Founder’s Blog

Woody Exley’s updates on the Alma Exley Scholars

A Message of Joy from Justis

In a time of fear and uncertainty, Justis Lopez has found a way to become an ambassador for happiness.

Mr. Lopez and his partner in creativity, Ryan Parker, have built on the elements of hip hop to write a song to brighten children’s spirits while conveying a powerful message.

“Our song – ‘Happyvism’ – is centered on Black and Brown boy joy and the power and significance of self-love as a form of activism and radical resistance,” Mr. Lopez said.

                            Justis Lopez

Watch the music video performed by Lopez and Parker here.

Mr. Lopez received an Alma Exley Memorial Scholarship in 2015 when he was a student in the Neag School of Education at UConn.

Also a Happyvism Book

Lopez and Parker also have produced a children’s book on Happyvism. As Mr. Lopez said, “This book communicates the significance, necessity and power of embracing joy in the face of a world riddled with trauma and oppression specifically as it relates to Black and Brown bodies.

“Additionally, this book embraces the beauty and need for Black and Brown boy joy and emphasizes the fact that maintaining happiness about who you are and what you think, say and do in a world that consistently goes against the grain of your identity is a form of activism in itself. Hence: Happyvism.

“We expect to release the book in December,” he said. “The target audience is K-6 educators. We wanted to create a project for the little ones. It’s all new to us, but we are really excited to be working with Ivy (Horan) on this project.”

Music Video Goes to School

Ivy Horan, honored with an Alma Exley scholarship in 2018, used the music video in her second-grade class at Mayberry School in East Hartford.

“I had been thinking about ways to incorporate more music into my classroom,” she said. “The class was doing an activity about emotions when I remembered Justis’s Happyvism music video. I played it for the students once, and they were hooked. They loved the song. We played it three more times that day.

“After school, I reached out to Justis on Instagram to let him know that we loved his song and were excited for his book.

                            Ivy Horan

“I also wanted to thank him for just being such a positive force,” she added. “Justis said he’d like to send us some of their Happyvism books when they’re ready. I know my students are going to be super excited since they loved his song (and think he’s really cool for making a music video). I am excited to see how Justis’s project progresses, and I am looking for more ways to keep my students involved.”

When the books arrive, Ms. Horan can add them to her classroom library of multicultural books, which are helping her second-graders to affirm their diverse identities.

Congratulations to Ivy Horan and Justis Lopez on their creative collaboration.

  • Woody Exley

Second Graders Get Multicultural Library

When Ivy Horan was an elementary school student in Duxbury, Mass., she never saw books about people who looked like her.

Ivy Horan

Last summer, as she began to prepare for her first teaching position, she decided to provide a different experience for her second graders at Mayberry School in East Hartford.

She posted an appeal on Facebook and other social media for donations of books on multicultural topics featuring diverse people.

I got the idea for this multicultural book project from reflecting upon my own K-12 schooling experience,” she said. “I realized that I never was exposed to diverse or multicultural books. This has been my motivation throughout my entire project: to ensure that my students are given more representative books than I was as a child.”

UConn Graduate

Ms. Horan received an Alma Exley Memorial Scholarship in 2019 as a student at UConn. She received her master’s degree in May 2020 and began her teaching career in September.

Ivy Horan with some selections from her multicultural library

“I have collected more than 60 books that have characters from different backgrounds, races, cultures, religions, and with varying familial compositions,” she said. “I am working on finding as many different representative and diverse books as I can for my classroom library.”

Inspiring Diverse Students

This is relevant because all of Ms. Horan’s second graders are students of color. Her class includes students who are Black, Latino and mixed-race. A number are English-language learners, who speak Spanish as well as African languages.

Click here to visit the Amazon site to contribute one or more books to Ms. Horan’s classroom library.

The books in Ms. Horan’s multicultural library are listed at the end of this story.

“I am extremely thankful for the donations,” she said. “I received books from family members, friends, professors, and various people whom I worked with throughout my time at UConn.

“What was most surprising was that I also received books from a handful of old friends from middle school and high school whom I haven’t talked to in years. It was amazing to see how everyone, whether I have remained close to them or not, came out to support my project and me. I am forever grateful. Every book that I received is now in my classroom library.”

