Cicely Lewis

Steve Thomas:              This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Cicely Lewis, library media specialist at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, Georgia, right here in my neck of the woods. She’s the creator of the Read Woke program.

Steve Thomas:              Cicely, welcome to the show.

Cicely Lewis:                 Thank you so much for having me, Steve.

Steve Thomas:              So you have a background as a teacher, but can you talk about how you made the step over to libraries and maybe if you had some formative experience with libraries as a child that maybe made you love the library, anything like that?

Cicely Lewis:                 Yes. I initially I was a language arts teacher, and I’ve also taught Spanish. And I love teaching, I love working with kids, andnd the reason I went into language arts is because I grew up loving to read. My mom would take us, there were two places we were definitely going to go: church and the library. I lost myself in books, I found myself in books and they were a form of therapy for me. And so it was a no-brainer for me to study language arts because I wanted to pass that on to my students, so I taught language arts. And then one day I was in the library making sure my kids were checking out books and there was another teacher there and I started helping her students and she said, “You need to be the librarian.” She said, “You’re amazing.” And I thought about it and said, maybe I should. And so I started working with the school librarian and I could not believe that people got paid to do this job. I was like, where has this job in all my life? And from from there it just, it became a goal and I’m so happy to be in this position.

Steve Thomas:              That’s great. And how long have you been in your current position?

Cicely Lewis:                 This is my fourth year in the library at Meadowcreek, but it’s my tenth year at Meadowcreek.

Steve Thomas:              Okay. So when a student graduates from Meadowcreek, what are some of the things that you’re hoping that you’ve passed on to them as the library media specialist?

Cicely Lewis:                 Wow, that’s a great question. First and foremost, I want them to have the tools to be successful, to be able to earn a living and to be able to contribute to society. But I am also very, very dedicated to making sure that they leave with a knowledge of how to treat other people with respect, to respect differences, to be caught up on current affairs, to fight for their rights, to never take no for an answer, to always go back and keep seeking. And to always continue to be a lifelong learner. So those are the things that I want my students to leave with and I feel that I’ve been successful with that since I’ve been at Meadowcreek.

Steve Thomas:              I should point out that for people who are wondering the music in the background is because we’re recording after we had lunch together at Frontera, if you’re wondering what the Latin flavor for this episode…

Cicely Lewis:                 Yes, it’s the Latin flavor, I love it.

Steve Thomas:              Over the last couple of years you’ve won quite a number of awards and that I don’t even, I don’t even have a question written down here, but how does that feel?

Cicely Lewis:                 Well, it feels unbelievable. Like I still, when I hear it or when I read it, I’m like, I can’t believe it. It’s so exciting and it’s just been, it’s been an exciting journey.

Steve Thomas:              And it has to be somewhat of a validation that you made the right choice to come to libraries.

Cicely Lewis:                 That’s so true because I didn’t win any awards when I was teaching language arts. So you’re right, I’ve definitely found my calling. You are so right about that.

Steve Thomas:              Good. And most of those awards were for your Read Woke program, which we’ll spend a little bit more time on in a minute, but I did want to ask first, what are some other kinds of programs and events that you do at the library other than Read Woke, which again we’ll get into in more detail later. What other kinds of fun things do you come up with for your students?

Cicely Lewis:                 I would to talk about my other programs, I’m so glad somebody wants to know. So what one thing that I do every year is called my Prom and Book Fashion Show and I partner with a local boutique, it’s called Cinderella’s Gowns. And also this year we partnered with K&G Fashion and our students are able to model these beautiful dresses and the catch is they have to have a book and they have to write a book review and we also were able to convince some students who normally don’t check out books to check out books. So that’s one of my programs and this is why, I’ve had this program for two years and I’m hoping to expand it this year to do even more for our students. And I also do a lot of cultural programs to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and instead of celebrating black history with a report or just having a speaker come and all the kids have to sit and be quiet, we had all of these interactive booths. We had a VR goggle booth where they could visit the Selma museum. We had food, we had African American Army recruiters. We had a representative talking about HBCUs and we had books and we had someone checking blood pressure and talking about health issues in an African American community. And it was packed. There were so many students there and they were engaged. We also had our students who compete in the August Wilson monologue competition, they were performing monologues and it was so amazing and the students were engaged. It was loud. It was just so much activity going on. I really feel like it was a great way to get kids interested in learning about black history.

