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“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” – Rudine Sims Bishop*

Think back to your favorite book as a child. Were these windows into other lives sliding glass doors or mirrors for you?

Reflecting back on my favorite childhood storybook, I can remember that it inspired me to become interested in the planets and constellations. While it may have been my favorite book, it was certainly not the only reading material in my collection that featured an innately curious white girl who went on explorations and adventures. It was these books that made me think that I could explore the universe because the main character was able to. I felt that I could explore the universe because those characters looked like me.

When we reflect on how much representation matters in self-development, we must remember our first cultural interactions with people. Other than family and friends, children absorb images of representation from the first books we read with them and are reinforced every year a child is in school with the stories and histories taught in the classroom.

This is not inherently a problem. But the lack of diversity in the children’s and young adult book publishing industry is. 

Infographic image describing the diversity in children's books in 2018.

In 2018, American Indian/First Nations, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, African, and African American characters, combined, were represented in just 23 percent of children’s books.  So we can reasonably say that children who are nonwhite are often not seeing a diverse representation of their cultural background. If Rudine Sims Bishop is correct and reading is a means of self-affirmation, then only limited ideas of the self for certain diverse groups are presented as possible options for the future for these students.  These limitations negatively affect not only those from diverse backgrounds; they also limit the opportunity for other students to see a perspective that allows them to empathize and understand others who are different from themselves. This limited amount of cultural representation in children’s books trickles down to schools and presents a restricted view of the world as “normal.” In a world already brimming with dissension and sometimes outright hate, we, as education professionals, need to make it a priority to include these lenses in the work we do with our students.  Regardless of our content area or specialization, we can all work within our schools and classrooms to help effect a change for all students.

But how do we accomplish this in the classroom? And how do we know which diverse books to include?     Here are a few things to consider when adding diverse books to your classroom:

A flower-like design of diverse faces.

Consider Own Voices

“Own voices” is a label applied to books that feature a character from a particular background that is written by an author who shares the same background as the main character. For example, a book with an Asian American male lead character would be written by an author who is an Asian American male.

Own-voices books provide an inside look at the lives of characters from the perspective of the author who has personally experienced it.  By using and promoting books that are own-voices stories, we are not supporting a potentially stereotyped or cartoonish representation while also providing visibility to those with diverse backgrounds.  If nothing else, stories are best when they are deeply felt and conveyed authentically. What could be more authentic than a story written from the perspective of one who has personally experienced it?

An image of social media app icons with unfocused images of people in the background.

Follow Diversity Influencers

Own-voices books have their own Twitter following at #ownvoices so that educators and others can follow to discover new and upcoming books that have that label. But we don’t have to stop there.

Reaching out to others in the diverse books community opens up new avenues of interest and allows us to consider critical perspectives on diverse books that we perhaps did not consider before. Diversity in Children’s and Young Adult books (and in our culture as well) is an ongoing discussion.  In order for us to support it in our classrooms, we need to engage in the conversation as well.

The blog “We Need Diverse Books” (also on Twitter @diversebooks) is another great resource to visit to see what options are available for books as well as to get an inside look at the authors through interviews.  WNDB periodically has book giveaways for low-income schools in the United States.

Another helpful resource is “American Indians in Children’s Literature.” This blog, founded by Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, seeks to provide critical analysis on both older and recent works of fiction that specifically involve American Indian characters. While the topic of the blog is restricted to a specific racial group, it provides excellent insight into how American Indians are portrayed in American culture, how this understanding presents itself in children’s literature, and why it is problematic.

Some other Twitter pages and events on this topic include:

ReadYourWorld (@MCChildsBookDay)

Diversity in YA (@diversityinya)

#DVPit (A Twitter event to showcase marginalized authors and illustrators only)

An image of a stack of books with one open book.

Consider Companion Texts

Not every educator has the opportunity to mix fiction into their curriculum, but that shouldn’t stop them from finding ways to incorporate diverse stories into their lesson plans.

Companion texts that provide diverse representation are a great way to provide more representation in the classroom environment and can potentially deepen student understanding of a topic through discussion. Social studies and history teachers might learn the perspective of Asian Americans during lessons on World War II through a book like George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy. Mathematics teachers might wish to explore the Middle Eastern origins of algebra with their students or simply highlight a biography of a mathematician from a diverse background.

The options for linking diversity and books to a content area are endless.

