Diverse Literature as a School Culture: Reading Beyond Black History Month

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Children fall in love with reading when they discover books can hold personal connections. To match a child with the perfect book is one of my greatest delights. Literature has an amazing power to help a reader see inside themselves and at the same time to experience worlds beyond their own.

One of my earliest memories of Black History Month had to be around 3rd grade when my teacher read a book about Ruby Bridges. As I took in the story, I looked around at my classmates considering those black friends that would not have been included in our education had it not have been for brave people like Ruby.

This moment was profound for me as a third grader and soon I was to discover more powerful stories like George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, and a personal favorite from history -“Moses” Harriet Tubman. I found myself both thankful for Black History Month, but thirsty for more beyond this small moment in the school year.

As an adult educator, I believe we cannot settle in the space of Black History Month or Martin Luther King Celebrations and then check that learning off the list. Please do not misunderstand me, a day to honor MLK and a month to honor Black History is a beautiful celebration of our growth as a nation and I respect those who fought to make them possible. My desire is for schools to build on this learning and make these text available all year, as a part of a continual school culture. This learning is not something we lock away in a closet until February. Black History and other texts that promote diversity should be a part of us, woven into our school culture. This is how we help students to develop an awareness for all types of people on a global scale.

To my school leaders, my library heroes, my classroom teachers with your invisible capes – consider your reading selections wisely– use them as chances to build a school committed to learning about diversity.

Could any of these ideas benefit your school culture?

Author Studies

One of my favorite mini units to write and teach is an author study. This can be great for students as young as second grade. The format invites groups of children to experience multiple books written by the same author. They meet in groups to have important conversations and reflections about the author and what the books might be trying to teach the world. This type of reading allows the teacher to honor diverse authors and the unique voice they bring to the books we love.

I write about Jacqueline Woodson often because each one of her books has found a special place in my heart. Using Woodson as a mentor author to study with the whole class is a great choice for many reasons. Following a progression of her books gives a window into her history. Teachers and students read to discover the journey her family took generationally to rise out of slavery, move from the segregated south and eventually build a life in Brooklyn. Woodson writes to inspire kindness, bravery, and self worth in students. Her books are introspective but also make the reader smile. Jacqueline Woodson writes for adults, young adults, and children. If you teach middle grades check out these award winners: Locomotion, Feathers, Another Brooklyn, and Brown Girl Dreaming. If you teach elementary school, you must read Show Way, This Is The Rope, Each Kindness, and The Other Side.

For more Black and Brown authors to study check out Kadir Nelson – author and deeply moving illustrator, Matt de la Pena, Nikki Grimes and Patricia McKissack.

Library Purchases

If you have a large school library budget or are running off the fumes of bonus points, you have the opportunity to make an impact with that money. Yes celebrate figures like MLK, Rosa Parks, and Jesse Owens in your books, but look beyond these typical heroes of history. Celebrate women like Mama Miti who won a Nobel Peace Prize for regenerating the soil in her her country of Kenya by planting trees. Purchase books like The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind so students can learn about William Kamkwamba’s perseverance and ingenuity . Introduce fictional characters that have different skin colors yet share the same hopes and desires as your own students. Be sure to include a variety of authors from different backgrounds. To give these books space on the display shelf next to classics like Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is to invite more than one voice to speak in your school.

Check out these websites if you need help finding quality diverse literature.

Relatable Characters

A simple, yet powerful way to build a diverse culture of literature is to provide books with diverse fictional characters. Kids need to read about these characters and feel as if they have made a new friend. They need to feel a shared experience with a character who looks and lives differently than they do. To relate to diverse characters is to show children that while we are all unique, we also have shared connections through the human experience.

Add some of these delightful fictional Characters to your libraries

Mix It Up With Fairy Tales

Fairy Tale units are always fun, but I like to see schools add to traditional reads like the Three Little Pigs. This is a time for teachers to show that stories have been passed down through generations all over the world. Each culture has its own version connecting to the special pieces of their own history. So many versions of fairy tales exist that will introduce children to beautiful cultures beyond their own. Invite children to write their own fairy tales and see what new worlds their imaginations inspire.

Check out some of my favorite versions of these common fairy tales.

Be like Mrs. Henry

As I reread the story of Ruby Bridges, I find myself captivated by Ruby’s special teacher Mrs. Henry. I imagine what kind of spirit she must have had to advocate for Ruby and stand against all her colleagues. In these modern times, I ask myself, “How will I be remembered?” Will I settle into the comfort of the status quo, or will my choices help the world see all children as equal, valuable treasures? Can I make the kind of choices that supports a better future for all children? My story may never be as impactful as Barbara Henry, but that certainly won’t stop me from trying. Will you try along with me?

As always I will keep posting about instructional practices and of course books on social media. Want to join me on my reading journey? Follow me on Instagram @GreenGurneys or like our Green Gurneys Facebook page.

If you find this blog helpful, please share! Your tags and shares not only teach others about good books, but they give me energy to keep writing.

Read more about anti-racist books for adults and children here.

2 Replies to “Diverse Literature as a School Culture: Reading Beyond Black History Month”

  1. Amanda,
    I appreciate your assistance with recommended titles of books from various cultures throughout the year. I agree that a plan for reading dinerse literature should be integrated all year long rather than choosing a month to focus on Black history or Latino history, etc. I am glad to see major companies that distribute leveled readers for schools are finally updating and creating more racially and culturally diverse books for small group reading materials too. The school where I teach has wide range of student diversity. Our students are clearly more engaged when we discuss their cultural background or read stories where they can relate to the characters and themes in the book. Your list gives educators and families a great place to start!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! It’s nice to hear your perspective about children from diverse backgrounds needing to connect to characters like them. Literature can be so powerful! I’m glad you have good options available!

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