4 Tips to Support Diversity in your Classroom through Books
“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.
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:
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?
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:
Diversity in YA (@diversityinya)
#DVPit (A Twitter event to showcase marginalized authors and illustrators only)
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.
*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.