Providing “windows and mirrors” so that students can both see themselves and be exposed to new realities isn’t a novel concept for teachers. But as we grow increasingly aware of the many people whose stories remain untold一and the ripple effect our collective ignorance has on shaping our discourse and our cultural priorities—it’s worth revisiting what’s been sitting on classroom bookshelves.
What new opportunities are there to make students feel more included and more connected to what they’re learning in school?
Performing a careful, focused audit of your classroom or school library often turns up problems, some of them hard to spot at first glance. The hugely popular Skippyjon Jones series, for example, a New York Times bestseller in which a Siamese cat identifies as a Chihuahua, remains a popular pick for elementary-aged children and yet critics say it promotes harmful stereotypes of Mexican people and generally misrepresents Latinx people, language, and culture. The books continue to be adapted into musical productions and remain a commercial success—but they made the American Library Association’s 2018 list of 10 most challenged books, an acknowledgment of the widespread criticism from scholars, teachers, and parents.
Such blind spots in our libraries can translate into inaccurate and even harmful depictions of the different groups in a classroom, isolating children or making them feel like outsiders. Books that represent and honor the diversity of the classroom, however, highlight the beauty and accomplishments of those groups instead of pushing them to the sidelineㅡand give students a glimpse into the lives of people different from them.
“Books become transformative when they shift our perspectives, alter our worldviews, and deepen our relationships with others,” writes Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, an executive director of Mizzou Academy, an online high school housed at the University of Missouri’s College of Education.
Here are five ways to audit your classrooms and libraries to foster a learning environment that embraces the richness of student identities.
Auditing Your Books
Doing an inventory of your books can be as simple as assessing your library while asking yourself a few questions that touch upon a wide range of diversity, writes fifth-grade teacher Talya Edlund. For example, how many of your books do the following?
- Feature people of color as the central character, rather than a sidekick
- Feature LGBTQ and gender-expansive characters
- Feature characters with differing physical and intellectual abilities
- Feature characters who are not lanky, scrappy, skinny, or small
- Feature characters from nontypical family backgrounds
- Treat incarcerated characters with dignity
As you inventory your books, try looking beyond representation:
- Do too many of the books depict worlds that are utopian and trouble-free?
- Do the books rely too heavily on caricatures or promote harmful stereotypes in subtle ways?
- Are typical gender roles dominant across the library?
- Are women frequently represented as powerful leaders or as instigators of action and change, for example?
- Are language and cultural heritages honored?
Trying the ‘Bingo’ Exercise
Teachers can begin taking a close look at their classroom libraries, which “offer a powerful litmus test” to identify what’s missing from their lessons, writes Fishman-Weaver. She suggests using a “bookshelf bingo” exercise in which teachers can reflect together on books they’ve read and also the books they teach or recommend to students.
The bingo card, composed of squares that teachers can fill in with the titles of books by a Muslim author or an Indigenous person, for example, serves as a catalyst for discussion about experiences and worldviews that are clearly absent from the curriculum, says Fishman-Weaver. “It affirms that reading can be a social journey, and I’ve found these conversations to be incredibly helpful,” she writes.
Being Mindful of Deficit Framing
Some texts representing diverse people and contexts inadvertently portray those characters in a negative light or subtly perpetuate deficit stereotypes, cautions Natasha Thornton, a professor of literacy education at Kennesaw State University.
Avoiding insensitive inclusion in your library, therefore, requires taking into account who the book’s author is, whether the book portrays the characters in affirming and authentic ways—rather than overemphasizing victimhood or depicting characters as hopeless—and whether it presents situations in a way that is true to life and relevant to contemporary society, according to a 2002 article in The Urban Review. One example of culturally conscious African American children’s literature, according to educator Bena R. Hefflin, is the book Cornrows, by Camille Yarbrough, which tells the origin story of cornrows and how the hairstyle became a tradition that’s been passed down for generations, painting a colorful and truthful history that remains pertinent even today.
Making Kids the Librarians
Enlisting students to help revamp a library is a straightforward way to let them take ownership of their learning and contribute their unique perspectives.
When Meredith Kimi Lewis started creating book bins around the subjects she intended to teach, she decided to involve her students in the process. “One student took the first bin and labeled it Books About Asian Americans. It was followed by Books About African Americans,” writes Lewis, a former elementary teacher and a program specialist for Seattle Public Schools.
Then, her students kept the suggestions coming, adding even more specific labels, such as Chinese American Girls, Native Americans, and Kids Who Recently Moved to the U.S., says Lewis. Beside ethnicities, students made bins based on themes like disabilities, types of families, foster care, and divorce. “I want students to feel proud and accepted—to see other children who struggle to find a voice, and who have dreams and challenges like their own,” she writes.
Creating Their Own Stories
Despite the growing number of diverse print and digital books available today, there may not be stories that reflect every kid’s culture, language, and background. That’s part of the reason why you should consider supplementing your library with opportunities to start from scratch, by “creating stories with children that build on their [own] experiences,” writes educator Amanda Armstrong.
For younger kids, consider using verbal prompts to help them initiate or extend a story, suggests Armstrong. Or, use photos taken by children to generate stories or recount events, by writing, drawing, or speaking out loud. If possible, get their families involved in crafting the narratives, adds Armstrong. During early childhood, letting family members engage in the learning process can “help build the home-school connection, make stories relevant to students, and demonstrate the collaborative nature of the early learning community,” she writes.
After Reading, Facilitating Discussions
Once you have brought in more diverse books for your library, it’s important to think about how to leverage those materials and address questions of identity, tolerance, and human diversity as the year progresses.
One way to make sure students take advantage of these resources is to facilitate open discussions about the readings. For those in elementary grades, read-alouds can serve as a powerful tool, writes fourth-grade teacher Jaren Maynard. Don’t shy away from having conversations about topics such as race in your classroom either, Maynard adds, saying that sometimes teachers “can be naive to the fact that our students from different backgrounds are forced to grapple with racial issues every day,” regardless of their age group.
Draw connections to real-life events whenever possible. “Students learn best when they are engaging with topics that they feel connected to,” says Maynard. When reading a book, you can start a discussion about a related protest in the students’ neighborhood, for example, or ask how the book is relevant to a slogan you keep seeing, she adds.
To push the conversation even further, consider having students examine the texts more critically. Ask them to write or talk through a situation or a challenge from one of the characters’ perspectives—ask them, “How do you think this character would react” to a hypothetical situation—or have them discuss whether the book was “a window, a mirror, or both,” writes elementary school principal Don Vu. “It’s important to discuss this question as a classroom community so that students can find meaning in their own perspective and the perspective of others,” he says.
Finally, consider assigning background reading before students dive into texts that have specific historical contexts, Vu says. If you’re planning to read Write to Me: Letters From Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind, by Cynthia Grady, for instance, students will need to have some basic understanding of the World War II internment camps, he explains.