Having Students Analyze Our Classroom Library To See How Diverse it is

In my last post, I described the work that my students and I have been doing as we attempt to better understand where our biases and stereotypes come from in regards to different races, genders and family structures.

We began with gender.  And after our work with gender, we were ready to try tackling ideas of race.

One of the things that my students and I had talked about with gender and our stereotypes of different genders was how surrounded we are, all the time, by images that shape our ideas and misconceptions. I wanted my students to know that this was true of race as well.

I truly believe that books, of all kind, play a large role in shaping how our students see the world.  So often, children have little choice in what kinds of books surround them.  Even in classrooms and schools where children are free to choose to read whatever books they want, they are still often limited by the choice of books that we adults have placed around them.  And too often, we adults do not think carefully enough about what books, with what images of race and gender and family structure, we are surrounding our children with.

So that is where I wanted to look. At the books I was choosing to put into my classroom library. I wanted my students to join me in looking more closely at the books that I had in my classroom and how they represented and misrepresented the world they are living in.

So we began with an infographic. In fact, the majority of my students had no idea what an infographic was. So first. We had to learn.  This was a good reminder to me to use these rich conveyers of information more often through the year. Anyway, we began by looking at THIS infographic which shares the disturbing statistics on diversity in children’s literature.  This, alone, led to incredible discussion about so many things.

We began with a discussion of the term, “people of color.” So many of my almost all-white students had never heard this term before and it took a while for them to grasp its meaning.  We then had a discussion on the difference between white writers writing about people of color and writers of color writing about people of color. Then we entered into a discussion of how it might be harder for writers of color to get their books published in the competitive world of children’s publishing.  And finally we ended up at a discussion of our own reading preferences and how sometimes we are tempted to read books that discuss lives similar to our own and how much more rewarding it can be to push ourselves to read books that teach us about the lives of others whose lives are different than our own.

All from one infographic.

The children were so eager for the discussion. We actually ended up looking at an entire series of fascinating infographics that show how different kinds of diversity are represented or misrepresented in different areas of society. That series of infographics CAN BE FOUND HERE.

And then we turned to our own books. I wanted to start in my own classroom. I have shared openly with my students that all of this work, on race and on gender, it is work for me too. I know that I make mistakes often and I wanted them to see that I, too, need to constantly do better to work past my own biases and stereotypes.

So I gave my students the chance to audit our own classroom library to find out how different genders and races are represented and how we could do better to make sure that different genders and races were more accurately represented by the books in our classroom.

I asked the students to each randomly grab 25 books. And for each book they were to look to see if there were people on the cover.  If there were, they were to note if all of the people on the cover were white and if all the people on the cover were boys. They kept track on this simple data collection sheet.

Now, I recognize that this is FAR from a thorough and scientific analysis of the books in our classroom library. I recognize that just because there is not a person of color on the cover of a book, that does not mean the book does not contain a person of color in it.  I recognize the flaws. I am shared them with my students. And still, it was something.

Because even more important than our results was the task of looking at the images on the covers of the books that surround us. More important than the numbers that we wrote down, were the discussions we had about why book publishers make the decisions that they make about who goes on the covers of our books. More important than the percentages that we ended up with were the realizations that we all made as we learned to look at the world differently. To see who was represented and, more importantly, to see who was NOT represented. This was the important work that we were doing.

Once the students finished collecting their data, they entered their results into a Google spreadsheet.  HERE ARE OUR RESULTS.  

After spending time looking closely at the books in our classroom library and after spending time looking at the numbers we collected, we had a discussion of what they noticed.  Here are some charts that we used to capture our observations:


I was kind of blown away, once again, by what my students discovered. I thought I had a diverse library. I really did. In fact, I have worked over the past two years to make sure that I was buying the kinds of books that would help all of my readers to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books in my classroom.  But what I forgot is that the vast majority of my readers are white. They see themselves, in terms of race, in almost every book they pick up.

What they need is something else. They need to be able to see into the lives of others. To use books as windows so that they can gain an understanding of what it means to be a race other than white. They need books to help them grow and become more empathetic citizens of this world. And while I have tried to provide books for them that would do just that, I realized from their work that I have a LONG way to go.

I need to do better. I need to do more.

And showing my students that I can look at where I am and find ways to do better in terms of making this world more equitable and just, that is no small thing.

