Teachers! Choose Diverse Books!

Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian
Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian

In the past couple of weeks or so, there have been a couple of articles about the importance parents, librarians, and teachers have in exposing children and young adults to diverse voices. Matt de la Pena’s article, How We Talk (or Don’t Talk) About Diversity When We Read with Our Kids, focused on the little ones and how when we read with our children that instead of focusing on the “otherness” of the story, we focus on the actual story. Next, Lee and Low, in their blog post titled, Why Do We Need Diverse Books in Non-Diverse Schools?, went a step further discussing how diverse books need to be shared in a non-diverse classroom to help the children become more empathetic and open to other view points and ideas. Lastly, Sara Megibow of KT Literay, shared her experience of helping her son’s 4th grade teacher make the classroom library more diverse. In her blog post, Diverse Success Story, she shares her process of how she went about donating the books to the classroom. All of these three articles truly resonated with me as a teacher, and I thought I would add my voice to the discussion, sharing my experience how I go about choosing the books I use in my curriculum.

Last year, I had a conversation with the then 7th grade teacher about his reading list. His co-teacher happened to mention that they were reading books that had only one type of character; I’ll let you guess what type. I just happened to be sitting there and of course, I had to say something. His response, “Well, I wanted them to read the classics.” Argh! And then I let him have it. Okay, not really, just reminded him that our student population was 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African American and that it would be a good idea to include different voices into his reading list so the kids can see themselves reflected in the books they read. I reminded him that our goal is to not only teach, but to create life-long readers and when we force our kids to read the classics, we alienate them and turn them off reading. We also do not give them an opportunity to connect the literature to their lives, allowing them to become open-minded, well-rounded students. Needless to say, after that conversation, he changed up his reading list based on my recommendations. My point in sharing this story is that as teachers we MUST be mindful of the books we are presenting to our students. We cannot rest on sharing the “Western Literary Canon” anymore because the canon only represents one type of voice and excludes all others. Sure, you have Maya and Langston and Toni in there, but one would think that there were only great Black writers decades ago. Then again, the canon cannot include just Black and White writers. America is a plethora of diverse voices and our canon should represent all of those voices. That is why teachers should move away from reading straight from the “canon” and work to make a more inclusive reading list.

Group of Friends Smiling
So, about my process. I am lucky that I work in a school where I am able to create my own curriculum. I know many teachers do not have that freedom and are instead required to use a “pre-packaged” curriculum. However, in a Common Core workshop I went to a few years ago, we were informed that “pre-packaged” Common Core curriculum wouldn’t be ready until 2018, which leaves many teachers having to create their own curriculum for the first time. Freedom! I think this is a great opportunity for those teachers to show their creativity in the classroom and create some amazing, and enriching, learning experiences. One of the best ways to create these experiences and to open their students to different points of view is to use diverse books! This requires teachers to be thoughtful and strategic in their planning and perhaps conduct a bit of research. Let me assure you, however, that the results are worth it.

I’ve been teaching 8th grade now for about 8 years, so my curriculum is pretty much set, though I do change it up every year, adding books, changing books, changing units. Shoot, this year alone I changed one and added two books in the middle of the year! But, in deciding which books I want my students to read, I make sure that I have a variety of voices, both male and female lead characters, as well as find books that are different genres so students can find a genre they like to read and hopefully read similar books on their own. This year’s book list includes…

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (my Honors class read this)
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Honors class again)
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Pregnancy Project by Gabi Rodriguez

Quite an impressive list, yes? You might be wondering how with Common Core pushing more non-fiction reading, how can I get away with basing my curriculum around novels. Well, I supplement the novels by using non-fiction that is related to the content of the novels in the classroom. By having my students read the novels and then reading non-fiction articles that deal with similar subjects in the classroom and using those to frame lessons, my students are able to truly learn about different lives, different places, different points of view, and therefore become more open-minded students. My students are able to connect with the literature in unique ways (my Honors students connected with Gatsby through their mutual hatred of Daisy, and Gatsby’s desire for the American Dream) and are always able to see mirrors as well as windows. Not all the students like every book (and that is okay), but they all at least find one book that they connect with and always, always, ask me for more books by that author. And honestly, love for reading is the takeaway I want my students.

Engaged students in our first annual Book Talk Day.
Engaged students in our first annual Book Talk Day.

If you are wondering where to begin, take a look at any award winners list, with the ALA being so diverse this year you can’t go wrong. Or, create a theme you’d like to focus on for the year and then search for books that have a similar theme. I usually begin 8th grade with units that focus on the self, and then second semester focus on issues that students are facing or will face (such as pregnancy). Lastly, since Common Core is encouraging cross-curriculum, why not try to tie books that fit another subject? When I taught 7th grade, I loosely tied my curriculum to the Social Studies curriculum. In CA the 7th grade Social Studies curriculum is World History, so I made sure that all of my books were either written by authors from around the world, or featured characters living in different countries. My students that year were exposed to Nnedi Okorafor and Thanhha Lai.

It takes a bit of research, work and planning to make sure you choose diverse books for your students, but as teachers, we are tasked with creating well-rounded, critical thinking, open-minded students. We have a stake in making our world more inclusive for everyone by showing diversity through the books we share with our students. We have the ability to allow our students to have the tough discussions about race, fairness, etc, by using novels. We have the “power” to help bring about change, we just have to be mindful with how we go about it. Making the decision to include diverse books is just one step.

PS. I will add that the topic of sponsoring a classroom and donating diverse books to students is a topic that came up at the Day of Diversity, so if that is something you are interested in, read Megibow’s blog and then get started on your own project. There are still 2 more months to the school year; it’s not too late!

One Reply to “Teachers! Choose Diverse Books!”

  1. Dear Ms. Tennyson,
    I love what you are doing in your classroom! When my daughter was in elementary and middle school, books with Asian main characters were nonexistent. I would visit each year with a Japanese story and craft. Once she was in 7th grade, she asked me to tell my mom’s story of experiencing the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. I proudly continue to present my mother’s story and now it will be published in August 2016.. I hope you might find, THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM, worthy of your curriculum 🙂

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