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Linda Mah
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New Culturally Diverse Class Libraries

KPS Launches Efforts to Give Classrooms Diverse Library Books

Books provide children with windows into new worlds and experiences, but they also can be mirrors — reflections of them and their lives.

Sometimes, however, books and libraries do not do a good job of reflecting the faces and circumstances of young readers. Research from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center says picture book readers are more likely to see books with trucks or animals as the main characters rather than children like themselves — if they are Native American, Latino, Asian Pacific or African American.

Kalamazoo Public Schools has launched an effort to create culturally diverse classroom libraries in its schools. Last year, the district spearheaded the “Mirrors of Me: Children Seeing Themselves in Their Literature” conference in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education, Kalamazoo RESA, Michigan Association of School Boards, Middle Cities Education Association, Reading Now Network, Michigan Association of School Administrators, and Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. As an extension of that event, the district is working to evaluate books and add new diverse reading choices to book collections in classrooms.

“We know our students come from diverse backgrounds,” said Angela Justice, the KPS coordinator for English language arts, social studies, and library services. “That diversity doesn’t mean just ethnicity or race. It also means family dynamics. It means socio-economic status. It means where you were born and where you were raised. All of those pieces fit into diversity.

“With the textbooks and literature the district is making available to students, we want students not only to see themselves in the literature they read, but we want to expose them to the differences around them so they are informed about the world they live in.”

According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, nationally only 14 percent of children's books have characters from diverse backgrounds. “While this is an improvement over decades past, it is still far lower than it should be,” said KPS Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice. “For those of us who teach and advocate for diverse groups of children, it makes book selection and book sharing all the more important.”

Research shows that starting at about third grade, students begin to have an awareness about where they fit into the world, who they are, and what they look like, Justice said. “They begin to make some determinations about how their features on the outside can sometimes affect who surrounds them and how they are treated,” she said.

Literature can help them process that information.

“It’s very important for students to be able to identify themselves within positive contexts in literature,” said Winchell Elementary School teacher Dayon Brooks. “If students can see themselves within texts, then they can see themselves with a variety of different futures.

“With all of the influence of media, social media, and their surroundings, sometimes literature can provide the only positive role models students see. In a classroom, this is especially important because as educators we are teaching much more than just the curriculum.”

Cultural diversity can have broad definitions, Brooks and Arcadia Elementary teacher Kate McNeil said. McNeil said when choosing books she thinks about characters, settings, countries, disabilities and challenges facing the characters. Brooks added that diversity can also mean thinking in terms of students and their interests, hobbies and heritage, anything that can help them engage on a deeper level with the story.

Educators have long framed the discussion about diversity in literature in terms of books providing those windows into the world and mirrors of the readers’ experiences. And those are useful guidelines when thinking about the kinds of books made available to students, Justice said.

KPS is a diverse community, but just being diverse does not mean there is an inherent understanding of all of the issues the members of the community face. “We can be a diverse district but can still be blind to the issues others face,” Justice said.

McNeil, from Arcadia Elementary School, sees that in her school, which has students from a dozen countries who speak at least six different languages.

“We have so many different cultures, and I feel like all children should be exposed to text which is just as diverse,” McNeil said. “It is important for children to be able to relate to book characters and settings, and a culturally diverse library helps with this.”

For children, reading about characters that look like them and who live within familiar circumstances can provide insights into their own circumstances and how they might process them and deal with them.

“It’s a chance for students not only to see themselves but for them to take something to heart,” Justice said. “With diverse libraries there is a greater chance the student can say, ‘I identify with this character.’ And they can see how they have triumphed, how they have persevered, and how they’ve continued through and they’ve become successful despite everything they might have been dealing with.”

The district has been working on creating more diverse libraries on several levels. Last year, KPS cosponsored the “Mirrors of Me” conference and there have been ongoing discussions with teachers and staff on the issue of culturally diverse libraries. The district has been using grants to help purchase diverse books. And this summer, the district purchased several titles and teachers, such as McNeil and Brooks, read the books and made recommendations on how they can be used as part of the curriculum, in classroom libraries or as read-aloud selections in schools.

Justice said staff has been creating reading guides for teachers to help them feel confident in how to engage students in all of their reading.

Students, such as those at the Alternative Learning Program, have also been part of the process of evaluating and selecting books, Justice said.

“That student piece is so important,” she said, “because what we as adults might think is good, kids might not necessarily think so.”

The work is ongoing, Justice said, because as awareness of the issue grows, more authors are incorporating themes of diversity into their writing. The district remains on the lookout for the most current and powerful literature — as well as the best of the classics — to place in front of students and to move them.

“You want children to feel like they are part of this world and they can make a difference,” Justice said. “Your circumstances don’t define who you are. You ultimately define who you are and who you will become.”

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