Imagination is the key to transform students in fight for equity

Virtual Conference: Bridging the Digital Equity Divide

 Dr. Lisa GrilloDuring her closing address to the Southern Westchester BOCES School Library System virtual conference, Dr. Lisa Grillo shared an idyllic image of a tropical waterfall.

She asked her audience to take a few minutes and imagine a story about that waterfall. The results were diverse and creative. Many relied on personal experiences or simple imagination. Many students’ only experience with waterfalls will come from what their school librarians provide, Dr. Grillo said.

The access to information and knowledge that school librarians provide fosters imagination, she said. Imagination transforms students, opening their minds to future possibilities.

“I ask you to ask yourselves, how can I make best use of the time I do have with my students to engage them in ways that will transform them from students to imaginators?” she said. “When they are able to connect technologically, how will I connect with them to engender in them a love for short stories, for poetry, historical accounts, autobiographies and geographies. Ask yourselves, how will I transform my practice during this time particularly and beyond so that students can then transform themselves?”

Dr. Grillo is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies in the School of Education at Howard University. She has more than 25 years in public education as a special education teacher, principal and district leader.

 screen shot from Dr. Lisa Grillo's virtual keynote addressHer presentation on Feb. 4 culminated the SLS’s first virtual conference, reimagining a popular gathering for school librarians and other educators from the region and across the state. Instead of a single, daylong event, the conference spanned six days over two weeks, with morning and afternoon sessions tackling the topic of digital equity in a variety of ways. 

Dr. Grillo said she has long considered librarians to be untapped resources in the fight for equity. “School librarians understand that information feeds ideas, and ideas spark positive change, and that is the whole idea of educational equity,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated gaps that have long existed and forced educators to innovate quickly in response. A series of compelling statistics detail the divide: race, ethnicity and household income correlate closely to broadband access, digital literacy and even possession of a desktop or laptop computer.

The equity divide goes beyond technology. Race and ethnicity exacerbate the divide.

“If you are white or at least middle class in America, technology access will likely not prevent you from engaging in a modern lifestyle,” she said.

Beyond statistics, though, Dr. Grillo illustrated her thesis via four student profiles: David, Emma, Tamara and Emil. All are artistically talented and well thought of by their teachers. They vary, however, in their parents’ educational and career attainment, home environment and family obligations. Emma has a tutor. Tamara cares for her siblings while mom works. David has many advantages but struggles to engage in remote instruction. Emil’s parents are essential workers, and language is a barrier to school support.   

School librarians continue to shine a light on the digital divide and access to technology through their associations and their networks, advocating for changes in policy and professional practice. Their daily work alone won’t address systemic issues of access, Dr. Grillo said.

“But you do have the power and the ability to enhance your students’ technology use and engagement in your daily work,” she said.

That’s where imagination comes in. She spoke of her awe at browsing the library stacks as a doctoral student at Howard University and the inspiration that came from that. The inherent tragedy of the digital divide is that it prevents access to information and materials that would allow students to actively imagine beyond their current vision for their lives.

By imagining, we give ourselves permission to expand our thoughts, opinions and ideals, she said. There is no progress, equality or freedom without imagination.

“This is a really difficult time for us as educational professionals, but I also see it as a time for opportunity,” Dr. Grillo said. “How can we as educators, more important, how can you as school librarians, tap into your students’ imagination to close gaps during this pandemic and beyond?”