Thoughts on Diversity in Classroom Libraries

For the past few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the lack of diversity in children’s literature. As a straight, white, middle class female who grew up with a mom, a dad, and one sibling (and is now in a family that is exactly the same), I had no trouble seeing myself in literature. I have trouble naming books that showed me people different from me during my childhood. Aside from boys. There were plenty of boys in books I read.

I teach a graduate class in elementary literacy. Tonight, instead of meeting on campus, we met in my classroom. The main goal for class tonight was to spend some time analyzing my classroom library.

We focused on race, gender roles for kids, gender roles for adults, and family structure. There are so many other things we could have examined, but time is finite. Quickly these graduate students noticed how rare it is to see a person of color in children’s literature, how traditional gender roles for both children and adults are pervasive, and how stereotypical family structures are overwhelmingly the norm. They were wise enough to note that this is true in a classroom library they know has had significant effort made to be diverse.

We had some great conversations. My goal was simply to raise their awareness of the lack of diversity in children’s literature and the need to have far more of it. These are students who want to be literacy specialists in schools. They will likely have some say in purchasing decisions when it comes to books for their buildings. I want this to be in their heads.

I shared with them two stories about Rick Riordan. The first was about the cover of the various titles in his Kane Chronicles series. One of the main characters is very clearly Black in the books. Very clearly. And yet, in many editions of the book in other countries, he was being portrayed as white on the covers. To my understanding, authors often have very little control over the art in their books. Riordan has fought and managed to get some covers changed. (The editions of the Kane Chronicles that I have in my classroom have the main characters somewhat in shadow or silhouette, making race hard to determine. That’s certainly one option for publishers. Not a good one, in my mind.)

The second Riordan story is about his new Gods of Asgard series (Norse gods). The title character, Magnus Chase, is rescued (for lack of a better word) by Samirah, a Muslim teenage girl. In the second book, a new character is introduced who is gender fluid. I don’t know that Riordan is doing this perfectly. I’m sure there are ways in which he is screwing up writing about people so different from him. But he appears to be making a darn good effort to get it right. And he’s using his level of fame to make things happen in middle grade novels that might otherwise get squelched.

My one regret about class tonight is that we didn’t talk about diversity in authors. I know if I tallied up the books in my classroom library a significant percentage would be written by white men. Just one more thing I’m working on as I continually expand my collection.

Accountability Excessiveness

I haven’t written in a while because I’m having trouble prioritizing this. I think one of my challenges is that I don’t want to write junk but I know how much time it would take to write what I want to write. So I just put it off.

This isn’t going to be what I want to write. But at least it will be getting some of my thoughts out of my head and here instead.

from Gwydion M Williams’s flickr

I spent an hour and a half yesterday in training for our state standardized tests. I am now aware of how much time my students and I are going to need to spend exploring and understanding how to use the online testing program. There are so many tools and things for them to know before the tests in a month. So instead of spending time exploring books or nature or magnets or building blocks or something else, we’ll spend time exploring an online testing program. A program that likely costs my state a large amount of money.

I spent all day today in training to score binders for a state alternate assessment. In two weeks I’ll spend two days scoring. There were about 100 of us in training today. More folks will be trained tomorrow and Thursday. These alternate assessments are in binders (about 20,000 of them for our district) with many, many pages in each.

The time, energy, and money spent on accountability measures is horrifying to me. I’m not anti-accountability, but I’m anti-the-way-we’re-doing-it-now.

Parent Engagement Isn’t A One-Way Street

from tacit requiem’s flickr      


Why is parent engagement always looked at from the lens of wanting parents to come to school so we educators can tell them how to be better parents? The only other option that seems to be common is parents coming in to serve the school by volunteering in different ways. (And just as a slightly-irrelevant aside, why is it parent engagement? Given that we know many children are living with other family members as well as or instead of their parents, why don’t we talk about family engagement?)

An article, Goodbye parent-teacher conferences, hello poetry workshops: How New York City is redefining engagement, is what set off my current rant. It’s about Academic Parent Teacher Teams (APTT):

the approach focuses on teaching groups of parents to engage their children academically, and encourages them to talk about how their students are performing as a group — not just individually.

The idea isn’t terrible, but it has some serious flaws. Each of the sessions is designed to teach parents something about what and how their children are learning and how they can help. I have some issues there. But, in addition, during each session parents have time to talk to each other.

