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Inspired Ideas

The Link Between Literacy and Diversity in PreK-12 Classrooms

Students’ encounters with literature can be powerful vehicles for fostering educational equity. However, they can just as easily become barriers to diversity, inclusion, and opportunity when approached from a narrow lens. In this installment of our virtual Spring into Literacy Symposium, hear from Bill de la Cruz, equity leader, Dr. Christian Sawyer, Denver Public Schools Director of Schools, and Dr. Michelle Marin, the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the University of Washington’s Information School. Watch the recording of their conversation here or read on for a review of their thoughtful conversation.

How is diversity linked to literacy?

Dr. Martin: I’m old enough, and old school enough, to have grown up on Dick and Jane basal readers: “See Jane run.” There were white kids in the books that I used to learn to read, and the only thing that I could see in the books as a part of my own life was Dick and Jane’s dog, Spot — I loved all the dogs I’ve ever had.

When all you see are children that don’t look like you, don’t live like you, and don’t have any of your experiences, you absorb the idea that those who make it into the literary record are those that count. If you never see yourself, your family, or your neighborhood represented in books, the message you absorb is that white people (and animals) count more than anyone else.

Researchers have found a strong link between high interest, self-selected books, and motivation to read. According to Allington and Gabriel, in successful programs, every student reads something that they choose. Additionally, students read more, understand more of what they read, and are more likely to continue reading when they can choose what they read.

Bill de la Cruz: After hearing all of that, I really understand why I wasn’t an avid reader. I don’t think I ever saw myself in books going through elementary, middle, and even high school. When I did, the depictions weren’t always positive. Even the ways that teachers portrayed someone that looked like me were sort of as an “other” or as an afterthought.

I also grew up with Dick and Jane, and with TV reflected through a white lens — particularly with families. I internalized that and thought there was something wrong with my family. Unconsciously, I took these things into school, and I know that affected my ability to connect with my teachers and the curriculum that was offered to me.

Dr. Sawyer: I’m relating on an intersectional level. I had one of the most moving moments of my career just last week when I had the opportunity to sit with a panel of LGBTQ+ students here in Denver. One of the resounding themes from that panel connects so powerfully — we have a generation of learners calling out that they don’t feel a connection to the literature they are being asked to read, to their experience and identity.

As I listened, I thought about how in my time as a student, I never experienced the connection in literature these students are asking for. I experienced white privilege, in seeing and reading about white characters, particularly white male characters. But I never saw LGBTQ+ characters in fictional books, in historical representations, or even in math problems. In college, I went looking for any book that would represent LGBTQ+ experiences, and I found one relevant book in the back of the library, in which someone had handwritten, “Keep going.”

What does the concept “mirrors, windows, and doors” mean in relation to literacy?

Dr. Martin: Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote an article called Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. In it, she says that mirrors are those books that reflect your experiences, windows allow you to look into the life of someone that doesn’t look like you, and sliding glass doors are those immersive reading experiences where you leave behind all things real and tangible to enter a new world. Dr. Sims Bishop maintains that everyone needs access to all three types of reading experiences.

Dr. Sawyer: Dr. Marie Hardenbrook conducted research on teacher narratives — she asserted that when teachers explore and encounter their own journey first, they’re able to usher in more inclusive conversations in their literacy instruction. She wrote, “Re-envisioning literacy education may be lost without a deeper understanding of ourselves as educators.” It’s particularly important for white and heteronormative journeys to be explored for bias while opening more inclusive texts for learners. Inauthentic or superficial attempts at inclusive conversations in the classroom aren’t nearly as impactful and can sometimes reinforce stereotypes.

Bill de la Cruz: I think this is a lot about having teachers model reflection and behavior to students. If they aren’t doing their own work, how can they have a conversation with students that’s authentic rather than performative? Adults set the culture that the kids come into. Even with the most diverse curriculum, it will be difficult to transfer that learning, creativity, and curiosity to the students if the adults aren’t comfortable with the conversations.

How can we leverage literacy to prepare students to be active and engaged citizens?

Dr. Martin: Paulo Freire talks about Banking Model of education, which essentially is about replicating what already is: Teaching students the way you were taught, making sure that they can leave school and be a worker. On the other hand, he also talks about the Problem-Closing Model of education, which is about students thinking critically, being engaged citizens, and shaking things up.

We need to cultivate critical thinking so that when something isn’t right, you don’t just sit down and take it. Instead, you say, “I want to run for that office.” It’s about teaching kids to think — really THINK. It’s about listening to kids, observing who they are and what they bring, and teaching them that they can cause change.

Dr. Sawyer: I’m thinking about James Baldwin’s quote, “The purpose of art is to bare the questions which have been hidden by answers.” I remember a very gifted teacher who led her STEM class in an exploration of nonfiction texts around sustainable energy. There was a lot of deficit-framed thinking around her community of students, even by other educators. But they took their learning from those texts and designed a prototype of an iPad app that would help families in their neighborhood make sustainable energy choices. They went on to win a national STEM competition and present at SXSW. In her classroom, literacy is so much more than a measured test score — it’s the exploration of unfound answers, of questions that have yet to be considered.

Bill de la Cruz: I once asked a math teacher if he teaches critical thinking, and he said, “Absolutely.” So, I asked, “How do you do it?” and it was quiet, just like that. He realized that he had assumed that because he teaches math, he teaches critical thinking. We talked about how there’s a difference between students who can tell you the definition of a critical thinker, and students who can tell you the behaviors of a critical thinker. A few weeks later he told me that he changed his practice in such a way that sparked his students to ask questions about critical thinking and what they can do with critical thinking.

The challenge with creating critical thinkers is that we’ll also create students that challenge what we do. That scares a lot of people because they don’t want to be challenged! When districts ask me to work with their students, I tell them that first I need to work with their staff, because the staff has to be ready for what the students are going to bring.

What can a teacher do today to create a more equitable classroom?

Dr. Martin: See kids, listen to kids. Sometimes teachers are so busy, and so tied up with paperwork, that they don’t have time or take time to really get to know their students. It’s not about listening to them or at them, but observing them. If you have a student that says they like one kind of book, but you see them reading something else — because to be cool or accepted that’s what they need to like — being able to slide them a book on what they’re truly passionate about can help them find their spark.

Bill de la Cruz: Listen to be responsive instead of reactive. When you’re reactive, you’re already in your head, formulating what you want to say. When you’re responsive, you really have to be with that person. Additionally, do your own work. Explore your own awareness and willingness to step out of your own box. Look at your practices: Are they status quo practices? Will they get us to the equitable outcomes we’re looking for? Do this outside of judging, blaming, or shaming yourself. Be kind to yourself, explore yourself, and be more authentic in how you bring literacy to life for students who are different from you.

Dr. Sawyer: I believe that teaching is a team sport in so many ways. Particularly for our white, straight, and cis colleagues, colleagues with privilege: What are we doing each day to create an inclusive space among the educators in our community, and to learn from our colleagues? As a white man, I need to ask myself, what am I doing to ensure that my BIPOC colleagues’ voices are lifted up? I can learn from the insights and honor the diversity in the team that I’m working with. When educators feel that they’re working in an inclusive environment, that flows into the student experience.

Watch more on-demand webinars about the Science of Reading, blended learning, and more by visiting our virtual Spring into Literacy Symposium. Stay tuned for another post adapted from this same webinar, focused on equity in the context of history and lived experiences.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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