Steve Thomas:              That’s great. I don’t want to… I know Read Woke is kind of what you got you famous, obviously there’s lots more that you do than just that. A lot of – and this is what will lead us into Read Woke – can you talk about the power of books as a way to kind of start conversations, because I think that’s one of the parts of Read Woke that’s so important. But just that concept in general.

Cicely Lewis:                 Yes. I think that I’ve had so many libraries that say to me, I didn’t feel comfortable talking about these issues, but I’m comfortable talking about books. And so if we have these issues and they’re in the books, we can bridge the gap and have these conversations. And you know, if you don’t feel comfortable doing a topic at your school because you feel like your school is too conservative or you know, you might get some pushback from administration. If you want to talk about a topic, something that is far-reaching and something that everybody, that you can get everybody on board with first, then you can bring those other conversations up later. One of the most interesting conversations that we had… A lot of kids were upset about with this shooting of unarmed black boys, a lot of the kids had a negative attitude towards the police. And so we had our SRO [School Resource Officer] officer talk to them about what it was like. Our SRO officer as a black female, so she had a very interesting perspective and she brought a really great perspective to the table from her vantage point. And so she just talked about being an African American, being a police officer, and the kids were able to ask her the questions they had, and they were able to put out some of the things that they had, the misconceptions and things like that. And so it was a really, really informative session for them to bring up these topics that you normally wouldn’t be able to talk about. And it was all basically we talked about The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds. And so it was a great conversation starter.

Steve Thomas:              That’s great. So, what was the genesis for the Read Woke program? What first made you want to say, this needs a specific program focused on this issue?

Cicely Lewis:                 When DACA was repealed, I just remember every… it was a somber atmosphere at my school. And so many of them didn’t know their rights, Many of them with the shootings, a lot of them thought that this was something new. They had never heard of Emmett Till, and my African American students did not know what DACA was. And then my Latinx students had no idea who Michael Brown was. So there was a huge, you know, some of them did, but there was a huge disconnect, and so I decided that I wanted to do something different. And I remember looking at Essence magazine, I saw the Stay Woke t-shirts and I love t-shirts and I just came up with Read Woke. It just came together. I mean just so easily. And from there, I knew the books cause I had been reading some of the books and I went online. I just started looking and perusing for, you know, books for every different category. My main focus at that point were books about police brutality, also books about LGBTQ teens to be able to see themselves. I wanted tons of books by authors of Latino descent because I work in a school that’s predominantly Latinx, Hispanic. And so those were the issues that I, initially that came to mind. But then it just, it grew into so much.

Steve Thomas:              Yeah. And so the core of it I think is encouraging, again, reading in these different areas to open your minds to different kinds of experiences and people different from you. What else goes into program besides just encouraging reading? Is there more to it than that?

Cicely Lewis:                 So I definitely want to encourage reading, but I also want to increase their awareness and I want to make them tolerant and I want them to also, to see themselves in books and realize that, hey, you know, that there’s a book out there that’s for me, because many of them will say, oh, I don’t like reading or reading is boring. And then when you see these books with these kids of color, African American descent on the cover, or I know when I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez came in. It was, I mean the kids were so excited – just the title alone – and so just to see these types of books is, it’s just something that if you, I feel like if you haven’t experienced that type of misrepresentation or non-representation, you really, you might not be able to understand what it does to a kid to see that a black girl with a curly afro on the cover that looks like you. I know even for me as an adult, when I see these kinds of books, I get so excited.

Steve Thomas:              Yeah. I mean, that’s basically the very definition of white privilege, you don’t even realize you have it, it’s just kind of every protagonist of every book it looks like you don’t think about the fact that people who don’t look like you don’t see themselves in anything or latch on to these few little characters here and there.

Cicely Lewis:                 Exactly. And I felt that as a child growing up. I read a lot. I loved to read, but I did not see myself in these characters. But I had so many classmates who hated reading and I just, I really wonder if we could’ve had access to these types of books, what a difference it could have, made because we all know that reading and reading voraciously at your reading level, it really flows over to every other aspect of your life. It can improve test scores and, and a lot of students who get in trouble or have behavior problems, a lot of them have reading problems. So I just really wonder how it could have affected or impacted my classmates back in West Point, Mississippi, if we could have had access to books like these.