Hannah Yeats, a teacher at West Prep who co-facilitated the APTT session, shuttled around the room, occasionally encouraging some of the more timid parents to speak up or exchange phone numbers.

In the past, “parents had each other’s numbers — and that’s kind of faded,” Yeats said. “We need to create community. There aren’t structures in place to encourage that support system to be built.”

I will admit to having very few phone numbers (or email addresses) for any of my daughters’ friends’ families. I do wish our communities were tighter. (Not that I’m doing a dang thing to change that.) Families getting to know each other, if they don’t already, is helpful for their children, I believe. Communities and connections are healthy for us humans.

from Aaron & Jennie’s flickr

But, I think there are issues:

Parents were invited to three separate 75-minute sessions evenly spaced throughout the school year, typically led by one or more of their student’s teachers. They are given a chance to get to know each other, learn specific methods for talking with their children about schoolwork, and review their children’s progress on math and reading tests together.

Between sessions, parents are expected to bring the strategies developed at the APTT meetings home: Something as simple as asking probing questions about what a child is reading, or playing a game that requires using math concepts like factors and products.

So, teachers teach the parents what to do with their children and they review test scores together. Ugh. This is not a partnership in any way. This is the school wanting the parents to ‘partner’ with them in order to increase student achievement. But the view of partnering is that parents should do exactly what the school asks of them exactly as they ask them to do it.

There is no sense in this structure that parents have anything to offer the school or the teachers beyond following their directions. This is absurd. Parents know their children better than anyone else possibly could. We educators could do so much more for children if we viewed their families as true partners. As partners who have something to offer us, to teach us. If we viewed family engagement as a two-way street all groups (teachers, parents, and students) would benefit.

Also, don’t even get me started on this piece from the principal:

“In a school with low-performing students, and students who come in from low-income situations, we don’t get a lot of parent participation,” Washington said, pointing out that many students have parents who work multiple jobs or have been incarcerated.

Apparently this sort of program rather than parent-teacher conferences (although, those are still happening at this school alongside this program) is needed because this school has many low-income students. Blergh.

Parents, overwhelmingly are engaged with their children, whether they are low-income parents or wealthy ones. In general, the great majority of parents are working hard to do the right thing for their children. If we really want to engage families and schools together, one option would be to include the children. Don’t take away the most critical part of the equation. Bring families in together. Allow children to teach their families about what they’re doing in school. And good gracious, keep the test scores out of it!

School Buildings Can Do So Much

ASCD’s Empower17 was an astounding and exhausting few days in Anaheim, CA. I’m full of thoughts about it and what I learned there. While in CA I reflected and wrote for SmartBrief about the sessions I attended. If you’re curious about those, you can find them online. I wrote about the Successful Schools Showcase, a new feature at the conference. I also wrote about a session Robyn Jackson did on meaningful feedback. I was also lucky enough to hear Zuriel Oduwole (she’s a 14 year old filmmaker and awesome) speak and I wrote about that one. (I think I wrote one more piece that should be up soon.) If you’re interested in the conference in general, there are lots of pieces by many folks here.

Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, VA

The final session I attended was Bob Moje, a fellow Virginian. He’s not an educator, in the traditional sense, but is an architect. He and his firm have designed many schools in Virginia, such as Manassas Park Elementary School, Buckingham County Primary and Elementary Schools, and Discovery Elementary School. There are quite a few more listed on Bob’s page, but these are my favorite.

Energy Dashboard from Discovery Elementary School

We do so many things because it’s what we’ve always done or because it’s a habit. For many things that is just fine. We can’t analyze or question everything we do. But sometimes, we really need to take a step back and do some serious thinking. Listening to Bob talk about school design made that very clear to me. He talked about school design the way many educators talk about teaching. The idea that we need to ask what we want, what’s our goal, what do we need to get there, and what are the best options available to us.

The great majority of schools I’ve spent time in (as a student, as a teacher, as a parent, as a visitor) have looked pretty much the same. The shock and excitement at seeing something different, something innovative in a school says something about how rare that is. We know exactly what to expect when we visit a school, no matter where we are in the country. One of the biggest problems with that is that schools last a long time. A school building may be used for fifty years or decades longer. Renovations are expensive and limited. It’s difficult to take a shell and make it into something new. Typically renovations make that shell larger or newer-looking. Not different.

