Seeing Themselves in Books

Take a cue from this teacher during National Book Month— audit your classroom library!

Reading aloud to students was one of my favorite activities when I was a teacher. After recess, my sweaty students would clamor into our darkened classroom and gather on the carpet in front of my reading chair. With a single lamp behind me illuminating the area, chapter book in hand, it made for a cozy experience.

For years I relied on some of my favorite books for read aloud: Where the Red Fern Grows; James and the Giant Peach; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Hatchet; Frindle; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and many others. Our class shared these books together, and we bonded over them, practically living them.

What I didn’t bother to do was look and see the kids sitting in front of me, a diverse group representing many different races and cultures. I failed to recognize that the books I chose and repeatedly referred to as “my favorites” and “the best” primarily represented myself: white, male, middle class.

I realized in that moment that my actions didn’t support my beliefs. Daily, I professed equality to my kids, how important it was that we respect and honor people’s races and cultures. That message was unintentionally negated by my read-aloud selections. Rarely did my Latino, Korean, Japanese, African, Arabic and other students see themselves in the books I was sharing, other than perhaps in a picture book or a basal reader. Rarely did my white students see characters that looked different from themselves or lived in non-Western cultures.

Even more shocking: the realization that this disconnect happened in my read aloud time and influenced the selection of books my students could access on a daily basis from my own personal classroom library.

One year I remember doing an activity with my kids where we sorted my huge classroom library into two groups: fiction and non-fiction. Partially it was an activity to reinforce for my students the definitions of those words, but also it was to bring to their attention my lack of non-fiction books available to them. When all was said and done, we realized that 97% of my classroom library was fiction, which we remedied together.

I wonder now what would have happened if we had done the same activity, only this time sorting my classroom library on different categories: based on the main character’s race, gender, culture, economic status, or any other identity category. I am afraid that the results would have been similarly skewed.

As educators who strive to realize the term “equitable” in our practice, it falls on our shoulders to find engaging, diverse literature written by and reflective of many different races, cultures, countries and socio-economic statuses. It means reaching out to other teachers, librarians, parents and community members for support and materials. It means trips to the library to enrich my collection. It means spending a moment just to ask the questions, “Does every student in my class see themselves in my library? Does every student in my class have an opportunity to see characters not like themselves in my library?”

The answer to both questions should be a resounding yes. Read-aloud time should be cozy, but it must also be diverse and worldly to truly bring us together again.

Hiller is a mentor to first- and second-year teachers in Oregon and a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.

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