May 26, 2017

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After Travel Ban, Schools and Libraries Reassure Students and Families

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The Minneapolis Central Branch of the Hennepin County Library

All are welcome here.

That’s the name of a new campaign that recently got underway at the Hennepin County Library (HCL) in Minnesota. But it could also represent the message of several community and school libraries across the country in light of President Trump’s executive order that bars refugees and residents from seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the United States.

HCL serves a large Somali immigrant population as well as a large population of Spanish speakers from many different countries. Somalia is one of the seven countries covered under Trump’s order.

Bernie Farrell coordinates youth programs and services for HCL and says the campaign sprang from the belief that some of their immigrant patrons might feel uneasy or out-of-place after the election.

“We want them to feel welcome,” Farrell says. “We want them to feel safe. We want them to feel that if they ask questions about any topics, we’ll give them relevant and helpful information or relevant and helpful referrals.”

In New York City, the Department of Education is promising to protect students who are immigrants. Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña and the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office on Immigrant Affairs sent a joint letter out to families with children who attend schools in the city that detailed how these students would be treated. For example, the district won’t release student information unless required to by law and won’t ask about immigration status.

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Brooklyn school librarian Alla Umanskaya sees a teachable moment in the travel ban.

Alla Umanskaya is a library media specialist at P.S./I.S. Mary White Ovington in Brooklyn, N.Y. The K-8 school offers an Arabic dual language program and serves a diverse student body, which includes students from several Arabic-speaking countries.

Umanskaya says she tries to reassure younger students who are worried that they and their families are safe in the city, and she uses the incident as a teachable moment about democracy and the three branches of government for older students.

“It’s a perfect moment when we can teach students what is democracy versus (a) totalitarian society,” Umanskaya says.

Meanwhile, some school libraries are taking a more low-key approach. They’re stressing inclusion and unity without any formal declarations or programs to address the refugee situation.

Becky Calzada serves as the district library coordinator for the Leander (TX) Independent School District. She says the goal of the district is to make sure the libraries are safe havens for all students. The diverse district near Austin has some campuses where 12 or more languages are spoken, and 55 languages are part of the district’s English as a second language program. The top five are Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin, and Arabic.

After the election, Calzada says, librarians in some district schools with large Hispanic populations were confronted with students who felt uneasy about how they might be treated by the Trump administration, and one of the things that has helped provide a sense of community is offering maker spaces.

“When people get engaged in those kinds of things, that brings people together because we go beyond just working with something (to) problem solving together and that’s something that builds relationships,” said Calzada.
Another thing that’s helping to give kids a sense of community is allowing students at the high school level to bring their lunch into the library.

“They’re welcome to come in as long as they clean up after themselves,” said Calzada. “Sometimes the cafeteria can be overwhelming and maybe a daunting experience for kids.”

The district also encourages students to be spotters for bullying, which means standing up when they see a student being mistreated. There’s a student club on each campus called C-Squared, whose members commit acts of kindness.

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An excerpt of a letter from the NYC Department of Education and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Esther Keller is also taking a laid-back approach with her sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at I.S. 278 Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY, where she’s a certified library media specialist.

She chose Russell Friedman’s We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolph Hitler (Clarion, 2016) as her book of the month for February. In her review of the book on the library’s website, Keller writes that it made her wonder if student protests when Hitler first rose to power would have changed the course of history and prevented the Holocaust.

“It’s not hard to watch what’s going on in this country and not think back to history,” she says. “After all, history does repeat itself.”

“By choosing certain titles and putting them out for students, I felt like I was leaving prompts for them to talk if they’d like, but to choose whether or not they were comfortable to talk to me,” Keller adds. “I find students are very intense and emotional during the middle school years. They have tons of opinions even if they aren’t expressing them to us teachers.”

Following Trump’s election, the Young Adult Library Services Association has called for libraries to do more to support teens who might feel alienated or unsafe by making libraries welcoming spaces for all and empowering young people to make their voices heard.

What has been happening in your school since the election? Let us know in this poll or in the comments.

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Marva Hinton About Marva Hinton

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, a show that features interviews with authors including Nicola Yoon and Daniel José Older.

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