HOPE  IN A BOX

Hope in a Box aims to help rural public schools cultivate empathy and combat prejudice by representing LGBTQ people, stories, and history in school libraries and classrooms.

How? They donate “Hope in a Box” — literature featuring LGBTQ protagonists and themes, bespoke curricula for these materials, and ongoing coaching for educators on LGBTQ themes and terminology. Hope in a Box works with rural public schools to ensure every student feels welcome, included, and safe at school -- regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. Not only do they provide curated boxes of books with LGBTQ characters, they include detailed curriculum for these books and mentorship and training for educators. In 18 months, they've grown from a small pilot into a national program supporting hundreds of schools in 45 states

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness
I've always believed the genius words of Rudine Sims Bishop, a researcher and university
professor who wrote that books should serve as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors
highlighting the importance of books to reflect our world and our identity. Today's podcast
features Hope in a Box, a brilliant organization that aims for every student to feel safe, welcome, and included in school regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

Molly Ness:
Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast, featuring the innovative people and programs who work to provide book access to our nation's under-resourced areas or overlooked populations. I'm Dr. Molly Ness, lifelong reader, book nerd, teacher, educator. I've created the End Book Deserts podcasts so that all children have access to books and reading culture. The End Book Deserts podcast, a part of the education podcast network, just like the show you're listening to now. Shows on the network are individually owned and opinions expressed may not reflect others. Find other interesting education podcasts at edupodcastnetwork.com. Before I begin my chat with Joe English, founder and executive director of Hope in a Box. Let me give a bit of context. In schools, LGBTQ narratives or elements of narratives are rarely discussed. This lack of representation has proven consequences for our LGBTQ youth. At school, 85% of LGBTQ students experience discrimination. One in three skip school, at least one day of school per month because of bullying. Hope in a Box, a program that provides high-quality, positive LGBTQ literature to students in rural communities aims to improve the emotional wellbeing of LGBTQ students and to better support teachers in using this inclusive literature.

 

Molly Ness:
I'm joined today by Joe English, who is the founder and executive director of Hope in a Box. Joe, thanks for joining me today

 

Joe English:
Thanks for having me.

 

Molly Ness:
So, tell us what is Hope in a Box? What is your mission and how did you guys get started?

 

Joe English

Yeah, so we have a very simple vision, uh, which is that every single student deserves to feel safe and welcome and included at school regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Um, it should be that simple. Um, and we see literature really is a key piece of that puzzle where in the hands of a caring teacher, books and stories can really open hearts and minds, right? It can cultivate empathy. So, our program, we donate something called Hope in a Box, which is really three things. The first is curated set of books that have LGBTQ characters. Um, we have a box that's designed for middle schools and boxes designed for high schools. The second is a whole set of detailed curriculum for those books to make it as easy as possible for teachers to actually use the books in their classroom. And these are written by experienced, uh, English educators that are tied to common core standards and as of this fall, they're adapted for both in-person and remote learning environments. And the third piece is peer to peer mentorship, community building, training for educators that helps them really work through all of the questions and scenarios that come up in the classroom as they work with these materials for the first time. Um, it is very important to us as an organization that we're not just dropping materials on the front door and leaving, but rather like building a relationship with our educators in our schools over time and giving them the support that they- they want to meet. So that's a little bit of the mission
of what we do. Um, we started the program, uh, with a pilot of about 30 schools last fall, um, to see, okay, what is resonating with educators and students? What do they want more of, um, how could we improve our program? And since then, we've really deepened and updated our program. And as of this fall, we're working about 300 schools across 45 States. The ultimate goal of working with all 7,000 rural school districts in the United States.

 

Molly Ness
So, let me pause for a second because, um, first of all, you're totally speaking my language in terms of the importance of getting books into the hands of kids who need to recognize
themselves who need, um, to honor their identities through the power of literature. We always hear, um, in teacher education and work around books about books as the metaphor of sliding glass doors, windows, and mirrors. And so as somebody who is a reader themselves, and truly believes in the importance of literature, explain to us, you're not a typical, you're not sort of serving the typical book desert in the sense of necessarily access, but you are serving a unique population of kids who need books that represent themselves. So why is that so important and why also is it so important to do the second component, which is teacher support? I'm a former classroom teacher. When I talk with teachers, um, these are often tough topics for people to, to, to bring up in their classroom, um, and people need support in that. So talk to us about why it's so important, these books for these kids, and the teacher education component.

