Uplifted Pages: Finishing 'Iola Leroy' Together in a South LA Reading Marathon

October 20, 2020


Zoom Readings: Students gather for a three-hour synchronous session with copies of the Broadview edition of Iola Leroy edited by Koritha Mitchell.
Gathering to Read: (L-R, Top to Bottom) Guest readers who read aloud to students included Ms. Kim Thomas-Barrios (USC-NAI), Dr. Lizette Zarate (USC-NAI), Ms. Lena Jones (USC-NAI/Foshay), Mr. Johnson John (Foshay), Ms. Vanessa Brown (Foshay), Professor Brigitte Fielder (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Mr. Vince Womack (Foshay), Professor Derrick Spires (Cornell), Principal Tracy Murray (Foshay).  Below, (L-R) Virtual Platforms: A snapshot of our padlet, digital bulletin board that allows students to post annotationsin real time while an Iola Leroy inspired playlist keeps us jammin'.



A Pandemic Pose: Ms. Barrios and core members of LitLabs 2020-2021 during Distribution Day,  also, the first time the class met  (socially distanced) in person! 


Finishing Line: Moment of delight after reading the last lines with students at 4 PM on Sunday over Instagram Live! View this last broadcast where Ms. Barrios converses with student director Emmely Caceres as she sketches the collective cast of characters of the marathon. Multiple portals help re-imagine a virtual classroom across the city. Follow us on Instagram & Twitter as we continue on this journey.

In a little more than 24 hours, the 57 students of Ms. Barrios's AP English Literature class finished reading Iola Leroy, the 1892 novel by Frances E. W. Harper, one of the most prominent African-American women writers of the 19th century.  The reading marathon began at 3 PM on Saturday, October 17, with a three-hour synchronous portion, when guest readers from scholars of early African-American literature joined forces with staff and teachers from USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative and Foshay Learning Center to read the first eight chapters aloud in relay!

Organized into virtual reading pods named after characters in the novel, the students interacted with the text and each other through their Padlet, a digital bulletin board that updated in real-time, and on virtual social platforms they set up for themselves on Discord, FaceTime or Zoom. Armed with snack bags (courtesy of NAI) stuffed with popcorn, Oreos, even instant Mac & Cheese, greeted by digital posters wishing them well, and grooving to a Spotify playlist curated by LitLabs student director Emmely Caceres, the teens plowed through the rest of the book into the evening and the next day, until all finished at 4 PM on Sunday, the designated finish line!  During the asynchronous portion of the marathon, student directors Shandela Contreras, Edward Chanquin & Emmely Caceres hopped onto Instagram Live to chat with Ms. Barrios in three broadcasts about their thoughts so far and memorable moments from their reading pods.  How did they feel about, say, the romance between Dr. Gresham & Iola? Or the heart-rending scenes of reunification between the newly emancipated characters of the text? Team Marie Leroy won the prize (pizza, courtesy of the Dickens Project!) for being the team who finished first, at 1:37 AM. “We just decided to see if we could push each other to finish,” said the team leader, Mariana.  Joining in the effort to reward the scholars are Ms. Barrios’ family and friends, who are currently raising a larger pizza fund for the entire class. 

The marathon event launches the newest LitLab project, "Dear Iola, Love South LA,”  a project that imagines a classroom in South LA as a historic site for the recovery and production of narratives of resistance to racial violence and erasure.  By engaging with a novel written in the aftermath of slavery and Reconstruction, students will study the text as a jumping-off point to imagine the ways urban space, specifically South Los Angeles, continues to be the “field from which to gather materials” to assemble a (digital) “good strong book” of our current time.  Written by abolitionist and activist Frances E. Harper, Iola Leroy centers the story of a white-passing mixed-race female protagonist who chooses solidarity with her Black community instead of disappearing into the safety and security of white identity. Invested in her own period’s struggle for full Black emancipation, the novel is a repository of experiences, conversations, songs, and poems that brings the erased account of Black resistance and community formation to life. In particular, the search for lost persons animates the novel, as multiple characters seek to locate family members separated by the machinations of slavery, dramatizing the ways the community was “bind(ing) anew the ties which slavery had broken.”

This year, Jacqueline received a Teaching Innovation Grant from UCLA’s Excellence in Pedagogy and Innovative Classrooms (EPIC) program for her proposal entitled “18(92)/2020 Abolition Archives: Teaching Iola Leroy in South LA” to develop the pedagogy for this project. Together with co-PI’s from UCLA’s English department, Professors Richard Yarborough and Jonathan Grossman, and in partnership with UCLA’s Urban Humanities Initiative, the project imagines a South LA classroom as a historic site of recovery and production for narratives of resistance to racial violence and erasure. Through a study of the novel Iola Leroy, students will explore the ways urban space, specifically South Los Angeles, in the field to gather material that re-imagines Harper’s anti-racist book of the 19th century into the abolitionist books of the 21st.

Already the project has received generous support from Harper studies scholars who will be taking part in a guest speaker series for the students and their community, including a talk coming up this week on Thursday, October 22, 2020, 8-9 AM PDT. Joining later are Professors Derrick Spires, Brigitte Fielder, and Koritha Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell is also the editor of the Broadview edition that students are using. Copies for their study were purchased through a generous grant from the Dickens Project. View the schedule for updated details and RSVP below if you would like to join us!