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Dec. 3, 2022

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Jason Lee Middle School librarian highlights Black history in ‘reading challenge’

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Eighth-grader Nola Bouffard looks over the selection of books as part of the diversity reading challenge in the library at Jason Lee Middle School in Hazel Dell.
Eighth-grader Nola Bouffard looks over the selection of books as part of the diversity reading challenge in the library at Jason Lee Middle School in Hazel Dell. (Joshua Hart for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As Black History Month came to a close earlier this week, students throughout Clark County began to reflect on some of the most important lessons they’d learned.

At Jason Lee Middle School in Hazel Dell, students had been engaged in February’s “Diversity Reading Challenge,” which presented a selection of books on Black history or from Black authors for students to read and discuss with one another at the end of the month.

Students read superhero novels with Black protagonists, realistic fiction pieces reflecting on racism, high fantasy novels intertwined with African culture and more. On Wednesday, a group of students discussed their favorite novels from the challenge.

“I read a book called ‘Children of Blood and Bone,’ ” said Blake Pearson, a seventh-grader. “It’s a fantasy book, and it’s like a lot of other fantasy books I’ve read, but it has words from different languages and cultures I had never heard of. I would never know about those words unless I had read it.”

Throughout the school year, librarian Cheryl Miller has been leading monthlong reading challenges that highlight various cultures in an attempt to promote representation in literature that she thought was lacking at Jason Lee in recent years.

“I think a lot of these events in our nation have given me pause to think,” said Miller, who previously worked as an English and history teacher at the school. “Last year, I was able to take a course about diversifying the library collection, it made me think about the collection and think, ‘Wow, will all the kids who go to Jason Lee see themselves in the books in the library?’ ”

“And the answer at that point was no.”

Miller wrote a grant proposal to the Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools, which allocates a set amount of money for each school in the district each year. Once approved, Miller used the funding to purchase dozens of new books and materials that she felt better reflected the diversity of students that attend Jason Lee.

“Out of that was born this idea to think, ‘OK, now we have these books, how can I highlight them and let kids know that they’re there?’ So that’s where the diversity challenge came from,” she said.

Previous months had featured literature from Native Americans, authors with disabilities and the Latinx community.

Miller explained that there were three main ways she encouraged students to reflect on reading stories from cultures other than their own.

“There’s a metaphor — books can be mirrors where we learn about ourselves — they can be windows to understand people who are different from us and they can be sliding glass doors where it’s just like pure escapism,” she said.

For eighth-grader Nola Bouffard, reading “Miles Morales: Spider-Man” didn’t just give her a new perspective on her favorite superhero — which was made obvious by her T-shirt that featured the famous web-slinger — but it allowed her to consider all three metaphors that Miller had outlined.

To those who may not be Spider-Man enthusiasts, Miles Morales is a young Spider-Man in the 2018 animated movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.” The film saw massive acclaim not just because of its unique animation style and clever writing, but because it was the first time the iconic hero had been portrayed by a person of color in Hollywood. Nola’s novel of choice was an expansion on the film’s storyline and characters.

“I felt like it was a mirror in a way that Miles thinks about himself, the way that he approaches school, but it was also like the sliding glass door because obviously it surrounds a superhero, which is something I’ve never experienced,” said Nola. “It was also a window, because I’m not Black, and he’s half-Black half-Dominican, so that was interesting because I personally haven’t experienced the challenges that come along with that.”

Nola and her fellow students said they loved how lessons from the diversity reading challenge gave them new insight on cultural lessons they had been learning in their other English and history classes — and they wish that diversity was an even larger focus year-round.

“We learned about some of the most famous Black people, like Ruby Bridges, Jackie Robinson, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela,” said sixth-grader Gwenne Miller. “But I don’t think we did much more that was around literature.”

“I thought (the reading challenge) was nice to do because there’s a lot to learn about Black history,” Nola added. “I didn’t have a lot of teachers who really did a lot on it.”

Upcoming monthly challenges will continue to highlight literature from authors of different cultures, including Asian and Pacific Islanders in April and the LGBT community in May. Each month, Miller said, the number of students at Jason Lee who have joined the diversity reading challenges has increased, something she finds really inspiring.

“What I’m constantly impressed by is how insightful these kids will be, even at such a young age,” Miller said. “I’m always surprised, there’s really deep waters.”