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Racial Justice in the Reading Classroom

After noticing that some of the books we grew up reading were less than inclusive and made for attitudes about our neighbors that had to be unlearned, we started do parents and educators find books that both explicitly and implicitly support a cornerstone of our theology--that all people are made in the image of God? We've asked a number of justice-minded parents and educators for their thoughts. Today we hear from Laura Veenema, a literacy tutor and mom in Chicago. 

Growing up as a child with white skin, I witnessed first hand many adults who looked and sounded like me graduating from college and earning promotions and investing in houses. I saw in the media people who looked and sounded like me living happy and successful lives. And I read in books about children who looked and sounded like me playing and learning and growing. All around me were wonderful white examples of wealth and respect. I dreamed of the great woman I could become because of the examples I internalized from life, media, and literature.

But what if I had not been able to see so many models of success? What if I had not had access to media which positively portrayed people who looked and sounded like me? What if I had no books showing me what people who looked and sounded like me could achieve? This is the situation with which many children of color in the United States are faced. According to the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 3% (93 of the 3,200) children’s books published in 2013 were about African Americans (Myers, 2014) and only 2% (68 books) were written by African Americans in 2013 (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 2014). 

The history of the portrayal of African Americans in children’s literature is worth noting when considering why such inequity exists in the genre. In the early 20th century, African Americans were presented in children's literature almost exclusively as subservient, ignorant, and greedy. Titles like The Story of Little Black Sambo (1923) by Helen Bannerman and Ten Little Ni--- (1939) by Agatha Christie were read in schools and living rooms nationwide. There were no – zero - African American voices in authorship or publication at that time. From 1940 to 1970, portrayals of white children dominated children's literature, with a few exceptions of African American characters as depicted by white authors. It wasn’t until after the Civil Rights movement that publishers began to recognize and legitimize African American authors and characters in children’s literature.

Then authors of color like Julius Lester and Rita Williams-Garcia began winning Newbery, Caldecott, and Coretta Scott King Awards. Authors and illustrators like Jerry Pinkney, Christopher Paul Curtis, Walter Dean Myers, and Kadir Nelson have slowly begun to make change in the landscape of children’s literature. There are still many miles to go, though, if children of color are going to be equally represented in what they read. Racism has been steeped in those pages for decades, so publishers, teachers, and parents must practice intentionality in order to bring restoration to the problem.

Teachers in particular face significant challenges when trying to incorporate justice into their curriculum. The first is that of resources. The dream of introducing new literature to students is thwarted when schools are already cash-strapped. Another challenge teachers face is time. Teachers can attest that instruction time is stolen by state testing, behavior and discipline issues, student needs, other academic services (speech, therapy, remediation, etc.), and vacations. When time is finite and pressure to succeed on standardized tests are high, priority is often given to curricular needs other than reading about and discussing issues of social justice. A third obstacle teachers face when trying to incorporate discussions about social justice is, simply, the challenge of change. Reorienting mindsets to be attuned to issues of justice is difficult enough, but the actual, practical work of rewriting lessons plans, gathering materials, and delivering unfamiliar (and sometimes uncomfortable) instruction presents a hurdle for many teachers. 

There are many practical and effective ideas, though, for teachers who want to be intentional about incorporating issues of justice into their reading lessons. One way of bringing current social justice issues into the reading classroom is by having students conduct close or guided readings of nonfiction news stories. The website provides news articles that are leveled according to Lexile scores. Teachers could also purchase the news magazine for kids, “Junior Scholatic,” which is delivered to classrooms weekly. Students could be asked to read and write about nonfiction books like Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men who Changed America by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

Teachers can also intentionally choose fiction texts that feature protagonists of color. Elementary-aged children could read or hear award-winning books like Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Brian Collier, and The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Students in middle grades could engage in leveled book study groups while reading Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt, Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon, or One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. High school teachers could lead students in studying the writing of Walter Dean Myers, Sharon G. Flake, or even Harriet Beecher Stowe. 

When studying poetry, teachers can feature the work of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni. When studying author’s use of dialogue, teachers can prepare lessons that legitimize African American Vernacular English by reading Christopher Paul Curtis’ Mighty Miss Malone, Patricia McKissack’s Flossie and the Fox, or Patricia Polacco’s Chicken Sunday. When studying the history of American literature, teachers can highlight the cultural importance of Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Douglass’ slave narratives, or the many pieces of fiction, poetry, and drama that emerged in the Harlem Renaissance. 

It is important to emphasize that all of these publications must be accompanied by sensitive, intentional dialogue. Teachers must thoughtfully lead students through the sometimes difficult discussions about racial justice and inequality. Schools must celebrate the progress that has been made in this country already, highlight past and current fighters of racism, and incorporate lessons of justice into curricula in order to shape future difference-makers. When teachers demand literature by and about people of color, publishers will listen. The hope of educators is that as more issues of justice are woven into students’ lessons, children of all ethnicities will feel represented, respected, and empowered.

Interested in other installments in this series? Have a look: Alyssa VanErden (3rd grade teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan), Liza and Steve van de Hoef (parents in Belleville, Ontario), and Dorothy Vaandering (former Grade 3 teacher and professor in restorative justice in education in Newfoundland). 

[Image: Flickr user Presidio de Monterey]


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