 

Joe English
Absolutely. I, let me actually answer that with the story of why we started this in the first place. Um, I mean, I grew up in a 1900 person farm town, way, way, upstate New York, um, kind of a classic small town in the United States. And when I was growing up, I never watched or saw or read anything that really spoke to me as a gay person. And for me, it would have meant the absolute world to have even one book, one gay character that would have been assigned to me in school to say, hey, you're not alone. This isn't an illness. You know, you're not doing anything wrong. This is something that you can be proud of and accept rather than, you know, shrink away from and be scared up. Um, but I, I didn't have that. I ended up leaving high school feeling pretty frustrated, pretty, uh, alone. And I didn't go back to my high school for a number of years until I decided after college, hey, I should go back and just have an open conversation with some of my teachers just to share that experience and ask, you know, now what would it take to bring some of that positive representation of LGBTQ people to school? Um, so the next generation of kids would have a healthier relationship with their identity and see themselves in their literature. And it was interesting. That conversation really was a revelation for me because my teacher said, hey, we hear you and we absolutely want to do this. We act, we care about this a lot, but we don't
really know where to start. You know, a lot of my teachers have grown up in that same school. They hadn't read a lot of this literature themselves. It was very little if there was actually no teacher training on how to speak to these topics. Um, so there's, uh, you know, there's uncertainty around them. And then the second issue, which I think addresses a lot of rural schools, not just 
mines that our school was chronically underfunded, so to go and ask, okay, let's buy 50 LGBTQ inclusive books and do all this training. Our roof is falling in. There was no money for even the basics. So the idea behind Hope in a Box is let's do some of the, a little bit of the legwork curating these materials, um, running some of the teacher training, doing the peer to peer mentorship, and also do it at very low cost to make sure that it's accessible and working hand in hand with educators the whole way, right. Not, not being top down, but making it a really collaborative experience, developing the materials that are right for any given context. Um, so that's a little bit of that, that backstory that I think touches on your points are why is it important, but also why, why is it necessary to also be helping educators along the way and not just dropping the materials in the front door?
 

Molly Ness
So, um, first of all, I want to say kudos to the teachers that, um, that received you with open arms and also kudos to you for having the courage to go back and say, this was a gap in my
educational experience, and it was isolating for me. And so what can we do to improve this
experience, future kids? Um, I'm, I'm interested in how you have been received generally
speaking. I mean, your growth just in one year, going from 30 schools to 300, obviously speaks about, um, speaks volumes about just how much need there is for this, but how have you been received and what has, um, what has that process been like?

 

Joe English
The reception has been very warm, which is reassuring, uh, and exciting. Um, you know, even in very, uh, traditional or homogenous communities that typically don't have a lot of LGBTQ representation in general, educators are very, uh, supportive. Like there's no educator I think that ever wants to see any student bullied. There's, there's no one that wants to see a kid ostracized. And unfortunately, a lot of teachers, they see that in their classroom and these kids are trying to understand their identity. So when we're bringing a resource to them, trying to be as open as possible and making it low cost, generally, they've been very receptive, very excited. And we see actually for any given school that we support, um, we get, you know, three to five more referrals to the program. Right, which is really exciting. So, and often you see that in like neighboring towns and counties of the central schools. So, um, I think it really does speak volumes. I think the other interesting piece in here is educators. Um, they realize that this isn't just about the LGBTQ students. Um, it's not all students. Um, yes, it helps with the school climate and making sure LGBTQ kids feel safer and more included in their schools, but for all other students, it also means that you know, you're building empathy and you're giving them a richer and more nuanced understanding of the culture and the world that they live in. So, in that sense too, it's, I think it's easier to make an argument that, hey, we should have an inclusive curriculum. Um, it's actually, you know, the strange thing should be excluding this identity from the classroom, not including it. And again, educators always get that. Um, so they're excited generally to see our program.