Steve Thomas:              And it’s great that there’s new interpretations of older works now. Even those like where they’ve cast a black girl as Hermione Granger and some of those newer things, or… Meg in A Wrinkle in Time in the new movie just recently did. So we’re going to kind of recast these older books, too, and try to make them… ’cause they’re great books but they just… just make them more accessible to people so they can see themselves in these great stories. So, I think part of it is from your Mover and Shaker award and all your other awards and things, you’ve written some several things about this topic, has it surprised you how quickly it’s caught on with other librarians? Because I know I’ve seen lots of other people taking it up and using it. I’m sure it pleases you to see other people picking it up, but have you been surprised at how quickly it’s been picked up or does it kind of what you expected once it’s out there, it’s gonna catch fire?

Cicely Lewis:                 I did not expect it to pick up with anybody. I just expected it to be something that I did with my students. And I have to just thank the School Library Journal for that because… and social media. I’m so honored when I see other librarians while with their own shirts and, you know, reaching out to me, messaging me. Like I read every message and it really… I mean it’s just amazing and people are always saying, you know, there’s so many negative things going on in the world, but to hear the stories from these educators, these librarians, how they want to make a difference, it just really shows me that we really have a great future ahead of us because if they continue doing programs like this with their students and they push themselves too, and I think, I just feel like our future is really bright, but I did not expect it, but I’m so excited. Like every time I see it, I’m like, oh my God. And my students, they didn’t know. When we started doing it, we were just doing it. And then, the next year when I started telling them about everything, one of the students said, wait… ’cause she googled I guess… And she said, this is here, this program started at Meadowcreek high school. Did you start this program? I said yes. She was like, oh my God. And she couldn’t believe it. And so it’s really been… it’s caused a sense of pride among my students too, because to see their pictures being retweeted and to seeing people talk about something that started at our school. Oh, and they have totally taken ownership of it and so it’s been a great great ride.

Steve Thomas:              That’s great, and so you’re talking about how they kind of reacted to how it’s become famous kind of, but how did they react when you first rolled out the program? Did they respond well to it?

Cicely Lewis:                 They were interested in the books and they wanted a shirt.

Steve Thomas:              Everybody loves shirts!

Cicely Lewis:                 Yeah, they wanted a shirt. And then when they started hearing me talk about the books, they were just like, “This is in a book??” They were really, really excited about that. So those things, they wanted the shirt, they wanted to read some of these books. I don’t think they realized that and I didn’t either what impact it was going to have on us outside of school. And I thought that initially I was going to just have shirts for everybody and then we didn’t have the funding and so that’s when we had to turn it into a competition. So, and they jumped on board. Like we had so many kids coming by and there’s some of them they may have read one book off the list and they stopped, and then some of them read two. And then we had some that read every book on the list and I was happy and excited about those kids that read every book on the list. I was happy and excited about those kids that read every book on the list, but I was really, really pleased and excited about the kids who had never read an entire book who had completed a book and they came back and they wanted more. So that was the initial response.

Steve Thomas:              So after you read the book, do you all host discussions among the students in the library and also how do you work with the teachers to integrate it into their classrooms?

Cicely Lewis:                 So what we do is every Thursday I had a lunch… during their lunch period, they could bring their lunch in the library and we would eat. And while we would eat, we would discuss the books very casually. And then we had teachers to come on board to create trivia questions because after a while, we had so many kids and then some of the, initially all the books I have read and then I started allowing them to justify books because they had other books that they had found that I didn’t know anything about. So we had panel discussions, we had our school psychiatrist come in and so we would try to have some little guest speakers on a panel. We had teachers joining in. So it was very, very relaxed and casual in the beginning. And then later on I added a Google Form where they signed up on the Google Form and then there was another Google Form where they do a reflection, where they go through and they have to pull quotes that they felt were very powerful. They had to talk about how they changed. And then we also had little activities in the library media center. Like one time we made protest signs based on the book that they read. So I tried to find ways that were, you know, things that wouldn’t probably do in their classroom that they could do to, to make it easy for me to assess and also fun for them.

Steve Thomas:              Can you talk about what makes a book a Read Woke book?

Cicely Lewis:                 Yeah. So, a Read Woke book is a book that, it challenges a social norm, gives voice to the voiceless, challenges the status quo, and features protagonists of an underrepresented group of people. And so those were my criteria for the books and the students, they just, we had a list initially and like I said, after a while, those books were constantly checked out. And in Gwinnett County Public Schools, you can only buy five, that’s your max. So I couldn’t get more books with the allocated funds, so we had to allow them to justify books. So if they had another book in mind that they wanted to use and we went through it and I think that helped even more because they were able to see what really constituted a Read Woke book. So, that was what I set up to select the books.

