ARTICLE

When Teachers Read the World

A teacher book group dedicated to reading diverse literature for young people and adults can foster cultural competence and support anti-bias teaching.

The book we’re discussing is Outcasts United by journalist Warren St. John. It’s the story of the Fugees, a youth soccer team in Clarkston, Georgia, made up of refugee boys from a dozen war-torn countries. At the book’s center is the team’s selfless but driven coach, a Jordanian woman named Luma Mufleh. We’re talking about a power struggle between the coach and players, precipitated by Mufleh’s demand that all team members crop their hair.

One teacher in our group, a soccer coach himself, has just defended her tough-love, high-standards approach: “Cohesion is foundational in team sports, in team-anything.” Others aren’t so sure. “Refugee kids have been stripped of their autonomy and individuality so many times in their lives,” someone responds. “Isn’t this taking choices away from them again?” Others worry about an overreach that impinges on students’ rights. “But the mothers supported the coach on this!” another adds. The conversation flies around the room, faces animated. Six p.m. arrives before we’re ready to end our gathering.  

Welcome to our teacher book group!

We’re dedicated to reading diverse literature for young people and adults, which helps foster cultural competence and support anti-bias teaching. For almost a decade, the professional development center for global education at Primary Source, an education nonprofit in Massachusetts, has hosted this book group for teachers. We meet five afternoons during the school year, reading on a different theme each year—Black Lives Matter, global migration stories and dystopian visions around the world, to name a few.

Allow your shared passion for students and for equitable education to be a foundation for all of your conversations.

Along the way, Primary Source has grown to appreciate the professional development power this simple structure promotes. A book group is a form of teacher-driven, peer-supported learning. Discussions on books from around the globe can jumpstart challenging conversations about privilege, power and practice. The messiness of literature, with each work’s conflicts and complex human choices, has helped participants probe varying assumptions and beliefs, a process fundamental to anti-bias teaching and learning.

Though the low-cost and low-effort format is appealingly simple, there’s more to the group than meets the eye. The following strategies highlight some of those “hidden” benefits and can help maximize the anti-bias potential of a teacher book group.    

 

Assemble a diverse community of readers.

Reach out to the full span of your school community. School librarians and English teachers are the backbone of our group each year, but teachers of English language learners, social studies, world languages and science have also joined us. Guidance counselors, special education aides and a speech and language pathologist have joined in, too. Our discussions benefit immeasurably from the varied experiences and perspectives of our participants—urban and suburban, racially diverse, U.S.- and foreign-born. If your school or district staff is relatively homogeneous, consider partnering with a cluster of communities in your region. Video conferencing could allow you to read with teachers in a community quite different from your own.

 

Read beyond boundaries.

Reading from a number of different cultures and perspectives builds threads of insight and identification that are the substrate of empathy. Author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang calls this “reading without walls.” Choose books that take you into unaccustomed places, unfamiliar lives. This year we walked alongside Enaiat, a Hazara Afghan boy fleeing the Taliban, in his years-long journey to asylum in Italy (In the Sea There Are Crocodiles). This simple but searing account, through the eyes of a child, gave us deeper understanding of the world’s refugee crisis than most of us thought possible.

Yang invites readers to breach a different wall as well: the boundary of genre. Include a wide range of text types and styles on your multicultural reading list. In our transnational, boundary-crossing era, many young people find their paths to identity through textual hybridity. Opening yourselves to books and other text types that cross boundaries can help you listen differently to the young people you teach.

 

Engage authentic voices.

Choose works in translation or as-told-to texts, such as Queen of Water. Memoirs and personal narratives have been among our favorite book group selections for their textured and often intimate views of other lives. Yet reading books steeped in unfamiliar settings can be an obstacle to understanding. Listen to author interviews or TED Talks for background. Invite local scholars or journalists with firsthand knowledge of people, places and events to give you broader context. Consider asking an author whose work you read to participate in a live video chat with your group. We do so once a year and find we cover much ground in a 30-minute conversation.

Many tools can steer you to the best global book picks. We Need Diverse Books is one site we follow avidly. And the global literature resource guide from Primary Source highlights K–12 fiction and nonfiction with elementary, middle-grade and high school choices.

 

Establish group trust to ease the way into difficult conversations.

Think about setting respectful, inclusive discussion norms for your group, and share the norms you use with your own students. Ensure that all voices in your group are heard. Use a variety of discussion starters and formats, those that raise up quieter voices and those that favor a variety of processing styles. Listen without judgment when opinions differ, but don’t be afraid to disagree. If you always have consensus or never experience dissonance with what you read, you probably aren’t going deeply enough into the texts or their implications.

Above all, allow your shared passion for students and for equitable education to be a foundation for all of your conversations.

Zeiger is a program director at Primary Source, a global education nonprofit based in Massachusetts. 

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