How do stories affect and change our communities?
What does equality really mean?
How can educators weave social justice into the fabric of their teaching?
These questions and many more have been formulated, carefully considered, and articulated by the OES community since this past summer, when all employees read the young adult novel Piecing Me Together. Yesterday Renée Watson, teacher, performer, and author of the novel spent the entire day working with various groups throughout our school to address those questions.
As an educator for 25 years, Renée's writing for children and teens is rooted in vast knowledge of young peoples' experiences. She herself grew up in Portland and in the 1980s, was one of a small group of black students chosen to help integrate a middle school in SE. The challenges she faced—including painful instances of overt racism—as well as successes during this formative time laid the foundation for her art, writing, and teaching today.
With boundless energy and enthusiasm, Renée dialogued with students, educators, and parents through many forms over the course of Thursday's hours. A discussion of Piecing Me Together began the day, and saw employees breaking into groups to share their perspectives on excerpts of the book (which tells the story of Jade, a 16-year-old black girl attending a private school in Portland).
She also took time to meet with our Middle School students, both in Chapel and at a smaller gathering in the library at lunch. During the library question-and-answer session, Ellie R. '22 asked, "What do you think was your main goal of writing the book? What do you want it to uphold in the communities you want to reach?"
Renée replied, "First and foremost, before I'm trying to write about any issue that could impact your mind, I want to tell a good story. But then yes, I'm thinking about wanting to be a mirror for readers, because they need to see their reflection in a book. I hope that girls in Portland see Jade's experience; and then for the people who have not had that experience, that they learn something and become curious about what they didn't know before they read the book."
Later in the afternoon a large group of educators gathered for a workshop with Renée on integrating social justice into the classroom. Through a combination of personal experiences and frameworks, she led the group through exercises designed to help students understand and explore difficult subjects through art. Before the two-hour session was up, each adult had written a poem and participated in a performance piece!
Finally, in the evening more than 100 people gathered in the OES Great Hall for a special conversation. Two Upper School students, Hannah W. '19 and Julia H. '18 asked Renée a series of questions about changing a community's culture, how to speak openly about current events, and even what she would say to her 11th-grade self. (The answer? Be kinder to herself.) The dialogue was then opened up to the entire audience.
We are grateful to Renée for her taking the time to work in such depth with our community, and would like to extend a special thanks to the OES Inclusion and Community Engagement team for making this visit possible!