The fact is that the building in which a school, a group of learners, spends its time, makes a huge difference in how that time is spent. Our principal and librarian have been doing an amazing amount of work to renovate our school library. Their greatest challenge? Lack of money – no, although that’s a big one. Lack of ideas – not at all, there are plenty of those. Lack on innovation – no way, they are thinking very creatively. The greatest challenge is that the space is set. They can’t change the rectangle with the few windows very high up. If they want to try something new, they have to make it happen in that space.

There is such potential in school building design. But what we tend to do is what we’ve always done.

Quick Judgments Are Harmful

Yesterday afternoon we went to see Sing! Before the movie began I noticed the young girl sitting in front of me, about five or six years old. She was wearing a winter cap with words around the bottom of it. All I could make out were HERSCARO. I thought there was a break between the S and the C, but that wasn’t completely clear. I tried of lot of different possibilities, trying to figure out what her hat could say. Nothing was truly fitting. Finally, she turned some and I was able to make out that it was CAROLINA PANTHERS. Someone with more interest in sports would likely have been able to figure that out. I couldn’t.

It got me thinking about how often we make judgments based on only some of the information. It’s human nature to do so. But with social media we often make those judgments quite loudly now, rather than just to ourselves. There are positives and negatives to this fact.

This video has been flying around the internet. The first time I watched it was because it had been shared on twitter with the comment, “Frankly women have to do this all the time and we generally don’t get this flustered when it happens.” I watched the video and saw a frustrated dad, hilariously darling children, and a harried mom. I was really bothered by it. I saw the dad shove his daughter away without even looking at her. I saw the mom fly in, completely off balance, grab the kids, and skid out, dragging the door shut as she seems to be falling to the floor. The whole scenario made me uncomfortable.

Watch it now, can you see it through that lens?

I was genuinely worried about the mom because the way I was seeing the dad treat the children seemed so callous that I was afraid he was angry with her as well.

After much discussion on the internet I am seeing this video through a completely different lens. A friend pointed out that he probably can see his daughter on the screen so he’s not randomly just pushing out at her. That hadn’t crossed my mind. His facial expressions don’t look as angry to me now as they did when I first watched it. He does seem flustered, but not upset in the way I had seen before.

Another friend pointed out that the mom seems to be holding her pants up. I wonder if she had tried to take a quick bathroom break and the kids took off. It would also explain the way she is moving. It’s not that she’s scared of him, but that she’s scared of losing her pants as she tries to get her kids back out of the room.

I can watch the video now and be amused by it rather than angered. And feel some sympathy for both parents. But that took seeing it from different perspectives.

My response to the video landed me in hot water on social media as several people I don’t know called me racist. I’ve seen this label being put on many in response to this video because people have assumed the mom is a nanny. I never suggested that because that didn’t even cross my mind. But apparently the way I was seeing the mom made me racist. Now I’m identifying with the dad in this video as I’m feeling people making a quick judgment of me based on very little information, just as I did to him.

I pride myself of giving others the benefit of the doubt. When I am annoyed at another driver or a person in the grocery store, my brain immediately begins to think of reasons I might behave the way they are behaving. I try to understand and, therefore, have some patience. It seems I’m less likely to do that online. I think this is a far greater challenge to our society than I had realized. These quick judgments we make, based on 140 characters, or a brief video, or a FB update, are causing us to be more isolated and more divided than ever.

It’s difficult to have conversations that will move anyone forward if we’re all judging quickly and identifying each other with labels that we find highly offensive (troll, racist, libtard, etc.). Those labels do clearly fit some, without any question at all. But once we’ve slapped those labels on, it is awfully hard to have any kind of conversation. We see ourselves as needing to educate the ‘other’ rather than learning together. Together, in any sense, becomes almost impossible. And I think we need together quite significantly right now.

So, to this working dad, I apologize. I hope you and your lovely family had a good laugh together after this. Your kids seem to own their world and that’s exactly what they should do at their young ages. I also, sincerely hope, you have avoided online attacks and seen only the people who are loving this video. (Although I recognize the futility in that hope.)

Without Women…

On this Day Without A Woman I am feeling cranky. If even half the women in the country stayed home and did nothing today it would shut it all down. But we won’t. Some will and I have so much respect for them. The rest of us…We aren’t willing to do it.

