Building a Library, Building a World
When choosing the best books for our school libraries, there are a few things we can always keep in mind. (1) Not just any book will do. (2) We need to ask ourselves and our professional communities, What are characteristics of the best books?, and (3) What does the story in the book do directly for the emotional, social, racial, linguistic, and gender-equity needs of the children in our classes?
"If literature is a mirror that reflects human life, then all children who read or are read to need to see themselves reflected as part of humanity. If they are not, or if their reflections are distorted or ridiculous, there is the danger that they will absorb negative messages about themselves and people like them. Those who see only themselves or who are exposed to errors and misrepresentations are miseducated into a false sense of superiority, and the harm is doubly done (quoted in Harris 43)" (Russell, p. 76).
Accordingly, my mom, a long-time educator, principal, and child advocate who studied behavioral sciences, took three beliefs about teaching and learning very seriously. (1) The first was to live and work by the pledge, like doctors, to "do no harm" to school children. This isn't just a pledge to do no physical harm; it has as much to do with ensuring safe passage (and nurture when possible) for the emotional and intellectual gifts children bring with them each day to our classrooms and to our schools. (2) Mom also believed in the strength of four beautiful words which could help positively shape a child's identity: wise, kind, brave, and swift. The words are brilliantly brought to life in DuBose Heyward's book, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (first published in 1939 and now, in 2014, celebrating 75 years!). The book is vividly illustrated by Majorie Flack. The book can be considered as having those four words as its focus, which describe the story's heroine: wise, kind, brave, swift. The Country Bunny must draw on all of those traits to overcome adversity, to continue to be a strong role model for her children, and to successfully complete her job. For a book first published in 1939, The Country Bunny is forward-thinking and illustrative of a single mother's professional and personal ambitions and the lengths to which she'll go to secure both. (3) Mom's third belief was "the best language for all children". This third point is significant when choosing books for young children. As opportunities for publication have become open to many hopeful writers and authors, often times stories we pick up at the bookstore are poorly written, use weak language, and rely on disjointed content or non-chronologies. A great many of these books that I take particular issue with are based on popular children's television episodes and have more to do with brand marketing than with content and knowledge building. To push back against these types of books and the companies, like Scholastic, that encourage their use, become a language advocate and make sure the stories you choose for your classroom support equally strong semantic, syntactic, and phonemic coordination.
As educators, we have an unprecedented opportunity while forming our classroom libraries (however large or small) and in helping to form our school libraries to identify books which tell the stories of characters who are wise, kind, brave, and swift. These characteristics are shared across many types of children's literatures with male and female protagonists of all ages and with characters who are brown, black, and white. Maybe the characters will amplify or rely on just one of the traits or all four traits at once. To choose books with characters who exhibit these traits and for teachers to develop student learning communities around reading these types of stories and to organize their classroom environments in a way that recognize and reward evidence of these traits in their own students' behaviors and interactions, can have lasting implications for affirming and legitimizing each child's contribution to school and community settings.
How does it work, you may ask? There is not a method or a formula you can buy or a professional development workshop you can attend. You have to make the choice on your own to step back from what is easy. You have to choose to question what you see in print or hear in classrooms which may not be exactly true or may not be a true representation of what is real. In the broadest sense, young people want to know they matter and to know they can affect change. Even in childhood, kids can act in ways that indicate they are stakeholders in our social project. To that end, we ask young people in collaboration with us, as teachers, to be wise, kind, brave, and swift for a better world and we can demonstrate what that looks like in the books we share with them at school and in our own actions and behaviors.
We Have to Be Wise, Kind, Brave, and Swift, Too
It's been empirically reported that 76% of all public school teachers in the US are women, and 83% of all public school teachers are white. I fall into both of those categories. Yet 45% of public school kids are children of color. My nieces and my nephews fall into that category. I want my nieces and nephews to walk into any school in the country and be met by resounding teacher attitudes that acknowledge the gifts and talents each child brings to school and the gifts and talents that grow with them through school. For a teacher to impede a child's ability to reach for and obtain educational success because of the teacher's prejudices or because the teacher has not yet recognized the racialized systems which inundate public education, education policy, and national public school rhetoric is an egregious violation of public trust. Teachers, who spend hours a day with our nation's children, are in the best position, and possibly the only position, to speak knowledgeably about classroom practices, to articulate the needs of our young people, and to initiate social change that challenges long ingrained systemic racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism among other prejudices. The Just Like Me Project says to teachers -- who choose to articulate the needs of young people and to resist traditional beliefs and behaviors about failure -- "you are not alone".
"Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change". Based on the most recent US Census data, there are 3.7 million teachers in the US, meaning that teachers make up one of the largest workforces in this country.
This Above All
The first three years and even the first five years are the most developmentally significant in any human being's life. Some time during those early years, most children enter the world of schooling. As teachers, that's our cue. For too long, white women teachers have been implicated in maintaining a prejudice school system at the expense of, to put it boldly, humanity. Yet broadly, the United States has a deep and wide history of marginalizing some groups -- including women -- in favor of elevating others -- primarily white men -- and it impacts the consciousness of us all.