 

Molly Ness
Yeah, I'm a teacher/educator and one of my favorite classes at my university to teach is the
children and young adult literature course. And, um, initially some of my students will say to me, I teach in a pretty upper-middle class homogenous- homogenous town, small community. So I don't need these books about diversity because my population isn't diverse. And my argument is 
actually you need those books more than anybody because kids are going to go out into a world that doesn't look like their little pocket or bubble, or what have you. And, um, need that, those, that understanding and that empathy, not just of, um, gender identity and sexual orientation, but race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, all of those things of diversity. So, talk to me a little bit more, I'm curious about, um, how you compile these, these, the actual book box or the Hope and the Box itself. What's it look like? What are some of the titles that you are featuring? I imagine that you're working with some pretty great authors, um, of middle grade and young adult. Um, so explain the box a little.
 

Joe English
Yeah. Um, pulling together the box is so much fun and it's, it's an ongoing process, right? So we created the first version of this list. Um, last fall we worked with about 50, uh, educators, English teachers, librarians, and also university professors to understand, okay if we were to pull together a list of 50 of the most excellent LGBTQ inclusive books for middle and high school audiences, what would you choose? Um, it's actually very hard to boil it down to just 50, but, um, we were able to do that. Again, we have, we then take a subset of those titles. We do 25 books that are for high school and 25 for middle school from that list. And that's what we actually send them to schools. There's obviously new literature that comes out every year and we take the feedback from teachers and students on what they like, what they want to see more of. So in the year, following that first version, um, we actually refreshed that list, I think by probably 40, 50% of the titles and released a brand new version of that list, a 2.0 this fall, uh, which is actually on our website, hopeinabox.org/books and in designing the list um, diversity was very important to us and I mean, I mean that in a number of senses. So, diversity within the LGBTQ umbrella, right? Often a lot of literature just focuses on like the gay and the lesbian piece, but we wanted to make sure there was also representation of trans identities, non-binary identities, and other sexual orientations, um, diversity in terms of race, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality. It's also
important. But also in terms of the books themselves, we wanted to give a range of time periods and formats. So we have, you know, the Virginia Woolfs, the Oscar Wildes, that's on the list, but also much more contemporary work um, by say, Jacqueline Woodson, uh, Read at the Bone is a very popular title. It just came out last year. So really giving educators choice in which books, which formats, but what really works in their own contexts and for different students. Um, and that's been very exciting, I'll say are the most popular book, maybe this is not a surprise to some people that, uh, James Baldwins Giovanni's Room is always just such a hit, is beautifully written. James Baldwin himself is just an incredible author and, and an icon really in the culture. So that's always one of the most popular ones. Um, but there are others. I mean The Picture of Dorian Gray also is popularly taught in schools, but often the LGBTQ themes and undercurrents aren't taught. Right? So as we work with educators, that's often also a very interesting book, uh, to start highlighting some of the LGBT themes. Um, there, I, I, there's so many books that are exciting and resonate. I can talk about them for hours, but, um, that, that list, I believe we can like get the on the website, so we share that with folks cause it's a good list.

 

Molly Ness
And how are teachers using these books? Are these whole class read alouds? Are they just books that go in the class library and kids can do independent reading of them? I would imagine there's a mix of the applications.

 

Joe English
Yeah. It's a great question. And it varies quite a bit school to school. So, um, typically it will start by being like a classroom library or a library builder, um, and students and educators can have on a one-off basis, we'll say, hey, this, this could be an interesting book for you to read or students will check them out. Um, but over time we see that a lot of the educators we work with will then, you know, assign one of the books is an option for free reading. It's like three options that their class can choose from. Um, and then, you know, over time in a number of our schools, then they will request a class set from us. We can provide for a given book and then work that into their curriculum more formally. Um, so it's really up to the educator, but we support them at all in all cases.

 

Molly Ness
So you guys are a new organization and have grown leaps and bounds in just a year or two. Um, where do you see yourself going down the road? And I'm curious if, um, I know you're working at the middle-grade level and the, um, young adult level. I'm curious if there is thoughts for picture books, um, early elementary, early childhood, and then just where you see yourself going in the down- in down the road.

