Cordley Elementary’s Hawk Families share diversity through book groups, inclusive stories

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A new set of picture books this school year at Cordley Elementary will be used to bridge age gaps and experiences. Cross-age groups known as Hawk Families have launched for monthly get-togethers aimed at highlighting the unique lived experiences and diversity of Cordley’s students and families.

Just before dismissal Wednesday, Hawk Family members gathered in their groups for the first time this school year to read the book “What I Am” by Divya Srinivasan.

The story opens with the narrator, an Indian-American girl with brown skin, relating how she was once asked, “What are you?”

She explains, “I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t answer, and they left. But I kept thinking about it.”

She tells readers that sometimes she’s kind and generous; and sometimes she’s mean and selfish. She likes to be with friends, and she also likes to be alone. She lays out the contradictions within herself and sums them up by declaring, “What I am is more than I can say. I am part of the world. I am part of the universe.”

Ellie Villalobos, a fourth grader, loved the first meetup of Hawk Families, as well as the book.

“It really said a lot of things about me. Sometimes I’m shy. Sometimes I’m not shy,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders.

After reading the book, “family members” were asked to pick a word to describe themselves. They put marker to paper with the youngest students receiving help from their older buddies, and then they shared the words they chose to describe themselves. Examples included nice; funny; unique; super, good friend; cool; and beautiful, good dancer.  The scraps of paper will eventually form paper chains, linking each Hawk to the entire school.

Fourth graders Valerie Rodriguez and Hazel Stoppel both called the experience “amazing.” Valerie enjoyed the introductions, while Hazel said the book included “a lot of words to describe people.”

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Ellie Villalobos (left), Hazel Stoppel, and Valerie Rodriguez

With so much of the educational day divided by age groupings, this project helps students from kindergarten through fifth grade span those age barriers. Using a colorful picture book as a starting point, the stories promote conversation and help students not only see themselves but also how they’re connected with their schoolmates.

From that process comes understanding of one another, said fourth grade teacher Kellie Magnuson. 

The books also are accessible outside the monthly read-alongs. Each classroom received a set through grant funding from We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that describes itself as promoting “literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people” and their diverse experiences. Teachers also receive an age-appropriate activity for each story.

“We tried to get a range of books that really represent a variety of students’ experiences or ethnicities or racial identities to really help people. All of our kids see themselves in books,” Magnuson said as she stacked some of the books.

“I am Every Good Thing” by Derrick Barnes sat on top. In it, Barnes, formerly of Kansas City, and illustrator Gordon C. James weave an empowering story of a Black boy with big plans for his future. Underneath, “Just Ask” by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, recounts her journey with Type 1 diabetes, which began at age 7.

Learning coach Christina Smith said Cordley’s proposal was one of 35 chosen out of nearly 600 submitted. A survey administered by the school’s equity team last school year asked staff, “When you think about your need for support in racial equity work, what do you feel would benefit you the most?”

A large percentage of staff wanted more guidance in how to check for forms of bias in their instructional materials in order to create an anti-racist classroom. Smith said the books selected represent a range of perspectives: LGBTQ+, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. She hopes the result is a “far-reaching and long-lasting” impact.

“We believe this opportunity for our teachers and students has the potential to transform beliefs and behaviors. Our goal is to equip our students with understanding, empathy, and knowledge in order to navigate and make change in the real world,” Smith said in an email.

Becky Reaver

Principal Becky Reaver, now in her 22nd year in Lawrence Public Schools and her second as Cordley’s principal, said school staff wanted to begin the year with an “increased focus on teaching practices that reduce disparities.”

Leading a predominantly white staff, Reaver estimated nearly half of Cordley’s students this year identify as non-white, with multiracial students comprising much of the community’s students of color.

Cordley also earned a grant from the Zinn Education Project, which will support 15 Cordley educators’ participation in the yearlong professional development program Teaching for Black Lives. Self-reflections, readings, conversations and national webinars will help teachers identify racism’s impact in schools and how to interrupt those patterns, Reaver said.

“It just felt like the next right thing to do to help staff get what they need in terms of knowledge and take an outward step to Black Lives Matter in schools. I think a lot about, ‘How do we engage parents and families even more than we do right now?’ And I feel like there’s just more work to be done.”

Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Participating in circle time at Cordley Elementary with their Hawk Family members are, from left, Marcos Espinoza Vera (4th), Owen Schumock (kindergarten), J’Cion Mims (4th), and Jazz Johnson (2nd).
Lawrence Times/Tricia Masenthin Cordley fifth grader Hunter King shows off a link declaring, “I am nice.”
Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Fourth grade teacher Kellie Magnuson grimaces while reading from the book “What I Am” at Cordley Elementary on Sept. 28, 2022.
Tricia Masenthin/Lawrence Times Cordley first grader Maddy Van Slyke holds up a description of herself during a Hawk Families activity on Sept. 28, 2022.
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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