The Missing Story: Ethical Citizens Learning in the Library

The Missing Story: Ethical Citizens Learning in the Library
Danny Stock
“Everyone is talking about voting! Why is that?!”

First grade students gathered to share what they noticed about the new library display. “I saw books about government!” “About the U.S.!” “I saw books about voting!” Then, a student called out his most pressing question: “Why is everyone talking about voting these days?!”

Weeks earlier, Lower/Middle School librarians Lisa Fall and Kay Miller had opened up Mara Rockliff’s picture book Around America to Win the Vote about the women’s suffrage movement. Advance praise and the cover art suggested it might be a top choice for inclusion in the new 3rd grade unit on citizen engagement. Yet, on page one, they realized there was a problem. It became clear that a critical word was missing throughout the entire book: “white.”

The book tells the story of two suffragists who drive more than 10,000 miles around the country, speaking in support of the movement that would culminate in the passing of the 19th Amendment and voting rights for women. While the 19th Amendment did technically grant all women the right to vote, women of color were prevented from exercising that right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The book is factually accurate and yet does not tell the whole story. Herein lies the critical piece: “Even a good book can create a very damaging impression,” said Lisa. By leaving out the word “white,” the book creates a single narrative telling children that the 19th Amendment granted voting rights to all women. It did not. 

One might expect, at this point, that the librarians moved on to other texts. Many would have ditched the book. Instead, Lisa and Kay kept it. Our librarians turned the story into a powerful tool to develop in young students the capacity to recognize bias.

“To begin with, we read aloud ‘white woman’ everywhere it said only ‘woman,’” Lisa explained. “Naming that up front helped students clue in immediately to whose perspective was being told and also whose stories were not being told.” Later, to begin adding other narratives, students will read Jonah Winter’s Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 about an elderly African American woman reflecting on her family’s struggle for voting rights.

Lisa said, “We don’t approach these from a political agenda or tell them that women did it wrong during the suffrage movement. Instead, we are asking them to look thoughtfully: ‘who did you hear from and who didn’t you hear from?’”

Kay added, “We also get them thinking about the authority of the source and who is presenting that source to them. Our job as readers is always to consider the author and the potential for bias.” Our library guiding philosophy states, ‘We teach students to think critically, clearly, and creatively about all forms of information.’”

“A biased source doesn’t necessarily invalidate a text,” Lisa said. Rather, if students are aware, “those sources can add to their understanding of one person’s perspective.”

This intentional focus on listening for different perspectives informs the work of 8th graders during their Constitutional issues research project beginning in November. Students research one of six constitutional issues through their 8th grade history class: abortion, free speech/hate speech, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and capital punishment.

“They aren’t allowed to pick a stance and dig into their side,” Lisa explained. “They are expected to understand different viewpoints and research the personal stories to better understand the human impact of these constitutional issues.” The teachers first provide the sources necessary for factual understanding. Once the students go to biased sources, they’ll go with a specific purpose and an awareness of voice, authority, and perspective. “We’ll ask them, ‘Which side haven’t you heard from?’ and encourage them to dig deeper into their topic,” Lisa noted. Eighth grade Hill Day is a chance for students to hear these (often) opposing viewpoints directly from experts in their field, including judges, representatives in Congress, activists, researchers, and lobbyists. In March, students write a position paper that describes the history of their issue and summarizes both sides with as little bias as possible, before arguing their own point."

Our High School librarian Rhona Campbell sees our older students take the critical thinking skills they’ve learned about resource bias even further. Recently, students wanted primary evidence of how people in 1835 reacted to an incident involving an enslaved African-American man for a history project. “Digitized newspaper databases operate on a ‘full text’ search principle,” said Rhona. “Students learned pretty quickly that a search for the man’s name won’t provide any results. Why? Even the abolitionist newspapers in 1835 only name the man’s white ‘owner.’ It’s rewarding to see how long and hard a student will persist in searching for alternative perspectives.” When the evidence doesn’t exist, the onus is on the student to raise and contextualize the specter of the missing viewpoint in their papers.

And back at the Lower School, everyone is talking about voting, Kay explained to the class, because of the midterm elections on Tuesday, November 6. “What is this election for? Who can people vote for?” another child asked.

You’ve come to the right place, kid. You’ve come to the right place, and you’re asking the right people.

Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.
A bookshelf full with the front covers of books on display.

The display includes picture books and quotes inspiring just, moral, and ethical citizenship.

A bookshelf full with the front covers of books on display.

The display includes a range of perspectives and voices.

A bookshelf full with the front covers of books on display.

The Middle School focused shelves spotlight historical activism.

The Missing Story: Ethical Citizens Learning in the Library
  • Learn Actively
  • Library
  • Lower School
  • Middle School