When planning the curriculum for her students, English teacher Christina Torres would select a list of the classics (To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet). "I could teach these books in ways that were powerful for my students as we discussed race, gender, class, and social justice. Atticus Finch was no simplified hero in my class," said Torres. And her students read other things — poetry, short stories, nonfiction texts, and more to supplement the classics. Her hope was to provide windows and mirrors for her students.
In recent years, though, Torres began to ask herself, "What exactly am I scared of kids losing if I stray from the canon?" By relegating "other" authors to the supplemental reading list, was she sending the message that they were not as important? Not "classic" or "great"? "When we spend the majority of our time and care dissecting the language and stories of primarily Western, white, and male authors, it sends a message about whose voices are worth that time and study."
Diversity in Writers
With the publishing world dominated by white males, there was a time in history when some women writers used their initials, or adopted male-sounding names in order to get their work published or to appeal to a broader audience, including men. There are famous classics written by women including works by Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath, and many more, but they are exceptions. Even rarer, some of them, like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, were women of color.
Today, educators like Christina Torres are including authors from diverse backgrounds and with diverse voices writing about differences in culture, race, religion, gender, geography and more. In order to give children the opportunity to see themselves and their world reflected in the books they read, teachers are teaching works from a wide variety of authors.
Today's Diverse Classrooms
As of 2016 (the most recent federal data available), the racial breakdown of the student population in American public schools is 48.2% White; 26.4% Hispanic; 15.3% Black; 5.1% Asian/Pacific Islander; 3.6% Two or more races; and 1.0% American Indian/Alaska Native. While white students make up the largest demographic, it is clear that, grouped together, students who are other than white now make up the majority.
Accordingly, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has addressed the topics of censorship, intellectual freedom, and representative texts in their published guideline of October 25, 2018 titled The Students' Right to Read: "One of the most important responsibilities of the English teacher is developing rapport and respect among students. Respect for the uniqueness and potential of the individual, an important facet of the study of literature, should be emphasized in the English class. One way rapport and respect can be developed is by encouraging the students themselves to explore and engage with texts of their own selection. Also, English classes should reflect the cultural contributions of minoritized groups in the United States, just as they should acquaint students with diverse contributions by the many peoples of the world."
The Key to Engaging Students
There are many distractions competing for the attention of today's students and if they can see themselves and their communities represented in the texts they are reading, they are more apt to be engaged. When students are engaged, they are open to learning.
Stephanie Hampton, a sixth-grade English teacher and blogger at Writing Mindset, writes, "As teachers, we are reminded that diverse texts are a way to access comprehension and unlock engagement in our students because students see themselves in our curriculums. The concepts of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors are more than analogies; they are points of access to be humans with our students." It's beneficial to all students to be exposed to many different cultures and genres of writing, with characters and authors of diverse demographics in order to enrich their understanding and experience.
Finding Books That Students Can Relate To
To meet the growing demand, organizations like We Need Diverse Books have sprung up, advocating for changes in the publishing industry to "produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people." The Children's Book Council has adopted a Diversity Initiative committed to promoting diverse voices in literature for young people. Goodreads has book lists for youth featuring non-Caucasian protagonists in every genre of literature. Edutopia's book lists include diverse choices selected by teachers for all grade levels.
Scholastic Books asked readers to explain why diversity in books mattered to them. The responses illustrate why diverse books are so important.
"That is the power of a diverse book: You can change everything for one kid, and you create empathy in 100 more."
"Students who aren't exposed to people different from them have the chance to learn through books and understand that while we may appear to have many differences, we still really truly do have much more in common. Books can do this!"
"When you open a book and read of a character that thinks, feels, and loves the way that you do, you feel less alone. You feel more validated and confident in your identities to see a story map out your heart and soul."
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