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How Can We Make Our Read-Aloud Curriculum More Inclusive?

During the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about our read-alouds — the curriculum and the need for our books to be more inclusive and diverse.

We know that for our classroom to be truly inclusive, we need to have books that allow our kids to see themselves. These types of books are called “mirrors.” In these books, students see themselves reflected. For our White students, this will be less of an issue. Most of the books we likely have in our classrooms and on our bookshelves have White characters. If you don’t believe me, take a moment to look. This will be less common for our Black and Brown, LGBTQ, Asian, all BIPOC, and disabled students. What are we saying to kids when we don’t have any books where they can see themselves? Where they can see a character who’s like them?

Bishop coined the phrase, “Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors” to explain how children see themselves in books and how they can also learn about others’ lives through literature. When books don’t serve as mirrors to children, Bishop says, “They learn a powerful lesson about how they’re devalued in society.” Jan 25, 2019. Read the full article here.

At a recent workshop with one of my reading gurus Donalyn Miller, she shared this Ted Talk with Grace Lin talking about windows & mirrors, which led me to this talk by Ahkhand Dugar.

“The absence of a book is a judgment against it.” Donalyn Miller

What does it say to other kids when we don’t have books that will give them a window into another person’s world, life, spiritual beliefs, religions, and experience? Donalyn Miller says, “The absence of a book is a judgment against it.” I hadn’t thought about this before, but it really affected me and made me stop to think when I heard her say it.

In a 2019 report, out of the 3,716 books they surveyed, here are the percentages of main characters:

As a middle school reader, I loved romance novels. My favorite series was Sweet Valley High. The main characters were White and straight. At the time, I didn’t think about the fact that there were no books in our classroom about boys who loved boys or girls who loved girls. It was the 80s, and being gay didn’t even seem to be a thing then. At least, that’s what I thought. I think back and wonder if I would have been able to find myself and be more comfortable in my skin at a younger age had there been books for me about girls who loved other girls. I would have been able to see that I was perfectly normal.

I was 28 years old when I finally came out, and it was a grueling experience for me. I didn’t know any kids in high school that were out. I didn’t know anyone in college that was out either. In my mind, there was something wrong with it. I can say with certainty that the first book I ever read with gay characters was as an adult after coming out.

Also, I can hardly remember ever reading a book where the main character was Jewish until I read Night by Elie Wiesel, and then as an adult read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. These were books about Jewish oppression, which were helpful but didn’t paint the whole picture.

During this past year, all of the racial unrest has me looking at everything I read and see more critically. I’m looking at things with a clearer lens now and paying attention to how many Black and/or Brown or gay characters there are. It’s great to see that the TV and film industry is paying more attention to this, but I also see a pattern. It seems that the books, TV shows and movies we typically consume tend to focus on the oppression of the marginalized group. For example, take a holiday romantic-comedy movie like “Happiest Season.” Sure, it’s great that we have two attractive lesbians as the main characters but why is every movie with lesbians about coming out? About other people feeling a distinct way about their sexuality? The same goes for movies, TV, and books about Black and Brown folks. Is everyone you watch about their oppression? Will there be books, TV shows, and movies that show them living a normal life just like every other person? Now that would truly be groundbreaking.

Here are some of my favorite resources and people to help you in your journey towards finding more inclusive and diverse books:

  1. Pernille Ripp is one of my reading teacher heroes. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and sign up for her newsletters (especially if you’re a middle school educator).
  2. Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and read her blog posts. She’s awesome!
  3. The Brown Bookshelf: African American Children’s Book Project’s Best Picture Books of 2020. This group led a town hall a few months ago led by Black and Brown authors. Here’s the link to it on Facebook.
  4. We Need Diverse Books. A common one recommended by lots of experts.
  5. Clare Landrigan, author of It’s All About the Books. She’s a wizard at creating book rooms. Here are some my favorite things from her:
    a. Winter 2020 Virtual Bookroom,
    b. Great books to have conversations around right now,
    c. YouTube on how to set up a virtual book room
  6. 20 Books with LGBTQ characters your kids will love. A helpful list if you don’t have these on your bookshelf yet.

This is an invitation to stop and think about your read-aloud books.

What else could you be doing to create a more inclusive classroom library?
What read-aloud books can you include to help kids feel seen and understood?

Remember what Donalyn says, “The absence of a book is a judgment against it.”

Please share it with a fellow educator or on your favorite social media channels if you enjoyed this article.

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