Promote Diverse Books in the Classroom

Promoting diverse books in the classroom doesn’t have to be a costly, intensive exercise. Classroom libraries are great for featuring diverse books, but they don’t necessarily work for every classroom.  We understand that classroom space, monetary restrictions, and limited time all present challenges to promoting diverse stories, but there are even easier ways to advocate for them within the school environment.

Advertising diverse books could look like taking the time to read an #ownvoices book in front of your students during silent reading time. It could look like featuring a diverse author or book-of-the-month on your whiteboard.  It could look like giving out or recommending a diverse book you loved to a student who might appreciate it. 

Each of these circumstances is an opportunity to show your students that diversity matters to you.  Every small step we take to support diversity in books and in schools speaks volumes about who we are as teachers and all the possibilities we believe they are capable of as students.

Please stay tuned for our series on diversity representation in Children’s and Young Adult books, where I will provide specific suggestions for racially diverse books that you can add to your school, classroom, or personal library.

References:

*Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/

Disclaimer: Resources and listings in this blog post do not indicate approval or endorsement by SERC or the Connecticut State Department of Education.  The listings are provided solely as a resource of general information.

New Year, New Opportunities:

Championing Cultural Diversity and Racial Equity in Everyday Life

How did you start your New Year? Did you have any ambitious or creative New Year resolutions? Many of us take this time to pause and think about things we want to change and we often focus on self-optimization. Healthier, stronger, more efficient – as individuals we are continuously working on becoming better versions of ourselves. But what if we took this year to become a better version of society – together? What if we worked on what we could do for each other as part of a community, if we flipped the first letter and envisioned a stronger “We” instead of a better “Me”?

Becoming a stronger ‘We’

sign with multiple lines spelling the phrase 'together we have force' in red

The first step in becoming a strong community is always getting to know one another. Who is our neighbor, what are their living situations like, what things do we have in common, how we can we support each other, what are their (hi-) stories? Living in an America of the 21st century, we will encounter members of our communities who do not share the same cultural or racial background as we do. Maybe we are the new family on the street who have fled from Syria as refugees. Maybe my parents emigrated from Israel and my African-American husband and I have kids of mixed race. Maybe I am a PhD student from Malaysia and am still getting used to the American way of life. In order to build a strong community in which everyone feels supported and respected, we all need to reevaluate our own cultural and racial identities and histories. What is our comfort zone and why is that so? What preconceived ideas might we have about people who do not share the same background that we do?
This week’s blog post presents a few ideas on how we can champion racial equity in our everyday lives. Although SERC does a lot of systemic, long-term work on racial equity, these suggestions are for anyone who wants to do little things every day: when we socialize with friends, when we go grocery shopping, plan our travel or holidays, watch another show online, spend time on social media… Imagine if every little act of kindness, of self-critical evaluation, of honest listening, of stepping out of our comfort zone had a spiral effect and sent waves of change through our society!

Harvard Implicit Bias Project

harvard university subway sign on wall

First, however, we might have to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Paquita Jarman-Smith, one of our education consultants at SERC, called my attention to the Implicit Bias Project at Harvard University. Most of us would probably say – and hope – that we do not have any prejudices or preconceived ideas about gender, race, economic status, etc. My boss is a woman? Of course, no problem. My best friend is plus size? Let’s love our bodies as they are! – But what if we dig below the surface of these beliefs? This research project at Harvard University aims at revealing and educating about hidden biases in society. To quote from the website directly:
“People don’t always say what’s on their minds. One reason is that they are unwilling. For example, someone might report smoking a pack of cigarettes per day because they are embarrassed to admit that they smoke two. Another reason is that they are unable. A smoker might truly believe that she smokes a pack a day, or might not keep track at all. The difference between being unwilling and unable is the difference between purposely hiding something from someone and unknowingly hiding something from yourself.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.”
Taking some of these tests might be uncomfortable and confront us with an aspect about ourselves that we did not know – and might not like. But recognizing problems is the first step toward solving them. Let us find out what biases might lurk in our subconscious – and then do something about them!