So together we brainstormed ways that I can work to improve our classroom library. We talked about starting with sports fiction. The students noticed that while the nonfiction sports books were filled with African-American people, the books in my sports fiction bin barely had any characters of color.  The exception was The Crossover, which just goes to show how important it was for that book to win the Newberry last year.

Here we have taken an area of our society that is rather diverse and the books that I have purchased that have fictionalize that area of society have completely sucked all of the diversity right out of it.  So I must do better.

In the same area, we saw how few girls were represented in our sports fiction books. I have so many girls in my classes who don’t just play sports, but whose lives revolve around their favorite sports and still, we could only find one book, The Running Dream, in our sports fiction books that had a female main character. I must do better.

And then, we moved on to my fantasy and science fiction books. This was an area that was also very much lacking in racial diversity. And so I will now be on the lookout for books with characters of color in these two genres. I must do better.

And one of the most powerful observations that a student made was that while he did see books with African-American characters on the cover, he did not see many other races represented. He did not see any Native American characters, Asian American characters or Middle Eastern characters on the covers of the books that he looked at. Again, I must do better.

These suggestions came from my students and I am so proud of the work that they have done. As I shared with my students, I continue to be proud of our classroom library. I am proud of the choices that I have made in the books that I have put into our classroom library AND at the same time, I know now that I can and must do better. I shared with my students how grateful I am for the work that they have done to help me to see this.

After our counting books, we then used the following pages to look more closely inside of our picture books in order to see how races, genders and families were being represented. The kids chose one of these types of diversity to focus on and then pulled a few books to record their observations and evidence.  Here are the sheets that they used for:


Gender Roles for Children

Gender Roles for Adults

Family Structure 

Again, the students had time to discuss their observations and I was blown away by what they were picking up on.

Finally, we headed to our school’s library, to again count books. We collected the same type of data, but this time for our school library. HERE WERE OUR RESULTS. 

We realized that many of the trends that we saw in our classroom library, also existed in our school library. One of the greatest parts of this work was listening to the students talk to our school librarian (who is amazing) about the changes that we were hoping to make to our classroom library. This led to other powerful conversations between the librarian and me and I was so grateful for her input and her support.

Our last step was to take part in the incredible campaign, #StepUpScholastic.  My students were able to apply all that they had thought about and learned about to a national campaign that is asking Scholastic to make changes in the way they represent diversity in the monthly book orders that they send home to families.  It was a powerful and authentic final step in the work that we have been doing.

This work has been incredible. It has, at times, left me feeling doubtful. Doubtful of myself, of this world we live in, of the way we misrepresent so many of the people who surround us.  But ultimately, after watching and listening to my students, I was left hopeful. Hopeful because once my students began to see what was around them in new ways, they couldn’t un-see things anymore. They couldn’t not see.  They were running up to me when they came across stereotypes that were perpetuated in their books. They had their parents send me pictures from bookstores when they noticed books that either reinforced or fought against stereotypes in some way. They noticed things on the news, on t.v. shows, on social media. And I believe that noticing is one big step towards making change.

There were times during this work when I felt like I had to rush through. There were times when I questioned if I really had time to be spending on this work. But the truth is, there is no way that I don’t have the time. This world we live in needs changing and the students that I am teaching must be a part of that change. And so though it feels like there is never enough time to do things that we most believe in, this work has showed me that we must find a way.

I am grateful, yet again, for what my students have taught me. And grateful, even more, for the hope that they give me for this world of ours.


In Spite of Hate, or Perhaps Because of it, We Read On

In spite of hate, or perhaps because of it, we read on.

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of sharing a post and a piece of my heart on the Nerdy Book Club blog.  The post was about the upcoming HRC day of action on Thursday, April 28th. On this day, HRC is asking people across the country to hold community readings of Jazz Jenning’s beautiful picture book I am Jazz in order to show support for transgender youth.

I was incredibly proud to be a part of this beautiful blog and I was proud to share a message on the importance, especially right now, of reading books with transgender characters. As I went to share the post again a few nights ago, I was met with several extremely hateful responses. Not responses from people who were respectfully disagreeing with the actions I was proposing. Not responses from people who were pointing out alternative view points. But responses filled with hate. Pure and venomous hatred.

