Sustaining Readers Through Culturally Responsive Literacy Instruction

Spring 2019

By Lisa Stringfellow

This spring, I created a classroom poster featuring the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, literacy scholar and professor emerita at Ohio State University.1 Bishop’s metaphor of books as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors is ubiquitous. Educators and librarians quote from her landmark 1990 article in Perspectives to highlight the need for children to “see” themselves in the books they read.2

The theme of our sixth-grade English curriculum is windows and mirrors as lenses for reading, enabling students to consider their place in the world. Bishop writes, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”3 


The Diversity Gap

One way to provide windows and mirrors for students is by building a robust classroom library. My current library has over 800 books, and curating diverse titles has been an ongoing goal.

The acknowledgment of the need for more diversity in children’s books has led to changes in publishing. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that in 2017, 31 percent of books for children were written by or about people of color or Native people, a steady increase over the past five years.4 Despite these gains, things have not changed much since the situation illustrated below,5 and it is still more likely for a children’s book to depict a main character that is an animal or inanimate object than a child of color.6


The numbers also mask some troubling statistics. The number of books that contain multicultural content over the past 24 years remains a low 13 percent. In addition, Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote only 7 percent of all books for children published in 2017.7

In the selection of books for the classroom, this fact has ramifications. “Who can tell a story?” is often debated in children’s literature. Certainly, white authors can write stories centered around Native people and people of color that are respectful and sensitive in their depiction. However, there may be cultural nuances authors miss because they are living outside of the community about which they are writing, and, even worse, unintentional negative stereotypes or harmful tropes may be included in the work.

Bishop writes:
When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.8
It is not only children of color or those from other marginalized groups harmed by lack of visibility or poor representation. Students from dominant groups need accurate “windows” too, according to Bishop:
They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in … books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves.9
Seeing characters and experiences in literature that reflect their own personal lives can validate for children their worth and value at school and in society. Not only do texts that explicitly present multicultural perspectives need to be taught but all literature should be read through a multicultural lens to look at issues of power and oppression. These two approaches are complementary. 


A Turning Point in Self-Reflection

After 17 years in the classroom, I finally pursued my master’s degree with a focus on literacy and technology. It opened my eyes to blind spots in my teaching.

In a unit on multicultural literature, we were asked to examine our book lists and report on the inclusion of work by and about people of color. My colleague and I had done little over the years to change the fifth-grade reading lists we inherited from the previous teachers, but I thought our books reflected diverse experiences and addressed the needs of our students, which included roughly 30 percent students of color in the middle school. I was shocked and dismayed at the results of my curriculum audit.

Of 36 books on our “Battle of the Books” independent reading list, only six dealt with multicultural themes. Most of the books approached race and racism through the experiences of a white main character. On the Mock Newbery blog, Heavy Medal, School Library Journal contributor and librarian Jonathan Hunt notes:
There is a large body of literature for children written by authors about those moments when white children realize that racism exists in the world, typically these books feature a main character who experiences racism vicariously through the mistreatment of a friend or acquaintance.10
Our reading list included books like Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe by Bette Greene, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and The Liberation of Gabriel King by K. L. Going. Many of these books are Newbery Honor- or Award-winners and excellent in many ways, but as a group they were problematic for centering white experiences with race.

And here was the number that stung. Zero. That was the number of books on our list that were written by authors of color. As a black teacher in an independent school, I didn’t understand how I had missed that. It was because I had never interrogated the books in the curriculum from a critical literacy lens. Critical literacy is a pedagogical approach to reading that takes into account the various aspects of our students’ lives, such as race, cultural identity, language, and economics.

I started asking my students questions. In the affinity group I advised for students of color and at a middle school students of color conference, I asked students where they saw themselves reflected in the curriculum of their schools. Many reported that they did not see themselves reflected in the curriculum very often. One eighth-grader of Pakistani descent said that she had never read any literature for school that had reflected her experiences. That painful comment stayed with me.

The results were clear. The literature in my classroom had gaps. There were few works where students outside of the white majority could see themselves or their experiences reflected. Even though there were some works that exposed students to cultures and experiences outside of the white majority, the books still viewed those experiences through a lens of whiteness, either through white protagonists or through white authors. Last, we lacked any voices of color.

I made changes. That year, I applied for a summer grant to revise our fifth-grade reading curriculum to incorporate authors of diverse backgrounds and experiences. My changes extended beyond improving a book list; I also changed how I looked at the literature curriculum I taught. When I began teaching at my current school, the fifth-grade novels mostly centered white protagonists as well. I added books like One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia and Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, and I am in an ongoing process of reflection about the books I bring into the lives of my students. 


Developing a Critical Stance

Part of incorporating critical literacy is developing a critical stance in opposition to the texts we teach. By asking questions, students develop critical thinking skills and an awareness of bias. Who holds power and who doesn’t? Whose voices are included? Whose voices are left out? Students should see the answers to these questions as intentional choices by the author and consider the reasons for them.