Movies & TV

Laptop with movie running and a tray with a candle and coffee mug

Wanda Guzman, one of SERC’s project specialists, is convinced that you can start with something quite small already: Instead of watching the same TV show every night, why not try something else this week? Search for a movie or a TV show that features other cultures or ethnicities than your own! What about a comedy from South Africa? A telenovela from Venezuela? A documentary filmed in Tibet? Wanda says it is important, however, that a representation of a certain culture should also be realized by or at least advised by people with the same cultural background that is featured in the production. Otherwise you would become a witness only to someone else’s idea of a country or a culture, but not get an authentic impression of the culture itself. And who knows, you might just pick up a few expressions in a different language while you become a fan of your new TV show. Grab some popcorn and travel around the world, all from the comfort of your own couch!

The New York Times, as one example, has put together a list of TV shows with a diverse or non-white cast. Look at the creators of the show, however! Are the people behind-the-scenes just as diverse as its cast?

woman in red blouse holds magnifying glass in front of her while reading a book

And while we are talking about TV: Inform yourself about some of the main TV and social media channels that you are consuming regularly. What are their political positions and how might this influence their features and posts? How are they funded, and which political agenda might they have to subscribe to by accepting certain money? How many people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, etc. do they employ? Let’s become critical consumers of media outlets and remind ourselves to always put articles and news stories into their political, societal, and economic context. Let’s strive to become not just informed but rather knowledgeable citizens. Knowledge is information in context.

Festivals & Food

Young boy holds a lit lantern in the evening

“Attend festivals that celebrate a culture that is different from your own! These are lots of fun with amazing food and music!”, Wanda recommends. The Connecticut Office of Tourism has even put together a list of celebrations and restaurants of various world cultures. Instead of going to your local diner tonight, why not try out an authentically run restaurant where you can not only have a great meal but also learn about the food’s history and the owner’s culture?

bike handle with two paperbag grocery bags around the handles, filled with vegetables

Another idea is to mix up your grocery shopping routine and go to a supermarket or bakery in a different corner of your city. When I worked in San Francisco, I always made an effort to pass by a Mexican bakery on my way to work for delicious brocas or besitos! The website CTbites.com, a food guide for Connecticut, put together a list of Latin American markets in Connecticut and says: “Whether you’re making corn tortillas from scratch, seeking beautifully ripe fruit at a great price, looking to pick up a luscious pastry, or preparing your grandmother’s mole, these stores are well worth the trip.” Or why not go to your local Asian supermarket and discover new ingredients! There is so much more to Asian cuisine than just fried noodles!

vegetables at market, three people in sales process

Local Farmer’s markets are also a great opportunity to support small businesses that often employ immigrant workers. And what is better than a freshly French-pressed coffee on a Saturday morning while you pick up your locally sourced veggies for the week? In New Haven on various farmer’s markets, you can enjoy delicious culinary creations from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan at the stall of Sanctuary Kitchen, a non-profit organization working with refugee and immigrant chefs as part of the CitySeed Inc. Iniative. 

Travel and learn about  other cultures!

City map next to a notebook, a pair of glasses and two hands taking notes

Mark Twain is believed to have said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” So travel some more this year, if only just in your own city! Venture off the beaten path and educate yourself about the history and culture of communities other than the one you grew up in. The Yankee magazine has put together an interesting list of museums and historical sites with regards to African American history in Connecticut. Connecticut History.org, a project of Connecticut Humanities, has also created a varied potpourri of resources where you will discover various books, documents, websites, and historically significant places.

Older native american woman on wall mural

From the state of Connecticut you can also easily travel to and learn about a variety of sovereign nations such as the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Nation, the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation, the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Nation, the Mohegan Nation, and the Schaghticoke Nation (of these, only the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Tribe are officially recognized in Connecticut by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs). Have a look at their websites and find out whether and how you could visit their land or attend open cultural events. The Mohegan Nation, for example, will host this year’s Mohegan Wigwam in August! 

hands making silver jewellery on a table with tools and materials

In addition to visiting tribal events that are open to the public and educating yourself about the different nations’ histories, you can also support Native American art and craftsmanship by purchasing clothes, jewelry, blankets and much more from specific organizations that are exclusively run by Native American artists and give back to their community. Rather than buying an item from a large retail chain that features an indigenous pattern or artwork often without paying tribute, why not buy an original piece of artwork straight from the artist and help to support Native American artists? Cultural appropriation is hurtful to any party affected – seeing your culture and history reduced to stereotypes for the sake of entertainment and quick sales would hurt any of us, independent of our background. SERC cannot endorse any specific shops or organizations here but a simple Google search for “native owned businesses” or “buy native made jewelry/clothes/decor” will quickly yield results. Why not plan ahead and get the next birthday gift for your nephew or housewarming gift for your sister-in-law from a Native American artist’s workshop?

