"Reading Is My Superpower": Cicely Lewis, 2020 School Librarian of the Year

Lewis's Read Woke challenge prompts young readers to embrace social consciousness. Her students say she changed their lives.

 

Cicely Lewis, SLJ’s 2020 School Librarian of the Year, remembers the first time she considered becoming a librarian. Then an English language arts teacher at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, GA, Lewis brought her class to the media center and watched the librarian work with her students.

“I could do this,” she thought to herself. Before the lesson was over, Lewis, who taught in the classroom for 12 years, came to another realization: “This might just be my dream job.”

Two years later, in 2015, the librarian retired, and Lewis, who received a media specialist certificate from Georgia Southern University, traded the classroom for the 1,000-square-foot media center. While her bubbly personality and love of books eased the transition, she admits that her most successful idea came from something of a failure.

Lewis liked using reading themes to build student excitement. One day after a Harry Potter celebration at her library, she went home to see news reports on the end of DACA and police brutality against people of color.

“I felt so guilty talking about a magical wizard. I felt like I wasn’t helping the kids,” she says.

Meadowcreek’s 3,260 students are 68 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Black or African American, eight percent Asian, and two percent white. Eighty percent of students at the Title 1 school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 22 percent speak English as a second language. Norcross, outside of Atlanta, is the most diverse community in Gwynnett County, and it is growing quickly: The population rose from 9,116 in 2010 to an estimated 16,563 in 2018. Lewis supplements her $7,000 annual book budget with grant money to fund other initiatives.

After seeing that news broadcast, Lewis took quick stock of her strengths. She knew that protesting in the street or even arguing politics online didn’t suit her. “Reading is my superpower,” she says. “I’m really good at getting kids connected to [books].”

 

Sparking a movement

When she spied a recent issue of Essence magazine celebrating 12 women wearing Stay Woke T-shirts, she decided that Read Woke would be her next theme. To participate in the Read Woke challenge and earn a Read Woke T-shirt, students read four books from a list Lewis creates and complete an assignment about the titles (create a book review, reflection, or protest sign for one of the books’ characters).

“Some teachers said it wouldn’t work,” she recalls. They predicted students wouldn’t read and Lewis would be disappointed. The librarian admits her doubters were partly right. Progress was slow. Lewis loaded her library with books featuring underrepresented viewpoints and characters. Books such as I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez got students’ attention.

Lewis still remembers getting a sweatshirt and pencil when she was designated an accelerated reader when she was young. “It was a symbol of pride. It says [you] did something amazing,” she says. Lewis knew her program was working when she gave English teacher Mariella Tomova a Read Woke pin and students asked how the teacher earned it.

Fast-forward to today, when the #ReadWoke movement is an international phenomenon among educators. The idea behind it—reading books to arm yourself with knowledge to better protect your rights, give voice to the voiceless, and challenge social norms—is wildly popular. The program was named the American Library Association’s best literature program for teens in 2019, and Lewis won the National Teacher Award for Lifelong Readers that same year. Read Woke groups have popped up in Norway and Canada.

Read: More about the Award and SLJ's Past School Librarians of the Year

“This has really caught on,” says Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, one of the first books Lewis used in her program. “It says a lot about what kids want out of books. [Lewis] has cracked something that people have been trying to crack for a long time.”

Stone says she has four different Read Woke T-shirts from different schools. (Lewis holds a trademark on the shirts.Other schools can create their own with her permission—if they’re made and used for educational purposes.) Stone, the first author Lewis invited to speak to her students, will return to Gwinnett County later this spring to present at the local public library: The whole area celebrates participation in the program.

Books have always played a big part in Lewis’s life. She grew up a voracious reader in Mississippi, but remembers that she didn’t read a lot of books written by people who looked like her.

When her older sister started attending community college, Lewis snuck into her room to “borrow” her clothes. Instead she found Black Boy, Richard Wright’s memoir. She devoured the coming-of-age story and immediately looked for more. She took an African American literature class in college and never stopped seeking books by underrepresented authors. Lewis’s library is stocked with such titles, including Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

But Lewis’s fervor to connect students with books goes far beyond race. She readily recommends books that address poverty, body shaming, and mental health issues. Getting a popular student to read an LGBTQ+ book recently prompted him to dispel the hate and lies so frequently repeated online, she adds.

“She’s very culturally aware, and she’s able to relate to students,” says Adrienne Wylie, the school’s language arts instructional lead. “She makes reading exciting.”

