According to the lunar calendar, the new year begins on February 12th in 2021, ushering in the year of the ox. As this new year approaches, it’s reminding me of how I mishandled this important holiday for far too long. Each year, I’d search through my books to pull out the ones showing how the holiday is celebrated, read Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac, maybe do a related art project, and call it a day. It was the epitome of “holidays and heroes” teaching. Given my experience with representation in books and the curriculum, it’s surprising that I didn’t see how problematic this was. Just as I wrote about in this blog post about MLK Day and Black History month, I wasn’t giving my students the whole story.
In this article, you’ll read about my experience and what you can do to create a more culturally responsive classroom.
My experience as a Chinese-American growing up in Southern California.
Zero. That’s how many books I read as a child that featured a Chinese-American character like me.
Here are the books I did read that featured Chinese (not Chinese-American) characters:
If this was supposed to count as representation, that ain’t it, as the kids say. Two of these stories are actually folktales: Tikki Tikki Tembo has its origins in Japan, but in this “modern” interpretation, it’s set in China, and The Five Chinese Brothers is an adaptation of an old Chinese legend, The Ten Brothers. The Story About Ping seems to be an original story with a Chinese duck as the protagonist. Notice the authors of all of these books — none written by a Chinese author.
You might be thinking, “Well you’re… ahem, from a different generation. It’s so much better now.” It’s true, there are many more books available than when I was a kid, but in my research for this article, I found a video read-aloud of The Five Chinese Brothers from 2017! It wasn’t even the updated version, The Seven Chinese Brothers. There’s still work to do.
The lack of representation hit me.
I tell you this because this lack of representation or this distorted representation profoundly affected me as a child and adolescent. I only saw myself in texts and other media as “foreign,” “exotic,” or ”other.”
I did everything I could to try to fit in with the white, dominant culture. I attempted to dye my hair blonde. (Fun fact: Sun In doesn’t give black hair blonde highlights; it turns orange). I also refused to eat my mom’s home-cooked Chinese food — I carry many regrets about all the delicious meals I missed.
What I realized just recently is that the lack of representation also affected my identity as a writer. It wasn’t until last year (y’all, I’m 50) after reading Kelly Yang’s book, Front Desk, that I envisioned the possibility that I too could write a children’s book about my experiences as a Chinese-American kid. Of course, I probably haven’t written enough to write as good a book as Kelly Yang, but that’s another story. If students are still reading the old version of The Five Chinese Brothers or only see themselves during one day or month throughout the year, there’s a good chance they’re suffering similar negative effects that I did.
A few weeks ago, our founding director, Dahlia Dallal, wrote about her own experience with lack of representation and shared several resources for finding diverse texts. Check it out here.
Representation matters, but we know that stocking books in the library isn’t enough.
What do we need to do with those texts so that all students thrive?
I had the opportunity to learn more about culturally responsive pedagogy and read-alouds from educator and author, Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul. She shared the importance of two areas of cultural competence that are often forgotten, but necessary for all students, especially our BIPOC students, to thrive: positive racial and cultural identity and critical consciousness. BIPOC students need to see themselves represented not merely as members of a marginalized or oppressed group but also in a positive light. They need to be seen not only as victims of injustice but agents of change. To be agents of change, community members who actively work to disrupt systems of inequality, we need to help students recognize and understand those systems.
Read alouds are one way that we can do this work with our students. Here are some tips I learned from Dr. Cherry-Paul:
- Choose a text that’s about and authored by a BIPOC. Authors who write about their lived experiences can offer a much more nuanced portrayal of characters that share their identities. You’ll also want to be sure that the text is culturally affirming and provides opportunities to develop critical consciousness. Be aware of not just showing oppression but also strength and joy.
- Plan for students to interact with the text that explicitly addresses cultural competence and critical consciousness. Just as you would mark spots in a text with prompts for students to think about character and theme, mark spots that highlight cultural identity and systems of injustice. You might try prompts that sound like this:a. How is the character’s identity similar to yours or different?
b. What part of this book is a mirror for you? Window?
c. What bigger problems in our community or our world is this making you think about?
- Lead students in grand conversations around these same ideas. Dig deeper into the work. Help kids explore issues of race and inequality and ways that they can be agents of change.
In Chinese folklore, each animal of the zodiac manifests different personality traits. The ox and people born in the year of the ox are believed to be hardworking, persistent, and trusted. Let’s be like the ox and do the hard work necessary to combat racial injustice in our classrooms and schools and help our students thrive.
I can’t wait to hear about the read alouds you’ll be planning and delivering!
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