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Every book has a story

Exeter Student Service Organization program shares tales about diversity and inclusion with young readers.

By
Patrick Garrity
April 30, 2019
A second-grader at Main Street School raises her hand to ask a question during story time with Phillips Exeter Academy students.

A second-grader at Main Street School raises her hand to ask a question during story time with Phillips Exeter Academy students. 

Otto Do ’22 takes a seat, book in hand, ready for class. He fidgets in his chair, waiting for the other students to join him. 

In this classroom, the Harkness table is absent. A colorful rug adorned with the alphabet, upper and lower case, is in its place. The walls display completed projects with construction-paper labels such as “Amazing Woodland Animals” and “Visit to a Sugar House.”

Otto’s back in second grade.

Lisa Peters’ second-grade class at Main Street School in Exeter, specifically. Otto and Gabriella Shetreet ’21 have come to Ms. Peters’ classroom to read a book to the children and discuss elements of the story with them. Up and down the hallways, other PEA pairs are doing the same in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

These story-times and the books being shared have a common purpose: to celebrate diversity and inclusion and champion those in society who traditionally have been marginalized.

The program, launched in February and continuing throughout this spring, is the brainchild of PEA Physical Education Instructor Toyin Augustus and student leaders in the Exeter Student Service Organization. Together with Director of Service Learning Liz Reyes, they approached Main Street School Principal Steve Adler with the idea to read books whose themes deal with cultural differences and focus on underrepresented members of our community.

More than two dozen PEA readers have shared titles such as Mango, Abuela and Me, My Two Grannies and Dim Sum for Everyone across the K-through-second school. The PEA students choose the books they share.  

“Each book speaks to a part of their identity that is historically marginalized or underrepresented in New Hampshire,” said Nana Esi Donkor ’20, who along with David Gonzalez ’20 has led the student effort. “We've had students from multiracial and multilingual and international cultures share their experiences. We also hope to elevate the LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities.”

“Growing up, I felt as if many of the books we read didn't represent my identities, and I didn't have any examples of older kids with my identities to look up to,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to give to others what I did not have as a kid.”

Each book speaks to a part of their identity that is historically marginalized or underrepresented."

Otto and Gabby have chosen The Name Jar to read to Ms. Peters’ class. The story centers around Unhei, a young girl who has just moved to America from Korea. Anxious to be accepted by her new classmates, Unhei decides to choose a new name and asks her classmates for ideas.

The children gather tightly around the two teenagers as Otto reads the story and he and Gabby pause to ask their young audience questions about the text. The story describes Unhei’s new classmates’ mispronouncing, then making fun of, her unfamiliar name.

“Do you feel they are being nice,” Otto asks?

“Nooooooo,” the second-graders answer in stereo.

“It’s understandable to not be able to pronounce a name correctly the first time you hear it, but it’s important to try again and to try to get it right,” Otto says.

The second-graders listen intently as the story follows Unhei’s search for a new name — and her ultimate decision to keep the one her parents gave her. 

“We all have differences,” Otto tells the children. “They’re what make us special. Those differences are there for a reason.”

Nana Esi said she hopes the program helps the young listeners to feel more confident about their identities and to appreciate and celebrate differences between them and those around them. “We also hope they’re more aware of injustices their peers might face because of their different identities and feel empowered to stand up against discrimination to make their own classrooms inclusive, accepting spaces.”