After attending the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference in December, MJ Granito '22 came back to campus with a renewed mission to bring more diversity, equity, and inclusion to Gill St. Bernard's. She honed her focus on Reading Buddies, the program that pairs Upper School students with kindergarteners and first graders, with the older student reading picture books to the younger buddy.
"My action plan for Reading Buddies was to incorporate a more diverse representation of books, to have protagonists from all different racial backgrounds, abilities, and socioeconomic status," said MJ. "It's important to have a range of different voices. I also wanted the books to center around themes of respect and values, with uplifting messages that emphasize empowerment, kindness, and love."
MJ quickly got to work, seeking support from Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tracey Goodson Barrett and Upper School Librarian Kristen Armstrong. They pointed her to websites to research more diverse titles and provided additional insights regarding the importance of representation in books, especially for young children. For Ms. Armstrong, MJ highlighted a previously unforeseen gap.
"We were aware of the importance of diverse books, but I was focused on our Upper School collection having all different characters and authors of different backgrounds," said Ms. Armstrong. "I hadn't thought about this when selecting our Reading Buddy books, and was glad MJ pointed it out. It's a good opportunity for both the little and big buddies to see themselves on the page. It's all about windows, mirrors, and sliding doors." This means that reads can see themselves or get a glimpse of a character that brings a new perspective.
One of MJ's favorite additions is the picture book Love by Matt de la Peña, an author who visited GSB. MJ shared this pick with her first-grade buddies so they could hear themes of kindness and see the diverse characters. "Not only do I love the beautiful illustrations of the characters, but also how Mr. de la Peña writes about the many places where we can find love," said MJ. "He also explores ways we can show love in our smaller and larger communities, through our words and our actions."
This year, due to pandemic protocols, Reading Buddies remains virtual. Ms. Armstrong misses the in-person program, where she watched older students interact with their buddies. "A lot of our big buddies are boys, and it's fun to see them with the little kids engaged," she said. "We'd have 6-feet, 6-inch tall basketball players on the ground reading to first graders. It's cool to see our big buddies out of their normal environment." Often, she finds they are the ones asking, "When are we going to read?"
Ms. Armstrong started Reading Buddies seven years ago to help GSB's international students learn and practice their English. Then, about 18 Upper School students read to first graders. "It was such a hit, we opened it up to all US students and extended it to kindergarteners," she said. "Today it's one of our most popular clubs, with up to 60 US students signing up at our fall Club Fair."
Over the years, Ms. Armstrong has watched special relationships develop. Her own daughter, Sydney '29, was paired with Peyton Sloan '19 and the two shared high-fives when they saw each other on campus. While a student at GSB, Will Soucie '20 – now a guard for North Alabama – paired up with Robbie DeFalco '32, who gets a thrill seeing his reading pal play basketball on TV. In fact, many little buddies look forward to growing up to become a big buddy, and many US students have found their experience with the program so transformative that they wrote about if for their college essays.
For MJ, Reading Buddies gave her a vehicle to help spread her message of the need for diversity and inclusion. She aspires to become an elementary school teacher and views spending time with her little buddy as an honor that brings much joy. "No matter what kind of a day you're having, if you spend half an hour talking to a little kid, it's special," she said. "There’s nothing better."