woman in turquoise top holding young plant in palms of hands
So let’s start this New Year off right! Let us grow together as a community and become a stronger “We” as we head into this new decade. Let us stay curious about cultures and practices that are different from our own and step out of our comfort zone regularly – only then can we grow and expand our intellectual, social, and political horizon. Let us take a critical look in the mirror and take Harvard’s Implicit Bias Test to find out what biases might hide under the surface – and then begin our journey to educating ourselves about and experiencing other cultures and backgrounds than our own. This is a long journey that might sometimes be uncomfortable and have us realize aspects about our culture that are not only pleasant, but it also will turn us into a more respectful and proactive citizen who explores the exciting and thought-provoking worlds that other cultures offer. Let us build bridges and learn from our diversity so that we become stronger together.

Disclaimer: Resources, listings, or links to websites in this blog post do not indicate approval or endorsement by SERC or the Connecticut State Department of Education. This blog post is provided solely as a resource of general information and also does not claim to be comprehensive in any way.

woman holding sparkler in hands

Happy New Year to all of our SERC patrons and fellow educators – and welcome to this new and exciting launch of the SERC library blog!
We hope that this New Year 2020 will be filled with joyful moments of community-building, opportunities to educate ourselves and each other, and many moments to continue building an equitable and welcoming society. Let us work together to build educational spaces where we are valued by ‘the content of our character’ and where we see and accept any mental (dis-) abilities, cultural or economic background, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs – and any colors of our skin. And SERC and its library has many exciting events and projects planned for 2020 to continue on this important mission! Cassondra McCarthy und Julia Klann are SERC’s new librarians and are both eager to welcome regular and new patrons to the library – get to know them here.

Equity

wooden blocks with letters spelling 'EQUITY'

In May, SERC will continue to raise awareness for racial equity by hosting the: ‘5th Annual Dismantling Systemic Racism Conference on Race, Education & Success‘ on May 20, 2020. It focuses on ways to support, promote, and develop racial equity in education. The full-day conference supports educators, families, and community leaders who seek to confront racist structures and practices to better serve Connecticut’s students and their families, through advocacy and the development, implementation, and sustainability of innovative, culturally relevant programming. Systemic racism impedes our students’ outcomes and limits opportunities for success in academics, social development, health, and family engagement. The conference features dynamic, thought-provoking presentations that will address possible ways to dismantle systemic racism and create positive change for our students – and yours could be one of them! The deadline for submission has been extended to Sunday, January 12 so we strongly encourage anyone with a great topic idea to send us their proposal here https://ctserc.net/dsr2020call! All paper abstracts must be received by midnight on that day in order to be considered. Notifications about the status of the proposal will still be emailed by February 4, 2020. Please contact Janet Zarchen zarchen@ctserc.org with any questions or find more details on the conference here https://ctserc.org/news/2018/dismantling-systemic-racism-registration-is-open.

Education

two hands reaching out to each other, young man with bracelets

One of the goals of our librarian Julia Klann for this year 2020 is to turn the SERC library into a vital and up-to-date educational resource for all things mental health. Mental Health questions lie at the core of many other issues that SERC has made its main mission: Racial equity, equal access to education, physical and mental disabilities. If a student keeps being bullied because of their ethnic background, is it a surprise that they might become depressed and self-harm? If a student suffers from a severe case of undiagnosed social anxiety, would it not be natural that they lack behind in class because they are more occupied with trying to avoid a panic attack than to pay attention to the teacher? The interconnections between mental health and education are two-fold: Struggles with mental health are the cause for many inequalities in access to education but they are also simultaneously the result of students’ struggles in the education system. Julia will focus on some mental health topics that are most relevant to middle or high school students: Depression, anxiety, self-harm, autism, struggles with gender and sexual identity, and eating disorders. There will be regular library posts on these topics, reviews of recently published books, interesting new journal articles and academic findings, and listings of crucial resources for teachers, parents, or peers. Stay tuned for these regular blog posts! 