Steve Thomas:              So – and you’ve talked about a couple of titles here and there – but are there some Read Woke books that you can recommend that are top on your list?

Cicely Lewis:                 Well, right now there’s a book – and it comes out in October, so all you school librarians, educators, make sure you get it – it’s called Full Disclosure and it’s about a young Afro-Latina… she might just be African American, but she has two dads and she has a secret. She’s HIV positive and so nobody in her school knows it. One day she gets a note saying, “I’m going to tell you a secret” and so that’s the premise of it. And I love, love, love that book. I feel like that topic hasn’t really been discussed. So that’s at the top of my list. Also, I’m a huge fan of Nic Stone and she has a new book coming out called Jackpot. It’s actually set in Norcross and it’s about a girl who sells a winning lottery ticket, and the lady who she sells it to goes missing. And so she, along with her friend, they go on a journey to try to find this ticket and they end up discovering, so much more. And I like that book Jackpot because it deals a lot with poverty issues, which is something that I think is a really important issue that we need to talk about with our students. And I love Elizabeth Acevedo and she has a new book out, With the Fire on High, and it’s about cooking. It’s about a young girl and her love of cooking. And she’s a teenage mom and she’s a Puerto Rican girl and she lives with her grandma, her abuela, and her daughter. And I think if you loved The Poet X, you are really, really going to enjoy this book as well.

Steve Thomas:              Have you heard from any authors that have heard about the Read Woke program? Have you gotten any response back from any authors that have given you any feedback about it?

Cicely Lewis:                 Yeah. Ellen Hagan, she actually supported, she bought a Hoodie. We were doing a fundraiser, and she’s on Twitter constantly talking about how wonderful it is. Rebecca Donnelly, she’s one of my huge supporters of Read Woke. And of course, you know, as I mentioned before, Nic Stone, she has her shirt. She wears it all the time. And Renee Watson, I think I mentioned her, I follow her on social media and you know, she follows me and she’s constantly just sending me words of encouragement. And Erica Sanchez, I actually had nothing to do with this, but someone had made her Read Woke pin and she had it on at a conference in Texas. And I tweeted it and she just, you know, wrote back that she was just so happy about what I was doing with the books and she’s just really excited. And then, NoNi Ramos, I actually was able to meet her and she told me that she’s a fan of mine, which I was… I was like, “Me??” And so, she’s written a new book and she wrote The Disturbed Girl’s Diary [Dictionary] and she has a new book about a young girl named Verdad coming out, I think, September the third. So I’ve had a lot of support from authors and it’s just been a really great experience and validation to hear from them.

Steve Thomas:              You said you’ve got pins, you’ve got t-shirts, things like that. Do you have stickers that you put on the books to say they’re Read Woke books?

Cicely Lewis:                 Well this past year we haven’t, but that’s something that we are working on. I’ve had librarians reach out to me to ask if we could supply those for them. And so that’s definitely something I’m working on. For right now, what we’ve done is we just made displays with the books and we have a list of them. We had listed them on a bingo card and things like that, but that’s definitely something in the works.

Steve Thomas:              Yeah, bookmarks or something, too, there’s all kinds of things you can do yourself. You talked a little bit earlier about social media and using that to help, how do you think social media both helps and hurts this cause of social justice in general?

Cicely Lewis:                 That’s a powerful question. I think it helps because we’re out here with sharing these ideas. We’re sharing these books. Like some of these books I would not have heard of if I hadn’t gone on Twitter and somebody tweeted about it. I think, and I was talking about this with a fellow librarian from Gwinnett County, and sometimes it can be bad because we attack so quickly an issue. You know, when a book comes out, if we don’t like who wrote the book or if we have an issue with what we feel like, the person who wrote the book is not from that community or these different things. And then the book may or may not end up being published. And I just feel like in a sense, it’s almost a form of censorship on us because we should be able to read these books and make our own decisions. But for me, social media has been great because I feel like I’m using social media the right way. I’m talking about these books, I’m promoting these issues that are plaguing our society, and I’m sharing these articles, and I’m retweeting what other schools are doing and it’s just become a great professional learning community for me, the best that I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve learned so much and it’s helped me to spread my message and I’ve just learned so much from other educators as well.

Steve Thomas:              That’s the best of Twitter, I agree. And that’s how I try to use it as well, and I try to not make those bad comments and if they would just get rid of the Nazis, that would help.


So I also read, the one at the end of one of the things I read about you, I can’t remember which one it was, you talked about potentially moving into Write Woke, getting into more writing projects. Can you talk about that and anything else you have planned for the future of the program?