 

Joe English
Yeah. Um, so this spring actually, uh, you're reading my mind. Um, this spring, we're going to be really saying, uh, K-12, uh, offering as well because there's just, there's been so much excitement among elementary level teacher, but we just, we don't have something for them yet. So it'll be a parallel offering, will be the book list. It'll be the library builder. And then a set of curriculum and training as well. So you've heard it here first, um, keep an eye out. That'll be the spring. Um, the longer-term aspiration I think is really a combination of breadth and depth. Um, as I mentioned earlier, our hope really is to support all 7,000 rural school districts in the United States. Um, that's probably something that's not going to happen in the next year or two. It's probably more in like the five to 10 year, um, range, but it is our hope to make LGBTQ inclusive education, the norm, not the exception. Um, so scale is really important to us. And I think the other piece is breadth or sorry, depth. Um, so much of the classroom experience and expectations for teachers and students are in flux right now. Um, as you know so making sure that we are responsive to what educators need and are feeling in their classrooms and updating our curriculum, the type of training we offer maybe even the materials that we provide, whether that's, you know, a combination of e-books and physical books, um, but making sure that we are being responsive, uh, as we grow the organization is very, very important.

 

Molly Ness
Well, um, I know that I, um, both in my work, in my community itself, um, there has been a
recent organization that has grown sort of from parents and community members meant to
support issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. I know I'm going to refer them to your booklist as well and share out in my work with pre-service and early career teachers. Um, I will link all of those resources on the End Book Deserts, um, website. So I'm, I'm looking forward to seeing that. And I wanted to wrap up by asking you the question that I ask all of my guests. In the spirit of, um, building, reading culture, and embracing our reading selves and our reading lives, I ask every guest on the podcast to talk to me about a book that has had a profound impact 
on them. It can be a book from your past or present. Um, it is a little bit different than your favorite book. It's just that book that sort of has shaped you in some capacity. And I would imagine like me, you're a lifelong reader, so it's hard to narrow it down to one, but what is that book that just really has, has influenced you?
 

Joe English
Yeah, it's an almost impossible question because there's, there's so many, but I'll actually go back to the one that I mentioned earlier, which is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Um, it was the first book that I read with a gay character. Um, and this is when I was 22. Um, it's crazy to think, you know, you, you go through your entire childhood and adolescence relating to stories and narratives that you can, you can kind of understand and relate to a little bit, but there's never really sole guidance first really into someone's story and understanding them. It's such a fundamental level and it's, it's an editor for people who read it. It's a tragic story, but I think beautifully talks about the joys of relationship that have the pressure of not being the norm in their society, but also the challenges that are thrown at you by society, but also thrown at you by yourself and all of the internalized fears that you've accumulated over many years. And it was just it's, um, being able to relate to a character in a story that deeply was profound. Um, so that's one that's important to me.

 

Molly Ness
Well, um, for obviously, um, listeners out there, can't see, I'm looking at Joe right now and you look like you're like a day over 22. So, you are not somebody who went through education that long ago. And the fact that you didn't meet a character like you, that you could identify with until 22 is really pretty, pretty profound and staggering. And the work of Hope in a Box is, um, making sure that no more children have that experience. So, we're so grateful for the work that you do and to have connected with you. Um, I will be sharing out your resources on my website, and, um, thank you for making the time to speak with us today.

 

Joe English
Excellent. Thanks for having me.

 

Molly Ness:
It's now time for the portion of today's episode called Related Reading, where I feature a book from my personal or professional shelf that relates to the topic at hand. A few weeks ago, we lost a pioneer inequality, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I'm still reeling from her death, particularly in 2020 a year where the hits just keep on coming. In my house, we've been celebrating her life and legacy with a picture book by Debbie Levy called I Dissent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes her mark and the follow-up graphic novel titled Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice. We cannot overestimate Ginsburg's impact on LGBTQ rights as demonstrated by her 2015 writing, “the constitution promises liberty to all within its reach and same-sex couples ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The constitution grants them that right.” Debbie Levy's picture book and graphic novel make the complexity of our legal system approachable and inspiring for young readers. My daughter and I have returned to these books many times in the 
past few weeks to understand Ruth’s legacy, to celebrate her steadfast work towards equality, and to appreciate the power of a petite woman armed with a pen and legal pad. That wraps it up for this episode of End Book Deserts. If you know of a person or program doing innovative work to get books into the hands of young readers, email me at molly@endbookdeserts.com. For more about my work and for more about the program featured on this episode, check out our webpage www.endbookdeserts.com. Follow me on social media at End Book Deserts and share out your stories and reactions with the hashtag end book deserts. Thanks to Dwayne Wheatcroft for graphics and copy and to Benjamin Johnson for sound editing. Until the next episode, happy reading.

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