Excellence #1

young man with beard and beanie standing in front of library shelf, picking out one book

The SERC librarians Cassondra McCarthy and Julia Klann are very excited that the library has opened its doors and shelves again in October 2019.The SERC library is continuously aiming to improve its services in order to best accommodate our patrons’ needs and wishes. We always want to provide our library patrons with excellent services and resources – and need your input! As the library just recently re-opened, we are currently re-organizing the library processes, re-evaluating the opening hours, and considering to invest in new resources. Some questions that we have are: Which opening hours suit you best? Which new professional development books or journals would you like to see in the SERC library? What about the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) – should we bring it back? How can we improve our space in general? We would be grateful to get feedback from as many of you as possible: Just follow this link and take part in our 2-minute-survey. It’s only two minutes of your time – but will have a great effect on how we shape our vision for the SERC library in 2020. Thank you very much already for your participation!

Excellence #2

many hands reaching toward each other, blue bracelets

SERC is very excited to announce that it is seeking nominations for the George A. Coleman Excellence in Equity Award for 2020! In collaboration with the SERC foundation, the State Education Resource Center is seeking nominations of individuals, organizations, schools, or districts that have demonstrated extraordinary acts of commitment and courage with regards to educational equity. The nominees would have shown outstanding passionate and steadfast activism creating a respectful and accommodating atmosphere for all students, especially students of color and culturally and linguistically diverse students. Award recipients will be selected based on their steadfast and unwavering action in:

• Advocating for children and families of color;
• Galvanizing individuals and coalitions toward equitable action;
• Taking risks in conversation and action regarding issues of equity for racially, linguistically and culturally diverse groups;
• Engaging the diverse needs of members of an education community and reconciling them toward a shared vision; and
• Furthering the exchange of information that affects thinking and effects conviction on matters of equity.

Nominations of students are encouraged. Entry forms for nominations are available here.

Please submit completed nomination packages to SERC by Friday, February 21, 2020 to the attention of:

Heather Dawes, Project Specialist, SERC
100 Roscommon Drive, #110, Middletown, CT 06457
or by email – dawes@ctserc.org

We look forward to receiving your nomination packages. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Heather at SERC, (860) 632-1485, ext. 263, or dawes@ctserc.org. Nominators and awardees will be notified no later than March 31, 2020 and invited to attend a recognition award celebration held the evening of May 19, 2020. (They will also be invited to attend the Dismantling Systemic Racism Conference on May 20, 2020.)

Meet our SERC Library Staff

Library Associate

Cassondra McCarthy

Cassondra McCarthy is an English/Language Arts teacher-turned-Library Associate who seeks to match education professionals and parents with the resources they need to ensure every student has a successful present and future. After spending several years working in Connecticut school districts, Cassondra understands the struggle educators face to match the needs of the student with the right solution. She firmly believes that, given the right tools and inspiration, every child can achieve the excellence that will allow them to reach for their dreams.

This is why she is dedicated to designing the SERC Library to be a welcoming, inclusive space for all with a collection of highly developed resources to support teachers and parents as they advocate for the young people in their lives. The SERC Library is committed to being at the forefront of innovation in education so that we can achieve the goal of providing an equitable education for all. If we can unite to ensure that every student has access to the resources they need to succeed, we can be assured that the future of our communities and the world will be a bright one.

With this in mind, Cassondra encourages anyone with questions or suggestions to reach out to the SERC Library staff so that we can help you meet the needs of your child, classroom, school, company, or district.

Cassondra has a Bachelor’s degree in Education and English (015) and is working on completing a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at Rutgers University.

Library Associate

Julia Klann

Our library associate Julia Klann is very happy and excited to be part of the library team at SERC! Libraries have always been a place of peace and knowledge for her, a place where books help us to educate ourselves and to grow as individuals, as researchers, and as community members. Julia is very passionate about equal access to education as a right for every person and is determined to make a difference here at SERC.

She enjoyed the great privilege to receive an excellent education in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America and holds a Master of Modern Languages (MSt) from Oxford University and a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) from Harvard University. Now she wants to give back to the community and ensure that education is no longer a privilege but a right – there should be nothing that holds you back, neither your language, nor your background, nor your intellectual or physical learning abilities.

You can come to her with any questions or ideas and Julia is more than happy to help you. She wants to make sure that SERC offers the best possible assistance to its patrons and will go the extra mile to find a solution together with you. Julia also is familiar with French and German, so feel free to ask her anything language-related as well.

Julia’s credo is: “Let’s work together and make sure that Connecticut’s next generation is superbly educated and trained for a stronger future in which we create a community of mutual support and genuine care for one another.”