And I sat with that hate, I imagined a child hearing those words. I sat with that hate and realized that I know so little of what a person who is transgender must experience during a lifetime. I sat with that hate and at first I wanted to hide from it. Ignore it. Block it.

But then I thought about someone who saw those hateful messages and then looked to see the responses and saw none. Now I know that when people choose not to engage with hate on the internet, it is a powerful choice in some ways. Choosing to be the bigger person, to not engage in nonsense, to know that you are not going to change the minds and hearts of people set on hatred. I understand all of those reasons and fully support them.

But for me, when I saw those messages of hate, I eventually realized that I had to respond. Because I wanted any child, or any other human, who saw the hate expressed, to also see the love and acceptance that exists in this world that I believe will one day win out. I did not want anyone to see that this hate was met with silence because there is far too much silence these days.

In so many ways, it is not the small, vocal hateful minority that exists in this world that scares me the most. What scares me more is the much larger, kind-hearted majority that often choose to sit silently by. This group of people is more frightening to me because they are the ones who allow the hate to continue.

When enough of the people who are a part of the kind-hearted majority make the choice to stand up and speak up, then those who preach hate will finally be silenced. However, when the kind-hearted majority chooses to remain silent, that is when those who speak hate are allowed to do the things that are most frightening to me.

And so I chose to not stay silent.

And what I will remember most about my brief encounter with hate on the internet is how many people around me also chose to not stay silent. People quickly saw the messages that I was receiving and they were there. They were there in a big way. They spoke up. They stood up. They defended me. But more importantly, they defended the children that this hate was really directed to.

And while I wish that I did not have to see, up close, the online ugliness that exists, I am also grateful for the reminders of the hate. Because they served as a reminder of why we must do what we are doing.

It is easy to hide ourselves from hate. It is ugly and it is unsettling and it is upsetting. But it is there. Hiding from it, pretending it doesn’t exist, only celebrating the progress while ignoring that which still needs to be done, that does us no good. Because that is how we slip back into a world where hateful legislation passes through congress and people continue to be attacked for being who they are.

So we have a choice. We remain silent or we speak up. We remain a part of the problem or we work, every single day, to try and make the world a better place by using our voices to combat hate. We speak up when we see or hear hatred. Not because we believe we are going to change the minds of those who are filled with hate who are doing the speaking, but because we want those who are being hurt by the hate to know that we are with them. That we will fight alongside them. That we do not agree nor do we accept hatred. That we will send messages of love and acceptance every time we see one filled with hate and ignorance.

For any child who has to hear a hateful comment in their lifetime, I hope that they will hear ten times as many comments filled with love and acceptance. But that will ONLY happen if we choose to not stay silent.

So next Thursday, April 28th, I will read I am Jazz to both of my fifth grade classes. I will read it, just like I had always planned to do, but I will read it with even more urgency than I had before. I will read it as a way to model for my students what it looks like to choose not to stay silent in the face of hatred. I will read it as a way to show my students the power of hearing stories from the lives of other people. I will read it as a way to help make sure that my students will not grow up one day to be the speakers of hate, but instead be the ones who will speak messages of love and acceptance.  I will read it to show my students that even when people use hate and intimidation to try to stop us from doing what is right, we still have the choice to let our hearts guide us instead of our fear. I will read it to demonstrate to my students that one of the ways we have to fight back against the hatred in this world is through our books.

So in spite of the hate. Or perhaps because of it. We will read on.

And I do hope that others will join me.

To find out more about HRC’s day of action, just visit their website HERE.




Helping Students to Confront Their Own Biases Using the Covers of Picture Books

Many of my students have grown up hearing repeated messages from the adults they are surrounded by that sound something like this: “Skin color doesn’t matter.” “Everyone deserves to be treated equally.” “We are all the same inside.”

Now, of course, these are wonderful things to say.

However, what worries me is that these cliches often stand in place of the real, difficult conversations about race and gender and religion that need to take place in order to really begin to break down the biases and stereotypes and prejudices that are standing in the way of allowing us to reach a better place of understanding and equality.  Another side effect of growing up only hearing these somewhat empty phrases is that many of my students, and many of the adults in this world, truly do not believe that they, themselves, carry any biases or prejudices.  For the most part, I believe that is simply not true.