As a white woman teacher, I refuse to consciously replicate a prejudice school system, even if I at times have inadvertently been complicit in maintaining it, and I call on all teachers to cast off this label and to fearlessly participate in the social project of educational renewal with a commitment to anti-racist and inclusive teaching.
To be wise, we have to be willing to learn new things and to unlearn old things. This sometimes means we have to look for knowledge beyond our college experiences, beyond our master's experiences, beyond our teacher education experiences, beyond our professional development experiences, and especially beyond the beliefs we pick up from our families and friends in what may have been offered in good faith, but truly are damaging untruths about people unlike us. We have to seek the language and the research which legitimizes our choices and emboldens us to use literatures that are often left out of mainstream schooling and marketing. If there are resources we think we need or want to use but cannot find them, then we need to gather our creative and intellectual energies and create the materials we need ourselves and share them with other teachers.
To be kind, we have to even the playing field for our students. Students experiencing hardships, students experiencing prejudice, students living in poverty, and students being blocked at every turn from gaining any academic ground need to feel -- above all else -- welcomed, protected, supported, and relevant at school. Period. By acting with kindness we have the chance to re-write and to disrupt the majoritarian stories that say children of color and children of poverty cannot and will not succeed and cannot and will not overcome their situation. There are sociopolitical and sociocultural circumstances, including laws, which have deliberately impeded social and financial mobility for non-white populations in the US, and these truths are often left out of history books in K-12 settings and if recognized, discussion clearly is not continuously engaged in teacher education programs. Despite these incredible disparities in opportunity, children are born seekers; they want to learn, to know, to understand (check out page 5 in the College Board's Report). We have the awesome job of inviting them to that knowing.
To be brave may involve risks we aren't willing to take in our assumed identity as a teacher. Being brave means many things in education, not the least of which is standing up for those we have traditionally seen silenced. Being brave means acknowledging our own ideologies and maybe even becoming political in public spaces -- like school -- where we've been told politics have no place. Being brave means standing up to some parents, often who occupy positions of power in the school and in the community, who will challenge our choices to use multicultural and anti-bias content in our teaching. But for each irate and ignorant parent, we will nourish ten times that number of confident identity-conscious and proud students who also want to be brave.
To be swift, we have to be willing to make changes to our teaching today and to continue making changes as we learn more about the evolving needs of our young people. Not tomorrow, not next quarter, not next school year. We have to do it now or never. Because all our students and all the communities from which they come are counting on us. In fact, our future is counting on us. The magnitude of what it means to call oneself teacher has been publicly diminished by the indiscriminate test rhetoric, the race to the tippy top anxiety, and the advent of schooling so easy you can do it from home virtual classrooms. The political rhetoric alone has called into question the integrity of teachers' work, even as the "top 5%" of STEM teachers are sought to become a preeminent master corps of teachers. We are not competing against each other and we cannot let politicians pit us against each other for incentive-based pay that purposefully ignores the students for whom these initiatives are supposed to benefit.
Where to Start
The books below offer great examples of characters who are wise, kind, brave, and swift, and they can be read again and again all year long. The idea here is to exhibit in your classroom that stories about black and brown people, children, and heroes are as relevant and as visible as all the mainstream books about white children and white characters.
Getting These Books
(1) Books can always be bought through Amazon.
(2) Often enough, however, I've run into other educators in public libraries getting books to read to their students or share with their students because school libraries don't always have exactly what you need. If you're looking for a book you'd really love to use in your class, but it isn't at your school library, try using WorldCAT (a global catalogue of books and library locator) to find the books you need or want to use.
(3) Most public libraries are making digital versions of books available for digital checkout to smartphones, tablets, and laptops. This is an evolving process and the selection isn't huge, but definitely worth exploring if you need a book in a pinch!
(4) Keep an eye out for library book sales, yard sales, community organization sales, and other events where you can buy books at a relatively small cost (like paperbacks for 25 cents.).
(5) Support local charities like Good Will, Salvation Army, or others by browsing their book selections and purchasing a few that fit your classroom needs.
(6) Borrow books from like-minded educators and make your library available to others, too. Reciprocity among forward thinking teachers is crucial to establishing curriculum which supports literature with a purpose.
(7) Borrow books from the parents of your students. When I was teaching 5th grade social studies, I used the remarkable collaborative book We Are All Born Free as well as the illustrations made available through The Guardian to discuss what types of promises the International Declaration of Human Rights made to the world in the aftermath of WWII. A few days after the lesson, a parent came up and said her son had told her about the book and that they had actually bought it for him as a gift.