At my school alone, if all the women stayed home, there would be no one to make breakfast or lunch for the kids, no one staffing the office, and fewer than ten men (if we include custodial staff) to take care of our 600+ students. For whatever reasons you want to assign us, the women at my school aren’t willing to force that to happen.

How many subways, trains, and buses would be still today if all women stayed home? Our hospitals would certainly shut down. It would be awfully tough to eat out, stop by the grocery store, or get phone calls answered at just about any business.

One of the reasons we saw an impact, however small it might have been in some areas, from the Day Without Immigrants was because businesses supported their employees. Restaurants closed for the day. Hotels gave people the day off with pay.

That’s not happening today. The expectation that our society continues as normal means that women are working today. For many, taking the day off could have had significant repercussions. (Our district certainly discouraged taking leave for today.)

I’m grateful to the women who have stepped up by stepping back today. Thank you for being willing to let balls drop in your world in order to show how important we all are. I’m sorry I’m not standing with you.


(I am quite aware that my crankiness stems from the fact that I wasn’t willing to take this day off. I am at school with my third graders today. I’ll be teaching my grad class tonight. I didn’t feel I could not do those things so I’m doing them. And I know that’s a huge factor in my crankiness. On the plus side, I’m wearing red and intend to spend no money today. Well, other than the parking garage so that I can teach tonight…)

I’ve Got It Easy

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how easy my life is. (This isn’t to say I won’t complain about how challenging things are and how busy we all are and how many balls I’m dropping all the time.) We’re a two-car family which means we have a lot of flexibility in our lives. We are financially able to purchase the things we need when we need them. We have good health care so we’ve been able to see specialists when needed and get prescriptions. We have steady jobs with paid leave. We take a lot of these things for granted. All of them probably. But so many people don’t have these luxuries.

from Anthony Dean’s flickr

Someone on twitter today shared this Atlantic article. It’s a few years old, but no less true now than it was when it was written. Please take a few moments and read it. If you don’t yet understand the realities of living in poverty (and I am sure I don’t fully understand them) this will help give you at least a small window.

Barbara Ehrenreich writes about taking different entry-level jobs that are available to women (hotel housekeeper, waitress).

What I discovered is that in many ways, these jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life.

She goes on to detail some of the challenges faced by people living in poverty. Problems that are little bumps in the road to those of us in the middle class are often huge obstacles for people in poverty. Recognizing this is one small step toward making a more equitable society.

It’s time to revive the notion of a collective national responsibility to the poorest among us, who are disproportionately women and especially women of color. Until that happens, we need to wake up to the fact that the underpaid women who clean our homes and offices, prepare and serve our meals, and care for our elderly—earning wages that do not provide enough to live on—are the true philanthropists of our society.

See All the Implications

Educators complain frequently about helicopter parents (parents who are always hovering around their children, always stepping in, overly involved). Educators also want parents to be involved and engaged with school and their child’s education. Of course, we only want them to do so in the ways that we want.

from Wesley Fryer’s flickr

I have to wonder how often we’re a part of creating helicopter parents as well as children who are unable to take responsibility or advocate for themselves. I heard a story on NPR last week about school systems texting parents when students grades were dropping or students were missing assignments. It made for an ugly commute home because I was so irritated. Then that story showed up on KQED’s MindShift blog.

Take it away, Peter Bergman and Eric W. Chan of Teachers College, Columbia University:

“In a field experiment across 22 middle and high schools, we [sent] automated text-message alerts to parents about their child’s missed assignments, grades and class absences. The intervention reduces course failures by 39% and increases class attendance by 17%.”

That’s from a draft paper they’ve just released. They say the intervention was especially helpful for students who were struggling academically. The students’ GPAs improved by a quarter of a point on a four-point scale. And students were more likely to stay in school.

That definitely sounds good. Students are getting better grades. Students are staying in school. That’s hard to argue against.

But I’m going to do so anyway. These researchers found these significant results at the high school level, although they tried the same strategy with middle schoolers. It didn’t seem to make the same difference there. Could that be because middle school students have parents who are paying attention already and these texts aren’t telling them anything terribly new?

High school students still need parental support. There is no doubt. However, they are close to heading off to college or to work, to some form of independence. If their parents have been receiving text messages every time they miss an assignment (or maybe only after they’ve missed a few assignments) is this helping them take control of the problem? Why not send the text messages to the students?

