‘Kids are reflective and ready to do this work’: Supporting anti-racism in Oak Park middle schools

Oak Park Public Library Middle School Librarian Beronica Puhr (left) gives boxes of the book Stamped to Brooks Middle School Language & Literature Department Chair Katy Alejos (right) in August. All Oak Park Elementary School District 97 middle schoolers are reading and discussing the book in classes this fall.

“Schools are a reflection of our society, so in the wake of social justice and anti-racism demonstrations, we must support our students in becoming global citizens in a diverse democracy.”

—Oak Park Elementary School District 97, Anti-Racism in District 97

All Oak Park Elementary School District 97 middle school students are reading and discussing Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in classes this fall.

It’s part of District 97’s anti-racist curriculum and broader efforts to “disrupt societal and historical inequities arising from institutional racism and white supremacy in our schools.”

The library has partnered to support educators in this work, as well as our own anti-racism journey.

Starting in October, the library and the Equity Team of Oak Park (E-Team) will lead a virtual three-session series of family and community discussion circles about the book.

‘We won’t accept complacency as educators’

Written for young people, Stamped is a conversational and accessible exploration of the history of racist and anti-racist ideas. It is a remix of the National Book Award-Winning Stamped From the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.

To get the book into the hands of all students in grades 6-8 in both Brooks and Julian Middle Schools, the library purchased and donated about 300 copies of the book, using grant funding from the Oak Park Township. District 97 purchased the remaining 1,600 copies from Afriware, a Black-owned bookstore in Maywood.

Brooks Middle School Department Chair Katy Alejos’ series of tweets about the idea to teach Stamped to all District 97 middle schoolers

In a letter to families, Brooks Middle School Language & Literature Department Chair Katy Alejos wrote that her department “cannot imagine starting the school year without explicitly exploring race and antiracism based on the current climate in our society and what the Black Lives Matter Movement took a stand for.”

“Further, because education looks and feels differently for everyone right now,” she added, “our department decided that we must take this opportunity to declare that we won’t accept complacency as educators in this time and space.”

A couple of weeks into the school year in September, Alejos shared with us that “the vibe towards the book is super positive. Just like we expected, these kids are reflective and ready to do this work!”

Library-led book group, discussion circles & educator resources

Oak Park Public Library Middle School Librarian Beronica Puhr says the partnership builds on the relationships and discussions formed over the past year, including through the library’s Middle School Book Group.

Over the summer, the group read and discussed Eve Ewing’s 1919, a collection of poems including one titled “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store.” Puhr says the group had a deep and meaningful conversation about Till, the 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was brutally killed in Mississippi, for allegedly flirting with a white woman, in 1955.

“His story seems to hit home with this age group,” Puhr says.

Stamped discussions

On October 9, the Middle School Book Group will discuss Stamped by Jason Reynolds. The group is open to all students in grades 5-8, and they don’t have to attend District 97 to participate.

And starting in October, library staff and the E-Team will lead a series of three discussions for middle school students, families, and community members in general. Register in Zoom for any or all sessions:

  • Session 1: Tuesday, October 20, 6-7:30 pm
  • Session 2: Tuesday, November 17, 6-7:30 pm
  • Session 3: Tuesday, December 1, 6-7:30 pm​

The discussions will follow a peace circle format and draw on the Stamped Educator’s Guide.

More anti-racism resources

To support anti-racist curriculum more broadly, District 97 educators are drawing on other resources including:

Stamped: ‘A book about the here and now’

Throughout, best-selling author Jason Reynolds emphasizes that Stamped “is not a history book.” Instead, it’s “a book about the here and now. A book that hopefully will help us better understand why we are where we are as Americans, specifically as our identity pertains to race.”

In the book’s acknowledgments, Reynolds thanks young people for their empathy and their desire for a fair world. Scrolling and hashtagging isn’t enough, he writes: “We have to be participants. Active.” And to attack racism, you must know its insidious nature: “We can’t attack a thing we don’t know.”

Stamped is available in multiple formats, including digital audiobook and ebook.