How to Diversify a Classroom Library

As protests against racial injustice spread to communities large and small in this year, many educators have been pushed to examine how systemic racism harms students. Some have publicly proclaimed the steps they will take to create anti-racist schools, including diversifying classroom and library bookshelves. That task may be easier than ever, thanks to six years of advocacy by the We Need Diverse Books campaign. “There’s no excuse for the books in your classroom and the books in your library not to be reflective of the population in the U.S. That needs to be a goal,” said Michelle H. Martin, the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington Information School. More than half of U.S. public school students are children of color, but Martin’s exhortation is for educators in majority-white schools, too. “If you only ever read books by people who look like you and who live like you, that’s intellectual poverty because you don’t ever see into the life of someone else from their perspective,” she said.

Yet with multicultural books comprising 23% of children’s books in 2018 — compared with 50% featuring white protagonists and 27% featuring non-human characters — the children’s publishing landscape is still not equal. And building a classroom library that offers “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors” to all children is more than a numbers game. It requires thoughtful curation of who is represented and how. Stocking classroom library shelves with diverse and inclusive texts is one step toward more equitable schools, but it’s not enough to buy the books and stop there, according to educators like Martin. She shared some additional suggestions for engaging students around diverse stories.

  • Evaluate older books that are already in your classroom. “Weeding is something that good libraries do and something we as classroom teachers don’t always think about,” said Stringfellow. That may mean having to let go of books you loved as a child that hold damaging representations of certain groups.
  • Assess how diverse texts show up in the curriculum.“That sends a message to kids, as well,” said Stringfellow. “If the diversity in your curriculum is put in the ‘optional’ reads that’s also something to consider and think about why that is.”
  • Teach students to think critically about what they read, watch and listen to. Encourage them to ask questions about creators’ choices, such as: Who is represented? Whose voices are left out? Who has power or agency in the story? “When we’re having those conversations it’s interesting to look at the patterns and that’s when I think students can start to connect the dots and make connections to the real world,” said Stringfellow. Martin said those critical thinking skills are especially important with the amount of misinformation and disinformation kids can access today. “If you don’t have some strategies for filtering out what’s truth and what’s lies, then you’re just duped and you’re doomed.”
  • Find alternative ways to bring new voices and narratives to students. Martin suggested inviting parents, grandparents or other community members to class to tell stories that might not be found in published books. “There are lots of ways to get to the stories,” she said.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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