(8) Partner with other schools or teachers and exchange books and host discussions around the books and book topics with partner school teachers and students. Share books, resources, and ideas to create a collaborative project between groups of students that can be published or presented in public whether at an art gallery, a family literacy night, a school assembly, or on any day of literary/artistic significance throughout the school year. The more teachers supporting or sharing a vision, the stronger we will feel individually when our choices are unduly challenged.
"Don't Be Mean At Me"
When my two nephews were in their first 5 years of life, they became concerned with pictures and images of people (of any color) who had mean expressions, sad expressions, scared expressions, or worried expressions. Sometimes, if they were ever naughty (which was not often, their loving aunt insists!), they would say to my sister "don't be mean at me!", anticipating they might be getting a "loud talking to". Similarly, in addition to word-image correlation in children's books, the facial expressions and body language of the characters themselves tell a significant portion of the story to young observant readers, listeners, and viewers. Understanding this presents an opportunity to talk about why just any book representing people of color won't do for all occasions.
For example, it is much easier to find children's books representing people of color from history and during times of social struggle than it is to find children's books representing people of color today doing what people do today. Picture books about social struggle, such as times of Slavery, Abolition, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement, are necessary to solidify our understanding of the past and to have critical conversations about how we will overcome prejudice in our own time and in the future. But those books serve a very different purpose than books like Because, The Enchanted Hair Tale, and The Snowy Day.
In other words, multicultural books for the sake of multicultural books doesn't necessarily move our curriculum any closer to inclusiveness. If we teach about Ruby Bridges or Martin Luther King Jr. or Jackie Robinson without first preparing our students (and ourselves) with the emotional maturity to grapple with and to overcome adversaries and to stare down the mean faces of characters menacing our protagonist or hero, we have then moved away from the liberating experience of reading and have in many ways betrayed the trust of our students. Young students especially sometimes come to school before they come to know our racialized world.
For a thorough and provocative experience looking critically at how protagonists of color come into their racialized identities, I must strongly suggest reading Robert Stepto's book a home elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama, especially to galvanize your understanding of the historical roles school and other social institutions have played in creating and maintaining Otherness, especially in the lives of biracial protagonists. Stepto speaks with unmitigated authority about the personal and significant moment of adopting race in the project of racial self-awareness undertaken in a number of preeminent African American literatures, including those authored by Frederick Douglass, Du Bois, Ellison, Morrison, Obama, and Stepto himself. Consequently, Stepto also sets the defining and liberating moments of adopting race in stark contrast to when race is imposed by using what Morrison described as trauma ("the first time they were taught part of the human race was Other.", p. 27) to frame that experience.
Stepto accomplished in a matter of pages, paragraphs even, what our teacher education programs have historically failed to do, which is to problematize the ways we consciously or subconsciously impose race on children of color, and then associate with the imposed race marginalizing qualities that diminish the self, the family, and the communities of the kids to whom we've made the pledge "I'll do no harm". The histories and narratives Stepto wrote about from the past are the same ones we reach for today to gain a sense of self and to offer a path forward, a vision for the future, however treacherous the making. To bring Stepto's work into conversation with Tatum's work is to reimagine and essentially, to build anew the spaces from which young people can adopt and confidently enact and explore their racialized identities.
The books we choose for our class libraries can lead to stories of adventures, imaginings, shared beliefs and values, or they can lead us into difficult and necessary conversations about truths and representations we need to be prepared to address as informed adults with solutions, alternatives, and language that offer our students hope. If you need a short intensive course in inclusive education, first read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, then read Banks' Approaches to Multicultural Curriculum Reform and especially read Dr. Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations about Race" with Dr. Stepto's a home elsewhere.
Sight Words Are Important, Too
There is a lot of emphasis on choosing books for young readers that are sight-word rich. Alan Perlberg, an early education learning specialist in the Oakland/Berkeley CA area has a comprehensive and usable page of sight words for grades K-3. There are also hundreds of websites which offer some iteration of the lists of sight words and lists of books with high frequency use of sight words for students learning to read. Pintrest and other share sites have pages of sight word games and sight word activities, as well. Further, entire reading programs have been designed with a strong emphasis on sight words and are marketed as tools to increase early literacy and the success of those programs are empirically documented. They work. These are all useful tools for children, teachers, and families as children reach the incredible moment of learning to read. In fact, sometimes these programs are the only way children come to read and I am not criticizing the programming in any way.
My only word of caution is, please don't eliminate strong content and image rich texts representative of brown, black, and white people, for sight word rich texts with weak content or careless representations of people of color. Reading is such an intimate and altering ability to come into; yet, our abilities to read develop alongside our identities. (Also, further research from Ireland's National Council Curriculum and Assessment, see pg. 9) Reading and identity-making are not mutually exclusive. Words and stories and images can tell kids a lot about representation. And to go through a schooling experience where your success depends on whether or not you "get" reading at the end of the evaluation period when you haven't seen anyone who looks like you or talks like you or lives like you, would make any inquisitive person wonder, "where in the world am I?". These things are significant and the time in a child's academic life to address them is right now.