Bay Bridge Builder: Cassy Lee, SLJ's 2018 Champion of Student Voice

Cassy Lee ignites diversity awareness at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco.

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“When you challenge them, they step up,” says Cassy Lee, SLJ’s 2018 Champion of Student Voice. Lee is the middle school learning center coordinator at the Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco, the oldest Chinese-English dual language school in the United States. In 2015, CAIS opened a new middle school campus that is separate from the elementary school. Lee came on as the facility’s first dedicated librarian for the 125 sixth through eighth graders who are nearly equally fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese.

 

The 1,800-square-foot learning center, located in the heart of the campus, is like “that one friend’s living room where everybody always wants to hang out,” according to one student.

“If the library is the campus’ town square, then Cassy Lee is the mayor, often found surrounded by a cluster of students,” says head of school Jeff Bissell. As for Lee, she is “a special person who not only met our expectations, but who exceeded our wildest dreams.”

Focus on diversity awareness

At this dual immersion school, many students have some Chinese ancestry; 40 percent of Lee’s students are multiracial. As CAIS began a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative two years ago, Lee looked for titles that are “reflective of our children’s cultures and also ones they don’t know about.”

“There was a lot of historical fiction but not a lot of stories in the contemporary collection that spoke to their experience,” she says. “I tried to find more books that reflected that everyday experience, like Jenny Han’s books. The kids eat those up.”

Drawing on the idea coined by education professor Rudine Sims Bishop that books can be both windows and mirrors for young people, the librarian challenged students to read and write about one book that gave them a peek into a different world, as well as another title that reflected something about their own identity. With the help of seventh and eighth grade advisers, Lee created a unit on the topic of identity to guide students into understanding who they are, along with concepts such as stereotypes and implicit bias. She also worked with the school counselor to make kindness a theme for the students’ advisory period, which culminated in a student-led creation of a kindness mural.

  “Cassy has played a key role in the school’s initiatives on diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says CAIS middle school director Joseph Williamson. Under Lee’s guidance, that has extended far beyond diverse books. In May 2018, she staged a school version of a Danish program called the Human Library. For the event, Lee invited nine speakers of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and abilities to talk about ways they have faced discrimination. Then, each student chose two of the guests with whom to join in a small group discussion.

With an annual budget that has increased from $7,000 to $11,000, Lee has expanded the library collection from 1,500 to more than 4,000 print and digital titles, one-fifth of which are in Chinese. She has hosted Asian American authors including Gene Luen Yang, a California native and former Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, as well as writers from different cultural backgrounds. The entire student body was captivated when author Jason Reynolds paid a visit, speaking about his own challenges in getting published. Lee recalls, “Kids came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I related so much to this story.’”

Fostering student leaders

Students have plenty of opportunity to voice their input about the library. Lee started a School Library Advisory Committee, nicknamed “SLACkers,” despite their industrious planning of reading challenges and book clubs. SLACkers volunteer with daily tasks such as shelving and checking in books. She also started a mock-Newbery panel, called the CAISbery Committee, which nominated Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give as the best book of the year.

Lee also teaches her middle schoolers how to research and discern the difference between news and advertising in the digital realm. A letter from a graduating eighth grader brought her to tears. “You blew away my idea of what a librarian is,” the student wrote. “You helped us learn the whole research process, evaluating sources and bias.”

CAIS Middle School students on the
streets of San Francisco.

Under Lee’s leadership, the students even produce their own weekly newscast, the CAIS News, highlighting campus events, sports, and class projects. Students use the library’s two video cameras and green screen to record interviews about campus events and digitally edit their footage. “It provides an opportunity to present, to be acknowledged, and to gain confidence for many students who otherwise probably would not have such an opportunity,” says Williamson. “CAIS News exemplifies what Cassy brings to the librarian role—innovative, engaging, authentic student activities that empower students.”

During her first two years at the school, Lee focused on connecting with teachers to collaborate on helping students build strong research and presentation skills. This culminated in an eighth grade capstone project combining U.S. history, language arts, and library skills. The students worked in groups to research a topic around the theme of power, again with a focus on identity and equity. At the end, students created a presentation about a current social movement, such as #MeToo, immigration reform, or gun control. “I try to encourage teachers to offer choices—making a podcast, creating a video, doing a literary magazine,” Lee says. “Getting your message out there to a wider audience is easier than ever.” At the end of the project, the kids went to a busy pedestrian area near the San Francisco waterfront to make presentations to passersby.

Lee’s impact is palpable, notes Williamson. “Her interaction with our students is helping to develop a group of thoughtful, empathetic, empowered young people.”

 

Grace Hwang Lynch, a Bay Area freelance writer, blogs at HapaMama.com. 

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