By now, most of us in education are familiar with the term “windows and mirrors” in relation to children’s literature. Originally applied to curriculum as a whole, the term was famously used by Rudine Sims Bishop to discuss the way books and stories can act as windows in which children see a world outside of their own or mirrors in which they see a reflection of themselves in the world. Providing both windows and mirrors is critical in the development of individuals who will grow up to be caring and compassionate citizens of the world.
Luckily, there are many great resources to help teachers and principals find books that can be windows and mirrors for students. A Google search for “diverse book lists” will lead educators to collections of worthy books to share with students, and to organizations such as We Need Diverse Books that not only donate books to schools but work with publishers to ensure that previously underrepresented stories are told.
What we don’t talk about often enough is what to do once we get these books into our schools and classrooms. What are the best strategies to hold up the mirror for a child to see a clear reflection of themselves? What can we do in the classroom to help kids see diversity in the world and develop a sense of empathy for others?
While it’s important to provide access to these books, it’s just as important to know what to do with them in your classroom. The ideas that follow are built around whole-class reading, and applying them to choice reading would take some adaptation—for example, a teacher could write up some background knowledge needed to understand a story and leave a printout in the book for interested students.
Getting the Most Out of Your Class Library
Discuss the importance of perspective: Is a story a window or a mirror? Or both? This depends on the perspective of the reader, of course. 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.
When reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, for example, students may find themselves identifying with the lonely new kid who is so different from his classmates. Later in the same story, they may find a new understanding of a sibling who has been ignored and neglected at home. It’s important for students to acknowledge and reflect on these perspectives. Teaching Tolerance has a great lesson plan to help facilitate these discussions.
Build background knowledge: Think about what students need to know before they read a particular book. Building their background knowledge can improve their reading comprehension by providing context for the story. For example, if you’re going to read Write to Me: Letters From Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady, you’ll need to be sure that students have some understanding of the World War II internment camps.
Take on another point of view: If we’re hoping books are windows, we want kids to see the world from another perspective, to experience a walk in someone else’s shoes. What better way to facilitate this experience than having students ask themselves, “How would I feel if I were this person?” or “What would I do if I were in this situation?”
Activities such as journaling from a character’s point of view can be helpful in getting students to reflect on these ideas. If a classroom was exploring the idea of sacrifice while reading Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, students could write a letter to the tree from the old man’s perspective. What would he say? What did he learn in his life?
Some teachers may have students role-play different characters from a story to add another layer of reflection. While teachers need to be sensitive and careful not to reinforce stereotypes, role-playing characters such as Salma and Lily from The Sandwich Swap can help kids develop a deeper understanding of differences and similarities.
Compare and contrast: In Classroom Instruction That Works, Robert Marzano says that identifying similarities and differences is critical to enhancing students’ understanding of and ability to use knowledge. This strategy can be used to highlight the similarities students have with characters as well as differences they see.
Using a graphic organizer such as a Venn diagram, a student can explore the ways they are similar to and different from a character such as Harry Potter or Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. In this type of activity, the student can develop a better sense of who they are and also understand the character on a deeper level.
Connect to the world now: Find ways to connect stories and characters to the real world. Can you bring in someone from the community who can speak to the experiences found in a book? If you’re reading Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, for example, a person who volunteers in a soup kitchen can be a window for kids who wonder what it’s like to visit a soup kitchen—and a mirror for students who have been to one.
Sharing news articles and videos is another way to connect stories to the real world—reading about a current refugee crisis would be a great connection to Alan Gratz’s Refugee.
For all of these strategies, you’ll want to provide students with time to reflect on their learning. Ask them to share: What did they think and how did they feel as they saw themselves in a character in a story, or as they encountered a character who was very different from them?
It’s also important to allow students to ask any questions that they may have. Many students may have strong feelings about new ideas, and it’s important to debrief with them regarding how to move forward with empathy and kindness.