Community Book Club Focuses on Diversity, Inclusion
Themes of diversity, inclusion, kindness and friendship echoed through the James H. Vernon School library in the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District as students, parents and community members came together for the 13th Community Book Club hosted by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Laura Seinfeld.
Participants examined the book, Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, a novel narrated by an old oak tree named Red who has observed human behavior for over 200 years. In a tradition spanning decades, the neighborhood comes out on the first of May each year to write their wishes on strips of cloth and tie them to Red’s branches. When a 10-year-old Muslim girl named Samar and her parents move into the neighborhood and are met with resistance, Samar adds her wish for a friend to one of Red’s branches. With a desire to restore harmony in the neighborhood, Red decides to grant Samar’s wish with the help of the menagerie of animals that call Red their home, but the decision comes at a time when Red’s own life is threatened. Through Red’s storytelling, Red saves himself and helps the neighborhood take steps towards tolerance and acceptance.
Oyster Bay High School Student Council President Erica Duke, who co-facilitated the event with Dr. Seinfeld, read three questions to the participants, asking them to explore how friendship happens, how Red makes a difference in the world, and what Wishtree prompts us to think about in our schools.
Following a World Café Model, participants sat in small groups, each consisting of a table host who recorded thoughts about the questions for the group. After a designated time, all except the table host changed tables to discuss a second question with another group. Participants moved to new groups three times, opening up conversations with different people and discovering new perspectives on the book. A designated spokesperson from each group then shared their most significant thoughts with the crowd. Each group spokesperson built on the thoughts from the prior spokesperson until every table was represented.
Punctuating the themes of inclusion, Vernon School, under the direction of Vernon School librarian Ms. Erin Dubon, created its own wish tree and students throughout the school wrote down their wishes on strips of colored construction paper and hung them on its branches. As an activity, book club participants had the opportunity to add their wishes to the tree as well. Next to the wish tree, a “Welcome Wall” was created. Book club participants were given paper leaves and were asked to complete the sentence “We welcome your…..” and add them to the wall. Participants completed that sentence with “friendship,” “sense of humor” “your smile” and many other welcoming thoughts.
For a final activity, participants completed the “Welcome All Pledge,” by pledging to welcome the opinions, culture, traditions and diversity of others, acknowledging that all are welcome in our schools.
Dr. Seinfeld said she was “impressed by the many thoughtful comments and ideas that were shared about the book and the many ways they thought of welcoming others in an effort to create a warm, inviting and positive environment for all.”