She began by posting a wish-list of books from Amazon. Down the road, she hopes to expand her outreach to find more programs or websites that could help her find more diverse books for her classroom.

Right now, because of Covid-19 guidelines, Ms. Horan is the only one who can touch the books. Because of this, she is using the books as “mentor texts” and reading aloud to her students.

Supporting the Curriculum

“I also use these diverse books in teaching some of my curriculum,” she added. “For example, last week we were doing a lesson on ‘taking notes’ with informational or nonfiction texts. We had been reading a book about sharks, but instead of continuing with that book, I used the book ‘Turning Pages: My Life Story’ by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Not only is this story about the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, it also aligned perfectly with our celebration and recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“So not only can I use the books as read-aloud, I can also use them within the curriculum. In the future, I hope to turn my classroom into a lending library where students can keep the books at their seats for a designated amount of time and do independent reading. But for the time being with Covid-19, this is my safest approach.

“My students love the books,” she said. “It has been really wonderful to see students making connections from their own lives to the books.

“For example, I have a handful of students who speak Spanish. When we read the book, ‘Mango, Abuela, and Me’ by Meg Medina, those students were really excited to hear some of the Spanish words they know. This engaged the entire class in a conversation about language and what other Spanish words they know, who in their family speaks Spanish, and how they learned Spanish.

Encouraging Conversations

“These multicultural texts have been a foundation to help my students and me have more conversations about diversity and connect the ideas from the books to our own lives.”

Ms. Horan takes seriously her responsibility to serve as a positive role model for her students. “I have a class that is all students of color, and I know I am making an impact by just being their teacher since I am a teacher of color,” she said.

“I create a safe, welcoming, and loving community for all students and foster a community of care within my room every day. And that, books aside, is what our students of color so often need with everything going on in our world today.”

Hearty congratulations to Ivy for taking the initiative in her first year on the job to create a welcoming classroom environment for her diverse students.

  • Woody Exley

Ms. Horan’s Culturally Diverse and Representative Class Library

*Updated 10/22/20

Book TitleAuthor
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-InsCarole Boston Weatherford
The Color of UsKaren Katz
Little FishSanne te Loo
Kali and the Rat SnakeZai Whitaker
Yagua DaysCruz Martel
Sosu’s CallMeshack Asare
New Clothes for New Year’s DayHyun-Joo Bae
Where Are You From?Yamile Saied Méndez
Jabari JumpsGaia Cornwall
Ada Twist, ScientistAndrea Beaty 
Uncle Jed’s BarbershopMargaree King Mitchell
AbuelaArthur Dorros
Mae Among the StarsRoda Ahmed
Too Many TamalesGary Soto 
The Jolly MonJimmy Buffet & Savannah Jane Buffet
Priscilla and the HollyhocksAnne Broyles
Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the AshantiGerald McDermott
Hush!Mingfong Ho
Whoever You AreMem Fox
Tiger in My SoupKashmira Sheth
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti PLainVerma Aardema
Round is a Tortilla: A Book of ShapesRoseanne Greenfield Thong
City ShapesDiana Murray
Bein’ with You This Way W. Nikola-Lisa
LoveMatt de la Peña 
City GreenDyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan
Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial InjusticeMarianne Celano, Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard 
Almost to FreedomVaunda Micheaux Nelson
Suki’s KimonoChieri Uegaki
Freedom SoupTami Charles
Mama MitiDonna Jo Napoli
Carmela Full of WishesMatt de la Peña 
Cool CutsMechal Renee Roe
Chocolate Me!Taye Diggs
Happy HairMichal Renee Roe
Hair LoveMatthew A. Cherry
Don’t Touch My Hair!Sharee Miller 
I Like Myself!Karen Beaumont
Just LIke MeVanessa Brantley-Newton
My Hair is a GardenCozbi A. Cabrera
Amy Wu and the Perfect BaoKat Zhang
Dear JunoSoyung Pak
Sumo JoeMia Wenjen
Fry Bread: A Native American Family StoryKevin Noble Maillard
WindowsJulia Denos
DreamersYuyi Morales
Grace for PresidentKelly DiPucchio
The Word CollectorPeter H. Reynolds
A Day’s WorkEve Bunting 
Sitti’s SecretsNaomi Shihab Nye
Ma’ii and the Cousin Horned ToadShonto Begay
Lailah’s LunchboxReem Faruqi
KeeprsJeri Hanel Watts & Felicia Marshall
Thirteen Moons on Turtle’s BackJoseph Bruchac & Jonathan London
Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crab Cakes Later)Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard
Fatuma’s New ClothLeslie Bulion
Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of ColorsHena Khan
IslandbornJunot Díaz
The Name JarYangsook Choi
Mango, Abuela, and MeMeg Medina 
You Matter Christian Robinson
I Promise Lebron James
I Am EnoughGrace Byers 
Under My HijabHena Khan
Thunder Boy Jr. Sherman Alexie
Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific NorthwestGerald McDermott 
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale Verna Aardema
Ohana Means FamilyIlima Loomis
This Is the Rope Jacqueline Woodson 
Be the Difference: 40+ Ideas for Kids to Create Positive Change Using Empathy, Kindness, Equality, and Environmental AwarenessJayneen Sanders
V is for Voting Kate Farrell
Speak Up Miranda Paul
What If We Were All the Same! C.M. Harris 
Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal VirtuosaAndrew Davis Pinkney
A Computer Called KatherineSuzanne Slade
Counting on KatherineHelaine Becker
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black HistoryVashti Harrison 
Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True StoryRuby Bridges 
Turning PagesSonia Sotomayor
The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. PaymeLesa Cline-Ransome
Fight for the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s StoryRebecca Langston-George
Malala’s Magic PencilMalala Yousafzai
Martin’s Big WordsDoreen Rappaport
Child of the Civil Rights MovementPaula Young Shelton & Raul Colón
Equality’s Call: The Story of Voting Rights in AmericaDeborah Diesen

