3 Questions to Ask for a Critical Re-Evaluation of Your Classroom Library

“Really, Mrs. Ripp, another book about Civil Rights?” Spoken by one of my African American students as I pulled out the picture book I intended to use in our mini lesson.

Another book about Civil Rights….

His words followed me all of the way home.  Not because I was worried he didn’t know enough but because of what had followed those first words.

“You always pick those books…”

And he was right.  In my eagerness to embed more knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement into our mini lesson on advice from older characters, I wasn’t thinking about his representation to the rest of our mostly white class.  How once more what I showcased only supported a familiar narrative.  His words prompted a realization that seemingly the only picture books I used or that we even had in our classroom library featuring African Americans in them had to do with either slavery or Civil Rights.  Not every day life.  Not non-famous African Americans.  Just those two topics.  This realization has shaped a lot of my book purchasing decisions as of late and just how much work I still have to do.

I have been focused a lot on diversity of books, it’s hard not to when our world seems to need understanding, empathy, and fearlessness more than ever.  While our classroom library has been ever expanding with more diverse picks, I have realized through the help of my students that diversity is not enough.  That simply placing books that feature anything but white/cisgender/Christian characters in them is not enough.  It is a start, sure, but then how do we go further than that?

We ask ourselves; how are characters represented?

Prompted by the comment from my student, I now look for how characters of any race/skin color/culture are represented in all of our books.  Is everyone represented?  Even sub-groups that my students may not even be aware of?  Are we only showcasing one experience?  Are we only highlighting the famous people of that sub-group?  Are we only representing one narrative of a group of people that live a myriad of narratives?  My own ignorance has often led to blunders, such as the one described here, but I can do better. I can make sure that the books I bring in lead to realizations and understanding about others, not more of the same.

So don’t just ask who is represented, but ask how are they represented?  How would I feel if my own children were represented in this way?

We ask ourselves; do we have #OwnVoices authors represented?

The #OwnVoices hashtag is one I have been paying attention to as I look at the diversity of our classroom library and even on my own reading experiences.  Started by Corinne Duyvis the hashtag focuses on recommending books written/illustrated “about marginalized groups of people by authors in those groups.”  That is why I know Google who the author is and what their background is as I decide on placing a book in the library.  That is why I read blogs like Disability in Kidlit  (soon to be shut down which breaks my heart), follow Reading While White which had an entire month dedicated to OwnVoices books,  and also try to educate myself on what is out there.  If we want true representation in our classrooms then we have to do the legwork to make sure all marginalized groups are represented in the books we share with students.

So don’t just ask do I have broad representation in characters, but ask do I have broad representation in authors/illustrators?

We ask ourselves; how are books highlighted and selected?

Gone are the days where I haphazardly selected books to put on display or book talk.  Now my displays and selection process takes a little bit more time; which books are put out to grab for students?  What do the covers look like?  Who are the stories representing?  I also do not “just” put African American books on display for February to celebrate Black history month, but have them out all of the time.  My students should be immersed in a diverse reading experience at all times, not just in carefully selected months.

So don’t just grab a few books to put out because they are new; grab books that will offer students a wide reading experience and will expose them to new authors/titles that will broaden their own world.  Do not reserve diverse texts for a few months but have them on display at all times.

While I have grown, I have a long way to go.  My wish-list of books right now are a few hundred titles deep, especially as I focus on the sub-groups that are severely underrepresented in our library.  I am still educating myself, seeking out new titles, and seeking out those that know more than me.  If you want to see books that are getting added to our classroom library, follow me on Instagram as I share all new titles there.

One picture book that I urging every one to read and buy is this one

when-we-were-alone

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson and Julie Fleet.  

From Amazon:

When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully colored clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

2 thoughts on “3 Questions to Ask for a Critical Re-Evaluation of Your Classroom Library

  1. Pernille, I’ve been thinking about this diversity of diversity issue too. What I would give for more stories about Guatemalan or Dominican characters. Or super-athletic, super-popular LGBT characters.

    My stopgap solution here is to prioritize reading and reviewing #ownvoices books that come across my desk.

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