In our sixth-grade English class, we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. The novel chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of the Logan family as they fight to keep their land amid the racism and oppression of Depression-era Mississippi. As a novel written by a woman of color and based on her family experiences, its richness and beauty connect with our goal of sharing texts with authentic voices that center the experiences of people of color.

An important element of our study involves establishing a common vocabulary. Before we read, we define terms like individual and systemic racism, prejudice, and internalized oppression. We discuss the history of “the N-word,” its use in the book, and modern perspectives on “who can say it.”

Still I felt something was missing. Students had difficulty connecting the racism described in the novel with an understanding of the impacts of racism in our current society. They appropriately railed at the injustices shown in the book, but those events seemed as long ago and distant as the setting of 1933 Mississippi. I turned to recent professional work I had done on critical literacy for help.

In a course on culturally responsive literature instruction, I learned a model of critical literacy that centers on four elements: “disrupting the commonplace, interrogating multiple viewpoints, focusing on social political issues, and taking action and promoting social justice.”11

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility,12 recently spoke at the AISNE (Association of Independent Schools in New England) Conference on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Her keynote prompted me to explore how to talk to my students about whiteness and white privilege as a preface for reading the novel.13 On her website, I learned of a picture book by Anastasia Higginbotham, Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness. The book is about a white child who sees a news report about a white police officer shooting and killing a person of color in her community, but her family does not want to engage in a discussion about it. The child reads books about the history of white supremacy and its prolonged impact and comes to a new understanding. The book sensitively addresses the issue of systemic racism and tells readers, “Racism was not your idea. You don’t need to defend it.”14

This year, we read and discussed this picture book with our sixth-graders. Doing this work brought a new lens to our reading, one in which my majority white students made a deeper connection between past and present and how they could use their voices to make change. 


Development of the Social Justice Book Project

Another step in a critical literacy approach was to consider how students could synthesize what they learned and take action to promote social justice. Although Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry centers on racial injustice, connecting the book to other social justice issues allows students to generalize their learning across topics and teaches them to look at all books with a critical stance.

Along with my fellow sixth-grade English colleague Laura Beebe and our middle school librarian Amanda Blicharz, we looked for books that centered on contemporary social justice issues.

The term social justice has many definitions, but most agree it connects to the following common themes:
  • Human rights and dignity
  • Issues of equality
  • Access to resources
  • Personal responsibility and choices that affect the community
  • Change through action
Through our collaboration, we developed a social justice book list. We each book-talked a number of books from the list, and each student checked one out to begin reading independently. The culmination of their reading was a project with four criteria: (1) a focus on a social justice issue; (2) an explanation of the issue and how it affects people; (3) facts and statistics about the topic gathered from research; and (4) an “impact component” in which the student must decide how to share his or her work beyond the classroom.

This was our second year of doing this project, and students did deep and meaningful work. In their reflections, many students shared that they knew little about the issue they chose but developed empathy through their reading and research. One student who read Breakout by Kate Messner15 wrote:
I also learned about the microaggressions that keep white people from seeing African Americans as individuals, and not just the color of their skin. Nora notices how her mother does not want to let her go to her friend Elidee’s house only because Elidee is African American. The book showed how people’s microaggression brings harm toward people of color. Nora’s mom thinks she is “protecting” Nora by not letting her go to Elidee’s house. Her fears cause her to make judgements based on stereotypes about African American people.
Incorporating a critical literacy lens into our novel study enabled students to gain greater awareness of issues of power and oppression and make connections to areas in their daily lives where they can make a difference. 


Next Steps

Evaluate your classroom library and curricular books
Look at your classroom library and books taught as part of the curriculum. Are there diverse representations? Who is centered? Are diverse and inclusive books added on the periphery or as core texts (e.g., independent reading versus whole-class studies)? How many books are written by #ownvoices authors (authors who share an identity with the protagonist)?

In her blog post, “Rethinking How We Choose Books in School,” Jenna Chandler-Ward argues:
As long as white teachers set out to evaluate what is good literature and worthy of study without examining how their own experience has shaped their appreciation for literature, then all of the booklists of diverse authors in the world will not result in changing the white literary canon.16
There are many tools to help teachers evaluate the practices and texts they use in the classroom. Heinemann Fellow Tricia Ebarvia created a list of eight questions for teachers and librarians to answer the overarching question: “How inclusive is your literacy classroom?” Each of the main questions have follow-up questions to allow educators to explore further.
  1. How inclusive is the media you consume, personally and professionally?
  2. How inclusive is your curriculum?
  3. How inclusive is your classroom library?
  4. How inclusive are your mentor texts for writing?
  5. How often do you use gendered versus non-gendered language?
  6. How equitable are your class discussions? In what ways do you ensure all student voices are heard?
  7. How often do you show (think aloud) inclusive thinking when discussing your decisions and responses to texts?
  8. In what ways—and how often—do you and your colleagues reflect on your practices to ensure all voices are recognized and respected?17
Take a critical stance
Having a critical stance is the role the teacher and students take in opposition to the text that is being read and discussed—the application of critical literacy skills. Make viewing literature through a critical literacy stance a visible part of your classroom. In my syllabi this year, I added this section:

Questions to Consider When Thinking About Literature
  • How is this text trying to make me feel?
  • Who is represented and how?
  • Who holds power and who doesn’t?
  • Whose voices are included? Whose voices are left out?
  • Why do you think the author makes those choices?
  • What biases do I bring to the text?
Find voices to follow
For teachers and librarians wanting to dig deeper into culturally responsive literacy, there are many excellent people doing the work and sharing their journeys.
  • National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE): NCTE’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English has produced resources for teachers related to professional learning and teaching culturally diverse student populations.18
  • #ClearTheAir: Val Brown (@ValeriaBrownEdu) is a professional development facilitator for Teaching Tolerance and founder of #ClearTheAir, a Twitter chat for educators to discuss race in education.
  • #DisruptTexts: Heinemann Fellows Tricia Ebarvia (@triciaebarvia), Dr. Kim Parker (@TchKimPossible), Lorena Germán (@nenagerman), and Julia Torres (@juliaerin80) are co-founders of #DisruptTexts and encourage English teachers to decolonize their curriculums using a critical literacy lens.19
  • #DiversityJedi: Children’s literature scholars Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese), Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), Dr. Laura M. Jiménez (@booktoss), Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen (@readingspark), and Edith Campbell (@CrazyQuilts) research and teach about children’s literature and champion the rights of children to have books that reflect accurate and diverse experiences. The term “jedi” is an acronym for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, all of which are at the core of their work.
Sustaining readers through culturally responsive literacy instruction is vital for students to develop positive self-images, an awareness and understanding of the needs of others, and the ability to stand before a text and evaluate what is written and inferred. Teachers must not only provide access to books that celebrate diverse voices and varied identities, we must also question how we interact with those texts and teach our students to do the same. Through self-reflection and personal action, we can make our classrooms inclusive literacy environments.


For Further Reading

Notes

  1. Lisa Stringfellow, “Windows Mirrors Poster,” February 3, 2019; online at https://drive.google.com/file/d/17SWXKkF6YbLjFZjIl4DwKhNkcjVYM6OY/view.
  2. Rudine Sims Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” RIF: Reading Is Fundamental, January 3, 2015 (originally published in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6, no. 3 (1990); online at https://scenicregional.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-Doors.pdf.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jalissa Corrie, “The Diversity Gap in Children’s Book Publishing, 2018,” The Open Book Blog, Lee & Low Books, May 11, 2018; online at https://blog.leeandlow.com/2018/05/10/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-book-publishing-2018/.
  5. Sarah Park, “Picture This: Reflecting Diversity in Children’s Book Publishing,” SarahPark.com: Musings on Korean Diaspora, Children’s Literature, and Adoption, September 14, 2016; online at https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/picture-this-reflecting-diversity-in-childrens-book-publishing.
  6. Corrie, “The Diversity Gap.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. Jonathan Hunt, “When You Reach Me: The Race Card,” Heavy Metal: A Mock Newbery Blog, School Library Journal, January 7, 2010; online at http://blogs.slj.com/heavymedal/2010/01/07/when-you-reach-me-the-race-card-2/.
  11. Mitzi Lewison, Amy Seely Flint, and Katie Van Sluys, “Taking on Critical Literacy: The Journey of Newcomers and Novices,” Language Arts 79, no. 5 (2002), pp. 382-392.
  12. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018).
  13. DiAngelo, “Understanding & Dismantling Privilege: The Importance of Disrupting White Silence,” AISNE Conference on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Norwood, MA, October 2018.
  14. Anastasia Higginbothan, Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (New York: Dottir Press, 2018).
  15. Kate Messner, Breakout (New York, London: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2018).
  16. Jennifer Chandler-Ward, “Rethinking How We Choose Books in School,” Teaching While White Blog, March 6, 2019; online at https://teachingwhilewhite.org/blog/2019/3/6/rethinking-how-we-think-about-choosing-books-in-school. 
  17. Tricia Ebarvia, “Heinemann Fellow Tricia Ebarvia: ‘How Inclusive Is Your Literacy Classroom Really?’” Heinemann Blog, December 12, 2017; online at https://blog.heinemann.com/heinemann-fellow-tricia-ebavaria-inclusive-literacy-classroom-really.
  18. National Council of Teachers of English, “Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English”; online at http://www2.ncte.org/get-involved/volunteer/groups/committee-against-racism-and-bias-in-the-teaching-of-english/.
  19. Kate Stoltzfus, “The Text Disrupters,” ASCD Education Update, February 2019; online at www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/feb19/vol61/num02/The-Text-Disrupters.aspx.
Lisa Stringfellow

Lisa Stringfellow (lstringfellow@winsor.edu) is a middle school English teacher and educational technology facilitator (@EngageReaders) at The Winsor School in Boston, Massachusetts.