Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Club Exchange: Alice Eve Cohen

Yesterday, I reviewed a fantastic memoir called WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW by Alice Eve Cohen. This book touched me deeply and I honestly can't get it out of my mind. So I am extremely honored that Ms. Cohen agreed to write something for my Book Club Exchange feature. I hope you find her experience as a co-chair for her public school's Diversity Committee and Diversity Book Club as interesting as I did.

Promoting social justice at a NYC public school

After fifteen years, I’ve finally graduated from elementary school!

What I mean to say is that I was an elementary school parent for the past fifteen years; my older daughter is now a junior in college, and my younger daughter just started middle school this fall.  As I reflect on my long career as an NYC elementary public school mom, I am particularly proud to have co-chaired PS 199’s Diversity Committee and Diversity Book Club.

We began the Diversity Book Club with the goal of creating a forum for parents to discuss diversity-related issues that affected our school and our larger community. The Committee’s mission is to celebrate diversity, nurture tolerance and acceptance, and challenge assumptions—in our school community and in the world. We broadly defined diversity to encompass differences in culture, race, religion, language, learning styles, physical and mental abilities, political beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomics.

The response from parents, teachers and administration to our book club discussions exceeded our expectations, with over thirty parents and staff, including the school’s principal, regularly showing up at our evening meetings to engage in conversations about challenging and sometimes controversial books. I should add that pizza and childcare, compliments of the PTA, contributed to the Diversity Book Club’s popularity.

The themes of the books we read inspired participants to share very personal reflections about how their own family grappled with difficult issues. For example, when we discussed the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which is narrated by a fifteen-year-old autistic boy, two parents in our group shared their experiences raising children on the autistic spectrum. To encourage open discussion and protect privacy, we set a ground rule for participation. As they say in Las Vegas, “What happens in the book club stays in the book club.”

Each book club meeting was moderated by two or more committee members, who came up with a list of questions to spark discussion. We made a concerted effort to give everyone, even the shyest parents in the room, an opportunity to speak. All of the books we selected sparked two full hours of discussion—fruitful conversations that continued in the schoolyard throughout the school year.

I was honored when the Diversity committee selected my memoir, What I Thought I Knew, to be their book club selection last fall. I’d been a guest author at several book club discussions of my book, but this was the first time I’d been asked to view the book through the lens of diversity. This frame yielded a rich discussion about a family with adopted and biological children, a culturally and religiously mixed marriage, a child with special needs. A wonderful Readers Guide for my book can be found on the Penguin website:

To date, the PS 199 Diversity Book Club has discussed ten books (listed below), chosen after much discussion, research and collaborative input.  Every one of these books generated lively discussion, which ultimately had a positive impact on the school community. Now that I’ve finally graduated (well, my 6th grade daughter has), I’m enjoying the exchange of ideas and resources between the diversity committees at my daughter’s elementary school and at her middle school.

I hope that readers of this blog will find this list of books valuable. I encourage you to consider them for your book clubs.

A Mind at a Time, by Mel Levine
Blessing of the Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, PhD
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother, by James McBride
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?  by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
What I Thought I Knew, by Alice Eve Cohen
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon

Kampung Boy, by Lat, a graphic novel

Alice Eve Cohen is a solo theatre artist, playwright, and memoirist. Her memoir, What I Thought I Knew (Viking, 2009) won the Elle's Lettres 2009 Grand Prix for Nonfiction, it was selected as one of Oprah Magazine’s 25 Best Books of Summer, and has been optioned for a television movie by Lifetime. She has written for Nickelodeon, PBS, and CBS. Her plays have been presented at theatres throughout the country, and she has toured her solo theatre works internationally. Her writing about arts in education has been published in nine languages. The recipient of fellowships and grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, she holds a BA from Princeton University and an MFA from The New School. She teaches at The New School in New York City.

You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

I am so grateful to Ms. Cohen for writing this wonderful guest post about her experience with the Diversity Book Club. If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.


Beth F said...

What a great concept for a book club.

Veens said...

Wow, that is definitely a great concept. Loved the post.

bermudaonion said...

I would love to belong to a book club like that!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

This is fantastic --- I can't wait to read Alice's memoir! She sounds like an amazing person :)

marthalama said...

Wow, what a wonderful book club, if I were close I loved to belong. After reading an article she wrote, this post, and the concept of her book I would really like to meet Alice, she seems to be a remarkable woman. I can't wait to read her book.

Amy said...

It's fantastic that the school had a diversity club for the parents and it was a book club. It's such a great way to get the parents involved but also give them something for themselves. It's also a great way to foster discussion and sharing of situations the parents have experienced in their own lives.

I was thrilled to see the Book list at the bottom of Alice Eve Cohen's post!