When I taught grade 3 in the States my students asked if they could take a look at our classroom library after seeing the hashtag #weneeddiversebooks. We dumped out all of our books on the floor and separated them into categories. Books with animals as the characters, books with white characters, books with black main characters and so on. The kids were horrified to realize that we had more books about animals than any minority. We had no books about Native Americans- a fact that crushed my student’s hearts. Educators all over should recognize this problem. We need diverse books in the classroom that reflect the backgrounds of students in the our classroom. As an International teacher the same problem persists. This time the cultures are different but there is a lack of representation within my classroom library.
Why Representation Matters
Children learn about the world through literature. They learn about friendships through the ups and downs of their favorite characters. They learn about the lives of others when they pick up biographies. Children learn about families and love. They learn values like respect, compassion, and responsibility through books. Stories help children make meaning of the world. When students don’t see themselves represented in texts it doesn’t help them find their place in the world. When they continually see families, children, or friends that don’t reflect their own lives they begin to understand that they might not have a place in the world. They start to see themselves as different and other instead of the important members of society that they are. When we don’t expose our majority students to characters and people who are different from them we are also doing them a disservice. We are teaching them that everyone in the world is just like them. This doesn’t prepare them to function in a society with many cultures.
Windows and Mirrors
I try to teach my students that books are a mirror, reflecting their own lives, and a window, giving them a peek into someone else’s. -Donalyn Miller
Mirrors offer the opportunity for a child to see themselves reflected through the plot and characters.
- Kids who physically look like them
- Families who are have a similar structure to their own
- People who love the same way they do
Windows offer the opportunity for a child to see different lifestyles reflected through the plot and characters.
- Kids who look differently than they do
- Families with different structures than their own
- People who love differently than they do
I’m currently teaching grade 1 in Poland. While we have different cultures reflected in our classroom than in the States, I believe that this project could be recreated anywhere.
At the start of the year we invited parents to come into our classroom to share books about their culture in order to begin to grow the mirror books (and for some the windows) within our classroom. First we requested that parents find a book, preferably in English, that reflects some aspect of their culture.
Culture is a loose term and it can be defined in many different ways. In the international setting it can also be a difficult thing to pin down. Many students have parents from different cultures and grow up living in cultures other than their own. Letting families identify their own culture is extremely important. Having parents select books about their culture also ensures that the text represents the culture accurately. As a teacher, choosing texts about cultures other than your own can be difficult. You might not pick up on inaccuracies or biases that present themselves in the text.
We asked that parents bring two copies of their book if possible. One intended for our classroom library and one for our school library. Once families found their text they could sign up for a time slot through a Google Sheet. Parents listed the culture they would be representing and the topic they would be discussing. When families came they introduced their culture, shared their story, and answered any questions that students had. These presentations built up a community celebrating differences and working to understand each other.
We had families come in and share about sports, holidays, legends, and so many more interesting things. I shared a story about cheese because I am from Wisconsin and it is a big part of our lives! The stories are now kept in a special gold basket in our classroom. Here they can read their own story and many other stories to learn about each other.
How to recreate this project
- Recognize the need to add more diverse texts to your classroom library.
- Create a block of time for parents to come in and share cultural stories with the class. We used social studies time once a week to do so.
- Explain the project to parents. Instruct them to choose texts that represent their culture. These texts can be fiction or nonfiction about any aspect of their culture.
- Have parents sign up for times to come in and read.
- Parents will come in and read. Make sure that parents feel comfortable within your classroom. For some parents reading in front of kids can be intimidating. Help them feel welcome and at ease within the classroom.
- Find a cool basket to put these books in. Kids in my classroom love going to the gold bin and choosing their book or someone else’s book and reading it together.
If you try this project out in your classroom, please let me know! I would love to hear about it!