For Educators: Laying the Groundwork for Reading Groups
This section offers guidelines for educators and suggests key questions to consider before bringing families together for the first planning meeting.
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1. Why do I want to start a social justice reading group?
Consider your definition of social justice.
Research shows the clear benefits of engaging families and communities in these kinds of conversations with their children. In the introduction to this guide, you’ll find a summary of this research ready to share with families, students and administrators. But beyond the predictable benefits, it’s important that you consider your own investment in this project.
Educators who have been most effective in this work have some things in common:
- They have a clear, personal definition of social justice.
- They recognize that others can have different visions for social justice.
- They have done deep, internal identity work.
- They have considered the role of education—and particularly of schools—in social justice work.
2. Do I have the relationships I’ll need to make this group a success?
Consider the work you’ve already done to engage with your students around critical topics and to connect with the families and communities that surround your classroom.
Creating a reading group is not a first step toward introducing social justice in your classroom or engaging families and communities. Before you begin, assess the ways you’ve been working. Ask yourself:
- Have I introduced the concepts of identity, diversity, justice and action to my students?
- Do my curriculum and my classroom environment offer windows and mirrors for all my students?
- How have I reached out to the families of my students? How have I solicited their input or asked them to share their experiences or expertise?
- How have I provided families with information about the work we’ve been doing in class and about their children’s successes as well as challenges?
- Are members of my students’ communities present in my classroom? Do I create space for local leaders, changemakers or influencers to speak to my students?
If you haven’t yet built strong, equitable relationships with your students and their families, it’s unlikely that your reading group will succeed. Instead of starting a new project, consider how you can commit to including your students’ families and communities in the work you’re already doing.
For examples of ways to make sure your students are ready to tackle social justice topics and to include families in your classroom, see Learning for Justice’s Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education.
3. How will my identity shape this collaboration?
Consider how you’ll ensure that the reading group is based on equitable partnerships with families.
As an educator, you enter any collaboration with significant institutional power behind you: your school system, your own education, your expertise. Many families may see you as a person with more power over their child’s education than they have. Furthermore, other aspects of your identity (your race, gender, class or language, among others) shape both the way that you see the world and the ways that others perceive you.
Before engaging with families, reflect on your identity and your intentions in starting this reading group:
- What expertise do you expect families to bring to the group? What is valuable about this expertise?
- How have you signaled this to families in your previous interactions with them?
- How will you continue to signal this when you first invite families to collaborate on this project?
Once you’ve thought through these questions, you should be ready to begin assembling your planning committee. Here are a few additional questions to keep in mind as you plan your community meeting.
4. How will I build support at my school?
Inviting colleagues and administrators into your work from the beginning can be invaluable. They, too, know your students and their families, and their suggestions can help you determine the best way to maximize family involvement. Well before the community meeting, take some time to share your plans with them, solicit their input and feedback, explain “Why Reading Groups?” and let them know your hopes for the group.
5. How will I encourage families to join?
These methods might help:
- Explain how the group will help students. Framing the group in terms of how this work will support your students’ academic growth—improving literacy and critical reading skills as well as social emotional learning—provides a bridge between traditional schoolwork and the community-building work that reading groups undertake.
- Diversify your outreach methods. Flyers work well, but they don’t reach every family. Contacting families directly, through an email, phone call or home visit can be more efficient. Personalized invitations are particularly effective at increasing turnout. Remember that this is a project that can only succeed if families are invested. If you take the time to explain why you think this group will benefit their child, most families will attend if they can.
- Connect through nets, not lines. Take advantage of social networks that students and families already have. Ask families who seem enthusiastic about the project to encourage others to attend the community meeting.
- Make it easy to attend. Be thoughtful with logistics. Schedule planning work and community meetings at a time when most families are able to come. If you plan around mealtime and provide a light meal or refreshments, that may make it easier for parents and guardians to attend. Provide childcare services for families with younger siblings if you can or welcome them to bring their younger children. Consider meeting in the morning before school and providing breakfast. Facilitate transportation when possible.
- Reach out to all families. When preparing for the community meeting, specifically invite caretakers who haven’t engaged in school events or activities in the past. This outreach is particularly important; some families may not have found a way to participate in your school community. Your reading group may be a different type of space, one where they feel welcome and valued.
- Ensure your outreach is inclusive. Check your language to make sure you’re including all family structures in your outreach. Remember that parents aren’t the only caretakers, and encourage students to invite the caretakers with whom they spend the most time to join your group. Make use of your school’s translation services to ensure that invitations and meetings are available in all home languages.
6. How will I share the spotlight?
The community meeting will set the tone for your group. Consider how you’ll show families that this will be a space where everyone is both a teacher and a learner, where everyone has the authority to create and share knowledge.
Sometimes we may not realize the actions that confirm our authority as educators and place others as learners. For example, it’s common for educators to rephrase a student comment for the class, particularly if the original statement is unclear or resists summarization. Doing so at a community meeting, however, only serves to reassert your authority in the space. It positions educators as gatekeepers to the conversation and suggests that they alone have access to the “correct language” for these discussions. While you may need to encourage this first conversation, educators who are most successful in this work tend to maintain an awareness of their own power, stepping back as much as possible during the planning process. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Choose the space carefully. While you may be most comfortable meeting in your classroom, it’s also a space where you’re usually in control. Meeting outside of school (in a community center or public library) might not be possible, but if you do meet at school, consider whether you want your community meeting to be held in your classroom or in a more neutral space, such as the gym, cafeteria or library.
- Contribute as an equal. Introduce yourself by sharing some of your own identities, along with an experience or two that has shaped your idea of justice. Recognizing and sharing your own identities—particularly the dominant ones (say, for example, American citizen or straight man)—shows that you don’t see your experience as the “default.” Encourage others to also share about themselves in this way.
- Step back when you can. Defer when possible. If families look to you for answers, gently toss their questions to other participants. Quote other participants when you can. When questioned, assume that others already have knowledge before you present your own.
7. How have I prepared for challenging conversations?
As political discourse in our country has become more polarized, many classrooms have as well. The families you bring together for this group may have radically different beliefs, identities and experiences. Designed for facilitating classroom conversations, the Learning for Justice guide Let’s Talk! Facilitating Critical Conversations With Students offers recommendations for steps educators can take before, during and after critical conversations to ensure that these discussions are as productive as possible.
8. How will I ensure all families can participate equally?
When working with a group of families who are culturally and linguistically diverse, do a bit of research to support your work. Resources such as Learning for Justice’s Best Practices for Serving English Language Learners and Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education are good places to start. But don’t neglect the many resources in your community! Talk with other families and community members to get a sense of how best to create a group that encourages equal participation.
Your school may have a family liaison or family engagement coordinator who knows the resources available to you and families. Invite them to become an ally. They could even be a part of the reading group.
Your school or district may provide translation resources. These can be invaluable to parents and guardians who may not be comfortable communicating solely in English. Always ask parents and guardians to determine which language they are most comfortable communicating in.
Look for resources outside the school district that can help. Community organizations are often available to help and have strong networks of references to resources or others who would like to be involved in the reading group. Developing relationships with members of these community organizations can build both a stronger reading group and a stronger community.
If you are planning on starting a social justice reading group at your school, please keep us posted on how it goes via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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