by Valentina Gonzalez

As the numbers of ELs in classrooms in the United States continue to rise, in some parts of our nation it may even be unusual not to have English learners. And like all students, ELs bring to our classrooms unique experiences reflecting their traditions and cultures. 

And just like our diverse students, the books on our shelves should be reflective of those unique experiences. Yet on many classroom shelves, that may not be the case. 

I remember a few years ago reading an article and seeing the visual below on how diverse classroom bookshelves really were. I was shocked and upset over the study. I examined my own bookshelf and conducted an “audit.” I categorized each book: books with white main characters, black main characters, Asian main characters, animals, inanimate objects, etc. The results were disappointing. And I was an ESL teacher, an advocate for diversity and inclusion. My bookshelf did nothing to reflect the students that I served. At that moment I made a conscious effort to make a change. I began to intentionally seek out books that my students could connect with. When funds became available, that’s what I purchased. It became my mission. 

Just a few years later, in this article Sarah Park wrote that, “Children’s literature continues to misrepresent underrepresented communities, and we wanted this infographic to show not just the low quantity of existing literature, but also the inaccuracy and uneven quality of some of those books.”

As you can see from the new visual, in 2018 there was an increased number of diverse books published. However, in many classrooms we still aren’t reflecting our student demographics. Lee & Low Books report that while 37 percent of the U.S. population are people of color, only 13 percent of children’s books in the past 24 years include multicultural content. 

Why is representation important? 

The need to belong in a social group is strong. And research shows that humans are strongly motivated to remain in good standing with their social groups. When people feel left out, they feel unrecognized (Rock, 2009). 

Feeling validated is a basic psychological need. In the classroom, students have a strong urge to feel seen, heard, and represented. We can create opportunities for these experiences through the books on our shelves, and research shows that students are more likely to be engaged in independent reading when they have access to culturally relevant text (Freeman & Freeman, 2004). In her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares her early reading experiences. She shares how as young readers we are impressionable and vulnerable. Stories can convince us, and they have the power to stir our imagination. But if we only have a single story of a certain people, we limit our world and our thoughts about them.

It’s often said that books should serve as mirrors and window for students. Mirrors so they can see themselves and feel validated, represented, heard, seen; windows so they can learn about others and their experiences and build empathy. 

How does having a culturally inclusive library build empathy?

The books we share with students can serve as windows into others’ lives. Studies have shown a remarkable decline in Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking across the country (Konrath, O’Brien, Hsing, 2011). If we can give our students (no matter the age/grade level) opportunities to build community together by reading books about people who are different than they are, we have a chance to build empathy. The more our students relate to one another and realize that each of us is unique, that we are all different, and that differences make us powerful, the stronger our chances are that they will embrace each other. A particular book may serve as a mirror for one student while it is a window for others. 

One way to share these perspectives is by reading a book as a whole-group read aloud and holding a class discussion. This allows for everyone to hear the same story and then to connect with it their own way. After the story has been read aloud and discussed, it can be placed in the classroom library for anyone to read independently. Typically, it becomes the most popular book for a while. 

The same can be done with poetry. After selecting a poem, you can either provide all students with a copy or project it for all to see. The poem can begin as a teacher read aloud and then move to a shared reading. After discussion, it can become independent reading as well. 

Chapter books can also be culturally inclusive. Some teachers elect to read whole class novels while others prefer to have students read in book clubs. Either way, the key is to be selective about the chapter books. Do they accurately represent the variety of students in your classroom?