What’s our biggest concern as educators? Our students’ grades? Or our students’ ability to be independently responsible? I think both are important, but this strategy of texting parents is only supporting one of those goals. We are, as usual, valuing grades and test scores over everything else. That’s one small piece of a human being.

When we implement strategies like this one, we need to be thoughtful about what it means. Not just what it means for the goal it is addressing, but what it means on a larger scale. I think we quickly move forward with things all the time that help in one area but harm in others. We aren’t paying enough attention to the harm.


Seclusion and Restraint Regulations

This week I spent time at the Department of Education for Virginia, attending a Board of Education meeting. If you’ve never attended a board meeting for your district or state, I highly recommend it. This is the second time I’ve attended at this level and I’m learning so much about the political and policy processes involved.

The most interesting topic on this agenda was the regulations on seclusion and restraint. During public comment early in the meeting this was overwhelmingly the most frequent topic. People came from a variety of organizations to speak about concerns on the new regulations. Concerns that the regulations are too harsh or concerns that the regulations are to restrictive for the school personnel. My gut says the regulations need to ensure that students are not treated in harmful ways. But I recognize that there is so much I do not understand about what is needed by administrations and especially at different age levels, so I’m not ready to make a strong statement as I would like.

from leniner’s flickr

I am, however, ready to make a statement on something I think has been missing from the conversation. My concern with many regulations that are designed around punishment or anything that students might see as punishment is that they are often followed in ways that harm students of color. I don’t have the statistics on seclusion or restraint, but I would be willing to bet significant amounts of money that children of color are secluded or restrained at far higher percentages than white children.

Unless we have plans for addressing racial disparities, we are failing at creating useful regulations. Administration groups spoke at this meeting about their need to be able to seclude students in case of suspicion that a student has a weapon or if students need to be interviewed about an altercation. Okay. I get that. But is the suspicion because a student isn’t white? Racism is far too ingrained in our society to believe that it doesn’t play a role in decisions to seclude or restrain students. When this isn’t even a part of the conversation we aren’t serving all of our students.

Review: Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle

Back on January 27th it was Multicultural Children’s Book Day. As one who has been making an effort to diversify my classroom library and promote diverse books more widely for a number of years now, I was quite excited about this day. And then. Then I totally dropped the ball.

Folks interested in participating in the day were able to commit to reviewing a book and one would be sent to them. I signed up immediately! I got a book back in December and was even more excited about it all. Then life got super busy and this totally fell by the side. Which is completely unfair because the book is wonderful.

Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle and illustrated by R. J. Hughes is a beautiful book in a number of different ways. The most obvious can be seen from the cover. The book is visually gorgeous. The colors Hughes uses and the use of light are simply beautiful on every page.

Inside the main story is of a young girl and her family attending Pascha (Easter service in the Orthodox Church). The service begins in the middle of the night so the beginning of the story focuses on her plans to stay awake for it all. She’s our narrator as well, telling the story of the service through the eyes of one who has never seen it before (as she has always, like her younger brother, slept through it in the past). As I was unfamiliar with this celebration in the Orthodox Church, I loved seeing it as she saw it and experiencing it with her for the first time.

If that were the entire book, it would be a lovely book. But that story only scratches the surface. The illustrations for the main story are set in the center of every two-page spread, bordered by words. At the beginning and end those words are dialogue happening around our narrator. Throughout the Pascha service, those words are Biblical and liturgical. They likely are also words she is hearing but they are a part of the service.

Finally, surrounding those center illustrations are more illustrations around the edges of the pages. These are illustrations of various Orthodox churches around the world.

I chose this two-page spread as an example because I believe the Hagia Sophia is the only one of these churches I have visited.

As to being a multicultural book, it is about a religious service that will be new to many and is full of images of churches around the world (a sign of how we are truly connected even as we see so many differences). In addition, during the service one call and response is done in several different languages, quite a surprisingly diverse set in fact. Also, Catherine’s friend, Elizabeth, uses crutches (not as if she had broken a leg, but as a part of her life). The first few times I read the book I did not notice her crutches. She is presented as Catherine’s good friend and anything else is secondary.

I don’t know that this is a book I would have picked up on my own so I am glad MCBD introduced it to me. Our oldest daughter is a Catherine (although not spelled that way) and our youngest shares a name with the author. When the book arrived it felt like it was the right one for me to review. I learned quite a bit from reading this book (not the least of which comes from information the author has included at the end) which is definitely one thing a diverse book should do.