I’ll start this post off by talking about the concept of Mirrors and Windows. You might have already heard about it – it’s been discussed by many teachers and leaders in education. Children need mirrors to reflect themselves and windows to see outside their own world. (Tschida, Ryan, & Ticknor, 2014) Many authors, librarians, scholars, and teachers speak about the importance of paying attention to whose story is being told in the books we read and the histories we teach. Additionally, we often hear about the importance of who is telling the story. There have been many awards created in the name of recognizing diverse authors and diverse stories.
Why should I care?
Students that are forced to see themselves as stereotypes in media and in literature deserve to see themselves as successful, happy, confident and normal. As students are growing up, they are looking for mirrors in stories that they can relate to and learn from. Students need windows to build perspective and become the accepting, open generation this country desperately needs. So much of the hate we see today stems from a lack of understanding and a fear of the unknown. Reading about characters that represent various cultures, races, genders, and religions can lead to positive discussions about diversity, community, and acceptance. How are you, as a teacher, working to lead your students towards compassion and acceptance? Do the mentor texts, read alouds and library books in your classroom not only reflect the students you have in your room but allow them to gain an understanding about the people they will meet and see throughout their life?
Even if you can’t find it in your heart to care about whether or not your students feel seen and understood. Culturally Responsive Literature boosts reading comprehension and engagement. Just try it, you’ll see those kids that used to hate reading gradually start to show an interest. Plus, suddenly, their background knowledge is RELEVANT and they can apply it to their reading and show so much more understanding. If you asked me to read an article about cricket, I wouldn’t comprehend it very well. I don’t care about cricket and I don’t know anything about the sport. However, if you asked me to read an article about diving or gymnastics (sports I competed in for years), I’d understand it easily and I’d enjoy reading it. In both scenarios I’m reading about sports, but in the second scenario I actually care about the sport and have some experience with it.
Ok, it’s important. So, what’s the issue?
According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, of all the children’s books published in the United States in 2015, just 7% of those books were written by or about African Americans, and just 2% featured Latino characters.
Meanwhile, the graph below shows what the demographics of our public schools are now and where they’re headed. Even if your classroom mirrored the demographics of public schools, you would struggle to find enough books to mirror the kids in your room. Now, we know that in reality, your classroom probably doesn’t reflect the graph below. You may see that the majority of your students fall under one or two of these racial categories. Even if they did, the rate at which books are being published about children of different ethnicities does not match the diversity of our country and our school system. I’m making this post because those high-quality, diverse books won’t just fall into your lap, but our students desperately need you to find them.
A dangerous mistake to avoid!
When you build your library, don’t mistake finding stories about slavery, immigration, and the civil rights movement as being culturally responsive. While those stories are important, what child only wants to read about their histories of oppression? A true mirror doesn’t reflect their past, it reflects their present. You want to look for books that feature black children without necessarily being about being black. For example, in Explorers of the Wild. The main character is a child of color but the book doesn’t mention it. It doesn’t feature some struggle about being non-white, it’s a simple sweet story about a boy and a bear going on an adventure. Building a diverse library is about finding those books for your child to get lost in. In the words of Marley Diaz, stop making your kids read about white boys and their dogs!
But what if….
Another common issue that surfaces when talking about culturally responsive literature is the fear of “what is a parent gets upset?” What if a parent gets upset? Oh no, you read a book about an LGBTQ family or a muslim child! *shudders* I have two responses to that…
- If you aren’t brave enough to read those books that focus on the aspects of our identities that popular culture have made unfavorable, how will you ever change that dynamic? How are you making that child feel? The one whose moms are lesbians or who might be questioning their own identity? Or the child who is muslim but struggles with their own religious identity for fear being bullied or worse. By refusing to read those books, you’re saying that those identities are not ok or are simply not appropriate for school.
