Gail Goodwin, 1999.
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