Culturally Responsive Teaching

Opening Up New Perspectives With Literature

A multicultural collection of books can reflect students’ lives, reveal other experiences, and help students expand their thinking.

May 15, 2018
A diverse group of teens reading together on a bench
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Students in classrooms across the United States are a reflection of the diverse people, perspectives, histories, and values in our society. Yet if we were to take an inventory of classroom texts, curricula, and literacy materials across classrooms settings, we’d find that these instructional materials do not reflect the diversity of our students, let alone the diversity of our society.

Multiple studies have shown the power of using multicultural texts to address critical topics in classrooms—not only for students of color but for all students. Rudine Sims-Bishop provides a pedagogical basis for this in relation to literature as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. She maintains that literature can serve as a mirror to those whose lives are reflected in texts that are read in the classroom. When students read about the lives and experiences of others, texts serve as a window.

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Don’t Forget About Sliding Glass Doors

Ideas of representation and cultural awareness are central to the concept of windows and mirrors, but critical reflection and thoughtful action are central to the idea of literature as a sliding glass door, a concept similar to windows in that both present different experiences, but sliding glass doors also can represent a change in perspective about the possibilities in the real world that a particular text helps the reader to consider. 

For example, Nancy Johnson, Melanie Koss, and Miriam Martinez discuss a student who read Wonder, a young adult novel about a boy with unsettling facial abnormalities, and wrote in his journal, “Yesterday when I was at the grocery store with my mom I saw a man with no arm. I looked away and then I thought of Auggie. I looked the man right in the eye and smiled. He smiled back.” Through such sliding glass door experiences, changes can happen in the minds and hearts of students, teachers, and thus the world. 

Incorporating This Idea in the Classroom 

When bringing the concept of literature as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors into the classroom, it’s imperative that you truly value the lives and experiences of all students. The goals are to validate students’ identities through providing mirrors, to develop their understanding through providing windows, and to show them how they can be changed by literature through providing sliding glass doors.

Examine texts: Consider the texts in your classroom library and the books you use as mentor texts for teaching English language arts standards or content area topics. Do they mirror your students’ lives? Do they reflect a diverse society? 

Being intentional about text selection is key to honoring the lives and experiences of students. There are many websites that list books that represent a diverse society, such as What Do We Do All Day?, Lee and Low Books, and Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

Be mindful: Many texts represent diverse people and contexts, but have negative or deficit stereotypes. Bena Hefflin developed guidelines for selecting quality multicultural children’s literature, and Eliza Braden and Sanjuana Rodriguez provide questions for teachers to examine texts with Latino families and stories of immigration that reflect real experiences.

Share various perspectives: It’s important to share books from diverse perspectives. Texts that portray different family structures, young children that live in different places, and families that have different  norms are affirming for students, especially those whose lives are not typically reflected during learning experiences.

For example, Dear Primo is a popular children’s book about two cousins, one in Mexico and the other in the U.S., who write to each other about their daily lives. The Great Big Book of Families is a colorful book that describes different families across the world. Reading books about diverse families and home situations is important—doing so provides a window into different family structures.

Another way to share various perspectives is through content area literacy. Due to the lack of time to teach social studies and science, there has been an increased focus on this in elementary classrooms. Typically, standards and curriculum present historical accounts and scientific innovations from a predominantly Eurocentric perspective, limiting the understanding and reflection that literature as a sliding glass door provides.

When sharing the story of Christopher Columbus, for example, it’s important to be honest about history by layering the common narrative with his diary and the perspective of the Taino natives—a good example of this is found in the book Encounter.

And when discussing the civil rights movement, the common narrative of Rosa Parks refusing to get out of her seat because she was tired is a deletion of important facts. Using supplemental sources to show that Parks and other activists had attended the Highlander Folk School to learn how to protest and resist oppression can lead to a change in students’ perspective—a sliding glass door. 

Use focused activities: When reading texts that present students with a sliding glass door, how do we engage them in rich, meaningful discussion? Discussion protocols such as QuICS or Sentence-Phrase-Word help students reflect on larger themes while focusing on individual words or events. QuICS is a reading response in which students record their initial thinking about a story by noting Questions, Interesting points, Connections, and Surprises. Sentence-Phrase-Word leads students to discuss why a particular word, a phrase, and a sentence from a text stood out to them.

In addition, small-group engagements such as literature circles or Socratic seminars provide opportunities for students to focus on critical questions and unpack deeper meanings of the texts that represent sliding glass door perspectives.