Catching Up with 2020 School Librarian of the Year Cicely Lewis

As SLJ welcomes submissions for the 2021 School Librarian of the Year, we spoke with the 2020 winner about what she has been up to, including a student "Vote Woke" program.

As SLJ accepts submissions for the 2021 School Librarian of the Year—the deadline for nominations is December 8we thought it was a good time to check in with Cicely Lewis, whose tenure as the 2020 School Librarian of the Year has been marked by the pandemic like everything else.

Cicely Lewis's students at the county's voter
registration building as part of her Vote Woke initiative.

Ask Lewis about the year, and she speaks openly about low morale among her fellow staff at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, GA, the daily fear of contracting the coronavirus at school, and, mostly, how much she misses having a library full of kids. (Her school is operating on a hybrid model, and she limits the library to 10 kids at at a time.) 

"I'm an extrovert and a people person," she says. "Not seeing these students...that has been the most devastating thing for me. I did not go to school to work with a bunch of adults. I love kids and I love working with teenagers."

 
 

But Lewis has not let the pandemic slow her down or impact her mission. She adjusts and continues. Since last spring, she has started a non-profit, Read Woke, Inc., to promote literacy, raise money to bring books to underserved communities, and fund scholarships. She is working with a librarian in Quebec, Canada, to bring Read Woke there. And she is busy advocating for school libraries and her students in weekly meetings as part of her district's new equity team, which was assembled to address parental concerns about equity and curriculum in the district.  She continues to write grants and speak to her fellow school librarians around the country. And, of course, she has continued to write her Read Woke column for SLJ.

Like so many of her peers during the pandemic, Lewis has been building her library's ebook collection and helping classroom teachers learn how to effectively use apps like Flipgrid and Nearpod. Teachers who previously weren't interested in ebooks or edtech are now asking Lewis for advice on both. 

"They are clamoring to get every tool, anything they can get their hands on," she says.

[Read: Top 20 Books of 2020 | Read Woke]

She has found particular pride and joy in her Vote Woke program.  The initiative challenged students to learn about voting and why it's important and to encourage others to vote. Her favorite moments were helping students register. 

"It was magic," she says.

Lewis spoke about the Vote Woke program in her SLJ Summit presentation, which can be viewed on-demand until January 24. At first, the idea was met with resistance. Students told her their votes didn't matter and that they didn't plan to vote. But eventually they came around, participating in the program, registering, and voting. When students completed the Vote Woke challenge, they received the bag with a copy of Brandy Colbert's The Voting Booth and a Vote Woke t-shirt.

After the close election in Georgia, they came back to her library to tell Lewis how glad they were they voted, that they really believe their votes mattered.

"I know they're going to be lifelong voters now," she says.

Excited students showed her their "I Voted" stickers and shared pictures of themselves at the polls. More than 20 of her students served as poll workers, and Lewis and other students handed out bags with a mask, rain poncho, pen, hand sanitizer wipes, candy, and "I Voted" buttons to voters standing in line.

With Georgia preparing for a January runoff election for both Senate seats, Vote Woke did not  end in November. There were still more than 150 students eligible to vote and unregistered, Lewis said, and she received approval for drive-thru voter registration. Her students continue to make TikToks about the importance of voting and pushing youth registration for the January election.

Meanwhile, Lewis worries about her students, particularly the seniors facing the unknown and missing out on the normal senior year experience. And she is concerned about colleagues around the country, school librarians who have been moved to classrooms or might fall victim to budget cuts. 

"I'm worried about the entire profession," she says, noting there was already a declining number of school librarians around the country.

The only answer, she says, is for librarians to continue to share their stories, use social media, and advocate.

"That is the only way to save our profession."

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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