by Dr. Towanda Harris
I have the great honor of being an adjunct professor for early childhood undergraduate students at a Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) in Georgia. For those who don’t know, HBCUs were established in the United States early in the 19th century to provide undergraduate and graduate-level educational opportunities to Black students that were unwelcome at existing public and private higher education institutions. Years later, they continue to be a source of pride that celebrates and highlights Black excellence from our past, present, and future. That little history lesson should provide enough context for my story.
In class, we recently talked about the importance of representation in the curriculum and focused on Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop’s work around “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” Dr. Sims-Bishop says, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society in which they are a part” (Sims-Bishop, 1990). I asked my students to share their childhood experiences in the classroom around this topic. The experiences ranged from having a great elementary teacher that saw the importance of diverse stories to an elementary teacher that focused heavily on getting through the grade-level curriculum by any means necessary; however, there was one story that I will never forget. After several students shared, she came off of mute and shared a reflection in our virtual setting. She said, “Dr. Harris, I didn’t think about how problematic my experience was until now.” She told the class how she was one of three Black students in a predominately white classroom and how the teacher shared a pretty exciting upcoming project with the class. Each student would publish their book that they would be both the author and illustrator. The student that shared is both motivated and brilliant, so as you can imagine, she said that she quickly began working! The class worked on this project for about three weeks, and it was finally time to share. Each student read their book one by one, proudly sharing the rising action, antagonist, and protagonist while matching the characters’ illustrations as they beamed with pride. It was her turn, and she went page by page, drawing attention to the pictures of her characters and her detailed story to match; however, not one character looked like her. As a matter of fact, all of the characters in everyone’s stories were white. She gasped and paused as our class nodded in agreement about similar experiences that we have had.
So, what happened?
It’s pretty simple. The students visualized and imagined the examples of stories that they were exposed to throughout the school year. The curriculum took precedence over making authentic connections with students. Planning for authentic reading and writing experiences was overshadowed by the pressure of reading each book title in the curriculum by the end of the year. Don’t get me wrong. Providing opportunities for students to publish their stories is an excellent way to help students connect to their learning but using all parts of the curriculum to help students see themselves in the learning is just as important.
The 2018 Diversity in Children’s Books study compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center revealed that there is much more work to do. The latest study showed that there continues to be a misrepresentation of underrepresented communities. In 2018, the dominating characters depicted in children’s books were white (at 50%) and animals (at 27%), and sadly African/African American, Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific American, Latinx, and American Indians/First Nations totaled the rest. The titles included in the very curriculum, that we are using today in our classrooms, are pulling from this same study. We must intentionally choose diverse titles to invite various perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences into our daily learning.
So how can we begin this work?
I work with teachers across the country to help them rethink planning for literacy instruction with their students. We think about ways to choose the right tools to connect with the most essential piece of the puzzle… our students. Here are some ways that you can begin this work:
Swapping Titles- It’s ok, I promise. We can teach about “community helpers” with titles other than the suggested list in a basal program. Don’t get me wrong. Teaching thematic units helps make learning relevant, but if you preview the stories before the unit begins and find that it is a stretch to connect the individuals and experiences to your learners, then let it go. I suggest finding more relevant titles that your students can see themselves in and is more culturally responsive. By being more culturally responsive, you recognize the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings, 1995).
Pairing Text- Alright, I hear you, some titles are required to be on the scope and sequence list; however, that does not absolve us from ensuring that we are inclusive in our instruction. Pairing a text with another text with different experiences and perspectives helps our students make connections to the learning. For example, the story “Cinderella” can be paired with “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” because of their similar plots; students can discuss the lessons that the characters learned while making connections to their own experiences.
Short Reads- Try sandwiching a variety of short multimodal texts between longer texts in your units. Exposing students to articles, storyboards, picture books, social media posts, posters, and more give your students more opportunities to experience and discuss other perspectives while making connections to themselves and the world around them.
Of course, this is not the only way to be more diligent in our efforts, but it is a start. You can also strengthen your toolkit with additional resources. To name a couple, helpful resources by #DistruptTexts offer “alternative titles and approaches through thoughtful pairings, counter-narratives, and inclusive, diverse texts sets.” Also, Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul developed some useful Anti-racist/Anti-bias (ABAR) Educator Guides that accompany several children’s books in our libraries. Just know that this is a never-ending journey. It is our responsibility, our duty, and our honor to make connections with our students throughout each learning experience within our classrooms each day.
Dr. Towanda Harris has been a teacher, staff developer, literacy content specialist, and instructional coach. Currently an Instructional Leadership Coordinator and an adjunct professor of reading and writing in Atlanta, Georgia, she brings almost twenty years of experience to the education world. Towanda is the author of The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. You can follow her on Twitter @drtharris and IG @harrisinnovationcg.