- If you can’t talk about being gay, trans, muslim, black, or an immigrant. That’s fine. I sure as heck hope you aren’t bringing any aspect of being white, straight, or christian (or whatever your personal identity is) into your classroom either. Oops, mentioned your husband? Oops, played a christmas song? Oops, called the children “boys and girls”? Oops, referred to yourself as Ms. or Mr.? My point is, it’s simply not possible to completely remove our identities from the classroom, so what gives you the right to pick and choose whose identities are allowed?
So how do you respond if or when a parent gets upset about a certain book being read or a certain topic being discussed? Well, if you’re especially worried about the beliefs of the parents at your school – discuss it with your principal first. Be open and communicative about what you’re reading and why. Invite parents to participate in the discussion or borrow the books. Be confident in what you’re doing. You are the teacher, you are the expert on what’s best for kids. If your school is truly interested in banning books for the sake of avoiding difficult conversations – maybe it isn’t the school for you. You may face a little flack but if you can’t be brave enough to handle a parents feathers being ruffled, how is a child supposed to be brave enough to love themself? In the end, which is more important?
Build that library!
I’ve included several sources of information for you to help you build your own classroom library that can provide both mirrors and windows for your students. Here are the steps to building your library.
- Look around your classroom and talk to your students. Do you have books in your library that mirror the identities in your classroom? Don’t forget those identities that might be harder to see – gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, home language(s), religion. Be sure to never assume the race or ethnicity of your students! If you’re unsure, look at their files or find opportunities for them to share about their own identities with you. Make a list of topics or identities you want books about.
- Look around your district, city and state. Do you have books in your library that mirror the identities in your area? Add these topics or identities to your list.
- Make a list of books (mentor texts and independent reading texts) that reflect those identities listed above.
- Find a way to acquire those books – grants, donor’s choose, talk to your librarian or principal. Every time I go to my school librarian with a list of titles – they put them on their next order and I can borrow them or send students to borrow them any time. Tell your principal about how important it is to have these books for your classroom – use the research – and they might be able to find space in the budget. Create a Donor’s choose and invite your family, friends, and school parents to help fund your project. Find a grant through the library, local university, scholastic or any other literacy organization in your area. The money is out there if you look for it!
- Make your books visible and use them in your instruction. You might think one book will totally reach a particular child but they might totally surprise you by selecting something else. Rather than outwardly assuming a student is looking for validation with a certain part of their identity, make sure all your books are accessible. Change out which ones are on display frequently. Take a look at my library organization post for more information on how to make your classroom library accessible and easy to use.
Here are a few of my favorite books and authors:
Below are a list of some of the awards I frequently browse and choose books from. The awards are typically categorized for suggested audience (picture book, YA, teen etc.) however, I also check with Common Sense Media before I put a book in my library. This site is amazing for checking to see which kind of content exists in a book and allows me to decide if a book is appropriate for the age range in my own classroom.
I’ve listed the current award winners with a link to amazon if you want to purchase it. If you go to the award website, you can browse the award archives and find high quality books for each year the award has been around.
“The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. ”
Here are the 2018 winners:
“The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. ”
Here are the 2018 winners:
“The Rainbow Book List is a bibliography of books with significant gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning content, which are aimed at youth, birth through age 18.”
This award was created in honor of Walter Dean Myers (another one of my favorites). The award honors “diverse authors (or co-authors) whose works feature diverse main characters and address diversity in a meaningful way.”
Here are the 2018 winners:
“The awards were established as a way to identify and honor the very best writing and illustrations by and about American Indians. Books selected to receive the award will present American Indians in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.”
Here are some recent winners:
“A distinguished selection committee of early childhood education specialists, librarians, illustrators and experts in children’s literature reviews the entries, seeking books that portray the universal qualities of childhood, a strong and supportive family, and the multicultural nature of our world.”
Here are the 2018 winners:
“The goal of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature is to honor and recognize individual work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage, based on literary and artistic merit. ”
Here are the 2018 Winners:
Another great resource is the site and organization “We Need Diverse Books” They even have a scholastic flyer!
Looking for more awards?