Today on the podcast, we’re talking about why offering our students diverse texts and giving them choice over their reading is so vitally important.
My guests, Dr. Claudia Rodriguez-Mojica and Dr. Allison Briceño, have recently written a carefully-researched and well-crafted book called Conscious Classrooms, all about why students need to be surrounded by diverse texts and how teachers can choose and integrate these texts.
While Claudia and Allison share examples in their book from their work with younger children, the research and practices they provide are equally important for students of all ages. We’ll be talking about how to choose diverse texts for your class, why it matters so much, and how to help your students develop a critical lens about representation when they read.
You can listen in to episode 204 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Meet Allison and Claudia
Allison and Claudia teach pre-service teachers and work with practicing teachers in the classroom. Through their work and discussions with teachers in the classroom, they noticed a common sense of fear and discomfort around using diverse books. Despite their desire to incorporate these books into their instruction, many teachers felt fearful and full of questions about how to best select diverse texts and use them in their classrooms.
Together, Allison and Claudia dug into the research about why diverse books are so important.
Culturally Responsive Teaching pedagogy shows that using culturally relevant texts can improve student outcomes by helping students connect comprehension to their personal identity.
Providing diverse books to students has been shown to improve motivation & engagement.
Allowing for student choice in reading selection supports motivation to read (and even encourages student reading outside of the classroom).
Choosing Diverse Texts in the Classroom
The first step is to get to know your students. Then you can keep an eye out for books that serve as mirrors (allowing students to see themselves in the book), books that serve as windows (allowing students to get a glimpse of a different perspective), and books that serve as sliding glass doors (allowing students to step through into a world that is completely different from their own). Finding these types of books (a concept pioneered by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop) for each student in your classroom will make a huge impact on your classroom climate.
In their book, Allison and Claudia also share a tool that provides criteria for choosing diverse books to help you identify possible issues in the book, as well as ways to address the issues you might identify.
For example, you might start by researching the author or illustrator to analyze any possible stereotypes that might be in the book. Even if you identify some issues, you may still want to use the book, keeping in mind the issues you’ve found. Your new awareness can help prepare you to engage students in rich conversations around these issues. Together, you can identify and discuss the possible gaps or holes in representation of the book.
Finding Balance in Your Texts
As you find texts featuring the varied identities of the kids in your classroom, keep in mind it’s important to feature different identities in a variety of ways. For example, if you are featuring a book with an LGBTQ+ character who has to defend their identity and deal with prejudice, you’ll want to make sure there are also LGBTQ+ characters in your library exploring space, starring on the tennis team, planning a wedding, etc. You don’t only want to feature an identity group dealing with some kind of difficult issue.
Claudia and Allison recommend using books featuring a range of representation – include books full of joy as well as books that include advocacy around cultural or identity issues. The more variety you can feature, the richer the opportunity for windows/doors/mirrors and choice and engagement.
Worried you’ll never be able to feature a wide variety of characters and stories with everything else you have to do? Remember that we’re talking about more than just full class texts. Book Clubs, Choice Reading, book trailer viewings, and First Chapter Friday selections can all help you showcase a wider variety of texts.
Another way to bring in more perspectives is to use partner texts (like videos, articles, poetry clips, etc.) that can help provide other perspectives on a time period or theme.
Inviting your students to write in a variety of ways about the cultural perspectives they see in the texts they’re reading can help them to develop their own critical lens as they read. You might ask – Whose story is being told? By whom? Whose story is left out? What perspectives are you curious about that the author isn’t focusing on?
Addressing Pushback from Parents
Allison and Claudia recognize that there might be pushback from parents about diverse books, in light of the current climate we are experiencing across the country. The issues you might face will vary depending on your own identity and the community where you’re teaching. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there are steps you can take to help you build your program with more support.
Their first recommendation is to share the book titles, in advance, with the families of your students, including your reasoning for using the text (the standards/concepts you’ll be covering if it’s a whole class text). You can invite families to preview the books, and if any objections are raised, encourage the families to have conversations with you about their concerns.
Similarly, they suggest you share your texts with your administrators, including any concerns that you can foresee might be coming their way from parents. Administrators will generally be thankful for the warning so that they may be prepared for the conversations as well.
Setting up support for your choices in advance can help you feel more confident moving into a new text.
If you’re looking for sample emails that you can send to families and your administrators, Allison and Claudia share several in their book.
Helping Students Develop a Critical Lens with Discussion Questions, Writing Prompts, and More
After you’ve chosen your diverse texts, the next step is to determine how to help students unpack the elements of the text.
Allison and Claudia share two steps for helping students develop a critical lens.
The first step happens before getting started, by developing the classroom norms and expectations for respectful discussions, setting up book clubs, and making sure routines are in place for respectful discussions in your classroom. Along with developing routines and relationships, explicitly defining important vocabulary to develop a shared language for terms such as stereotypes, racism, tokenism, etc. will set the stage for productive and respectful discussions.
They also suggest the importance of establishing relationships with both students and families. Creating these connections allows for the opportunity for discussions if objections do come up to certain texts.
The next step for discussing the texts with a critical lens is to provide students with sentence stems that use respectful language to help teach students to recognize stereotypes and power structures, identify who’s helping who, who has the power or control, and who doesn’t. (If you’re looking for concrete examples of these types of sentence stems, you can find these in their book as well.)
Another way to encourage discussions with a critical lens is to incorporate justice-oriented roles. Some suggestions are “community connector, representation rep, perspective taker, and stereotype seeker.” These roles will help students to develop a critical lens to look for and recognize patterns of power, and identify when groups are silenced. The ultimate goal is that if students can start to notice these things in books, they will be able to apply and identify these same issues in the real world.
Providing Alternative Texts
We all know that sometimes families will request an alternative text for their student. When you’re faced with a family who asks for an alternative text, Allison and Claudia suggest that you first listen to the concern and try to understand their reasoning.
You can ask the family for suggestions for a book that would be appropriate, and still allow you to cover the required standards for the unit. This can open communication about why you’ve chosen the text and help families understand your reasoning for using it in the curriculum. As a teacher, try to be open to their ideas for possible other book options for their student. When you invite families in for a conversation about the text, you might even discover that there was a misunderstanding about the original text that can be cleared up.
Book Recommendations from Allison and Claudia
Looking for some new titles to explore? Check out these recommendations.
Felix Ever After by Karen Callender
Clap When You Land or With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
Any title by Jacqueline Woodson (She has written picture books through YA)
I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
Any title by Matt de la Peña (especially great for middle school boys)
Find the Book
You can learn more about the book, Conscious Classrooms, and order a copy of your own, right here.