Cicely Lewis:                 So, one of my students, we were talking about Harry Potter and how much we love it and there was a young Muslim girl and I said, can you imagine… she was writing a book and I was like, “What color is your protagonist?” And she was like, “He’s white, you know, it’s sci-fi.” And I said, could you imagine how dope Harry Potter would have been if it had been a Muslim boy or, you know, and she was like, it’s just like, wow, that would have been awesome. And so I said, you can write this story and I say, that book would fly off the shelves, I think. And so I’ve been encouraging them to write to create these stories, to fill these gaps and these absences. And I’m also myself writing. So it’s just, I feel like it’s going to be a great opportunity for my students and myself. I’m also working on Tech Woke where we are discussing how we can use technology to help improve some of these issues that we’re encountering in the books. And we’re making sure to keep it all book-centered. And so that was something that I recently presented about with my colleague Jennifer Clark. So that is something I’m very, very excited about. We actually had students who read books and one of my students created an app to help the protagonist deal with the issue that he was encountering within the book. So those are just two of the things that I’m working on.

Steve Thomas:              Yeah, I remember… I looked up the title to get it exactly right… when Children of Blood and Bone came out, Tomi Adeyemi, that was kind of described as an African Harry Potter. So it was like, yeah, you can come out with these… I mean, basically it’s about magic, so everybody’s like, “Oh, I don’t know: Harry Potter!” It’s not really anything about like Harry Potter…

Cicely Lewis:                 But it’s awesome! See, I did really enjoy that book and I love to see that. And I feel like with sci-fi and fantasy you can get more of a message across to our kids because it’s not direct. It is not preachy. And I feel like that is a great way to connect kids with our issues that we need to talk about.

Steve Thomas:              Yeah. That’s always been kind of the best of that kind of genre, science fiction especially, of always sneaking the message in and like, that’s not really what that Star Trek episode is about. I mean, they’re a little blatant sometimes there’s an old Star Trek episode where there’s the guy who was half-white, half-black. That’s really blatant about what you’re talking about. But sometimes they’re usually more subtle than that.

Cicely Lewis:                 But he’s green and all the green people are being persecuted so we can make those connections. So yes, I love sci-fi and fantasy.

Steve Thomas:              Yes, and I don’t want to let you sneak past the fact that you said you’re writing a book. So what kind of, you don’t have to tell us any details, what kind of book is that going to be that you’re working on?

Cicely Lewis:                 So I’ve fallen in love with sci fi and fantasy and so it is along those realms and it’s just, you know, it’s about a black girl, very similar to me and just the issues she’s going through and how she goes about trying to change her world.

Steve Thomas:              Well, good luck with that.

Cicely Lewis:                 I know, it’s a labor of love. Like it’s really, really hard finding the time to write. I’ve been working on this for a minute. So if you see me on Twitter say, “Shouldn’t you be writing??” Get me off Twitter.

Steve Thomas:              So can you tell people how they can find you on Twitter or how they can follow up with you if they want to find out more details about anything we’ve talked about today?

Cicely Lewis:                 So I’m on Twitter, and I love Twitter. I’m @cicelythegreat. And also I have a blog. It’s Cicely the Great, and I’m on Instagram at readworklibrarian. Facebook, I’m Read Woke. And you can also find me bimonthly in the School Library Journal. I have a column, it’s called Read Woke, as well. So those are all the ways you can find me.

Steve Thomas:              And what do you talk about in your School Library Journal column? What’s the theme?

Cicely Lewis:                 So every column, I have a different theme. The first one was just like, some new Read Woke books. Now I’ve decided to just have it theme-based. For example, one of the issues was Read Woke sci-fi fantasy. My new one in the July publication is about feminist books for teens. So, and I shared some books that if you want to empower your teen to be a feminist and just learn about issues, they can read these books. And I included the new graphic novel version of The Handmaid’s Tale because I really, really, really think that kids will flock to that book. And if you have… one thing that I really would appreciate if you have Woke book titles, if you have topics, send them in to me. I am open to your suggestions cause I don’t know all the books and, you know, every time I talk with somebody there’s a new book recommendation. And so I would love for you guys to interact with the article and share and comment and share your ideas with me.

Steve Thomas:              Well, Cicely, thank you so much for creating this great program and sharing all about it here and throughout social media and on your School Library Journal column and everywhere. And again, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Cicely Lewis:                 And thank you for having me, Steve. I enjoyed it.