When Tomova wanted students to free read for the first 10 minutes of each class, she enlisted Lewis to help the students find books. “Anything they were interested in—teenage problems, disenfranchisement, or [characters who were] discriminated against—she had a plethora of authors and book titles.” Tomova has signed up the most students for the Read Woke challenge.

 

Student pride in reading

One of Lewis’s sneakiest strengths is her abundance of ideas, Tomova says. In the last few years alone, Lewis has created a book fashion show, received the Dollar General Literacy Foundation grant for stationary bikes, and put on a “biology trivia smackdown” between two schools. In February, she ran Woke Week, highlighting voting rights and black history. More than 70 students registered to vote.

Among all her programs, the literary fashion show highlights her strength in combining two ideas that most wouldn’t think to connect—the prom and reading. Lewis transformed the library for the show, adding a red carpet, strobe lights, and a disc jockey. Using dresses donated from a local boutique and the school’s own Care Closet, students walked the runway holding books.

Read Woke has become so widespread that some of Lewis’s newest students were astonished to learn the program originated right in their high school. During a recent session, one of them did a Google search and then asked Lewis, “Miss, you started this?”

Tomova says she knew the program was a hit when she saw students proudly sporting their Read Woke T-shirts on the sidelines of school football and soccer games. “They know they are part of something,” she says.

While Lewis calls her school “the best,” she readily admits it doesn’t always lead the way with academic achievements. Being a part of something that has become a national movement makes students proud, she says.

That positivity is spreading. The library’s circulation has jumped by 40 percent, while visits have increased from 15 a day to about 150 currently. More than 100 students are signed up for Read Woke this year, compared to 60 last year.

The gains are showing in other ways. While not everything can be traced back to Lewis and her programs, student test scores are rising, and graduation rates leapt from 69 percent in 2015 to 77 percent in 2018.

Mary Barbee, the director of the district’s media services, marvels at how Lewis’s efforts have ricocheted around the district and made all teachers and librarians think seriously about how their collections represent students. Even a small touch, such as having teachers advertise what books they are currently reading, has helped initiate conversations.

The district has a certified librarian in each building. “It speaks to how we value that person whose special skill is the promoting of reading and research skills,” Barbee says. “I’m thrilled with all the things [Lewis is doing].”

Stone adds that Lewis’s outlook helps teach students about the world as it is now, rather than sticking to a narrow idea of what constitutes English literature. “Cicely is the kind of person I hope my kids have as a librarian when they reach high school,” she says.

“I would not trade this job for anything,” says Lewis, now four years into her post at Meadowcreek’s media center. “This is like the perfect job that nobody tells you about.”

###

About the Award: SLJ presents the fifth School Librarian of the Year award with sponsors Scholastic Book Fairs and Scholastic Digital Solutions. The winner receives a $2,500 cash award and $2,500 in-kind digital and/or print products for their library; a Scholastic Book Fairs “Mr. Schu’s Picks” collection of books; a visit from John Schumacher, Ambassador of School Libraries, Scholastic, including a book giveaway for every student in the school; and an invitation to participate in a 2020 Scholastic Book Fairs Summer Reading Summit.

THE 2020 JUDGES: Ali Schilpp, 2018 School Librarian of the Year; John Schumacher, Ambassador of School Libraries, Scholastic; LaQuita Outlaw, principal, Bay Shore (NY) Middle School; Steven Geis, principal, North Trail Elementary School, Farmington, MN; SLJ editors.

Read more about the award : slj.com/SLOTY

Read: Appalachian Trailblazer: Ali Schilpp, SLJ's 2018 School Librarian of the Year

Wayne D’Orio wrote SLJ’s February cover story about leveled reading methods.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Nekeisha Mitchell

I am inspired by the work you are doing. This is my first time hearing about the Read Woke program and can't wait to read more. Just started following her on twitter

Posted : Apr 23, 2020 04:40


Laura Gardner

Congratulations!! Cicely, your program sounds fantastic and your students are lucky to have you. You're right that this is the best job ever -- aren't we so lucky?

Posted : Mar 30, 2020 04:51


Dorothy Bell-Hamilton

My dearest daughter is truly a read woke minister to all the children. When Cicely was transitioning to be the Librarian, the thoughtful beautiful of her inspiration for to better the students first and then enlarge the progress of Meadowcreek. My daughter practice what she preached and also incorporate experience reading all thru her life. When she was in the 6th grade she cried because she had a c on her progress report, well at that time I was encouraging and informing Cicely that her brain or mind can earn her All “A’s. She was listening and believe what her mom told her and she was apart of Academic Achievement. I love you beautiful daughter . Momma

Posted : Mar 30, 2020 01:55


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?