Alma Exley Scholar Growing as a Leader in Meriden

Orlando Valentin Jr., whom we honored in 2016, has emerged as a leader in educational equity issues in the Meriden public schools.

He has been teaching fourth grade at Casimir Pulaski School in his hometown of Meriden since earning his master’s degree from UConn. He is in his second and final year in the UConn Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP). I expect we will see Mr. Valentin go on to a distinguished career as an educational leader in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Valentin sends a heartfelt message to the students he hasn’t seen in-person in months.

In the past two years he has received about $5,000 in grant funds from an alliance of Regional Education Service Centers (RESCs) to enable him to focus on the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in Meriden. He has used these funds to set up an affinity group for educational professionals of color in the central Connecticut community.

“The affinity group gives the professionals the opportunity to network with their colleagues of color who likely have shared life experiences,” he said. “The group also has had various professional development opportunities such as a book study, attending a conference and training with an equity consultant.

“The program also enables them to take the DISC leadership assessment. This allows them to evaluate their leadership potential and create a roadmap for professional development.” (The DISC tool evaluates behavior in terms of Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness.)

Team of Equity Leaders

Mr. Valentin is entering his second year as one of 12 equity leaders in the district. These leaders train with an external consultant, Dr. David Cormier, and deliver turnkey modules to their colleagues which focus specifically on racial equity. Dr. Cormier, Mr. Valentin and two other equity leaders delivered a 75-minute presentation in August to Meriden’s cohort of new hires for 2020. 

He is active in the community as well. He has been coaching youth football teams since he was fresh out of UConn, and is entering his fourth year as head coach of the Meriden Raiders. He began as an assistant coach, then became a head coach and has led the same group of athletes in successive years as they have moved up to higher levels of competition.

A football player holding a bat on a baseball field

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Coach Valentin giving a pep-talk to his team (prior to Covid-19).

Mr. Valentin said he is grateful to the scholarship program and its supporters who have helped him to launch his career in education.

“Thank you for putting this scholarship together and creating a network of professionals of color here in Connecticut,” he said. “Thank you for the scholarship opportunity which I and many others have benefited from.”

Our selection committee really knows how to pick ‘em. We’re delighted to see Mr. Valentin advancing in his career, taking on greater responsibility and making a difference in his hometown. He is one of many illustrious Alma Exley Scholars who are having an impact in Connecticut and across the country.

  • Woody Exley