One of the hardest things that I have had to do in the past few years is to really reflect on my own biases.  I had to look at the very ugly truth that I did carry beliefs about people based on their skin color or ethnicity or gender.  I still do.  Now, I am also actively working to acknowledge my own biases and then trying to dismantle them. But that does not come quickly. And none of that happens without honest, sometimes uncomfortable, conversations.

Knowing how hard it has been for me to do this work, I wasn’t sure how I could possibly approach this kind of work with my own students.  As I have written before, it has become increasingly important for me to help my mostly-white students to start to think about issues of race.  It has become increasingly important for me to help my students to start to think about issues beyond race as well. Issues of religion, family structure, gender, etc.

This year, I really wanted to find a way to help my students confront their OWN biases and prejudices.  But, as I said, this is made so difficult by the pre-packaged responses that I knew I was going to get when I began the conversation. So I looked to where I always look, my books.

One of the things that I have thought about a lot over the past few years are the books that fill my classroom library and the books I choose to read to my students.  As I work to fill my library with books that better reflect the diversity of the world we live in, I realize what a terrible job I had done with this in the past. The VAST majority of the books that I had that showed African-American characters on the cover were in my historical fiction bins.  And I am pretty sure that this resulted in my students believing that any picture book that featured an African-American person on the cover, was going to be about the Civil Rights Movement.  And in this way, that I never, ever intended, I am pretty sure that I was starting to send the message to my students that every book with an African-American person on the cover was a book that was going to be about struggle or sadness or hardship.

Now. Please do not misunderstand. I am NOT saying that I wanted to stop reading books about the Civil Rights Movement. I do NOT believe that I should be reading fewer books about the struggles that come along with being black in America. I do NOT believe that I should be bringing into my classroom library fewer books that deal with the real life hardships associated with racism.  I actually believe that my students need more of these books.  However, that is just one piece of what it means to be African-American. That is just one story. And as one of the most powerful TED talks that I have ever seen, taught me: there is such danger in a single story.

I was starting to think that I had really done a disservice to my students by not seeking out enough books that had African-American characters, or other characters of color, that were simply stories about being a human being. That were funny stories.  Or joyful stories. I think that by limiting the types of books that I had in the classroom, I was sending the wrong messages to my students.

And that made me think.

By asking students to make predictions on what picture books were going to be about, might I be able to expose some of the biases and prejudices and stereotypes that they carry around?

So I began to create a small experiment.  I paired up books and covered all the words on the covers of the books so that only the images remained.  I was extremely purposeful in choosing the books that I wanted to use and I used books that I believed would go AGAINST the stereotypes that my children had on gender and race. I wanted to point out that these biases existed.

Here is what the pairs of books looked like:


I then wrote up short summaries of each of the books and created THIS GOOGLE FORM in order to ask the students to match the two summaries to the two books in that pairing.

When I introduced the activity, I was not entirely honest about what we would be doing.  I shared with the students that in our last reading unit, we focused on using clues within a text in order to synthesize what the author’s message about the world was. What the author hoped to convey about the world through her writing.  I told the kids that now, we would be looking at the clues on the outside of a text in order to help us infer what a text was going to be about.

And then we began.

I held up each pair of books, one at a time, and then read out the summaries. Each student had a computer open to the GOOGLE FORM and they matched the summaries I had written to the books that I was holding up.  We moved through all ten books this way and when we were finished, we looked at the results.  Because we were using a Google form, I was able to share with them the results right away by looking at the summary results (which show up in nice little pie charts).

If you click HERE you can see the results from MY FIRST CLASS. And if you click HERE you can see the results from MY SECOND CLASS.

I was happy to see that I was wrong about the first set of books. I worried that the children would assume that the book with African-American characters would be about the children who were unable to afford books. I assumed this because I have heard this stereotype spoken in my classroom in the past. But in my first class, it was a perfectly even split of guesses (though someone guessed the same book twice)  and in my second class, they results were opposite of what I expected.  And I was thrilled.

But then we went further.

The second set of books looked at gender stereotypes. I had one book showing a man and one book showing a woman. I said one book was about an artist and one book was about a scientist. And in both of my classes, most of the kids guessed that the book with the man was about the scientist (which it was not).

And then came the next few sets of results. I could feel my heart sinking as we looked at set after set of results. At this point, I still did not really share with them what I was trying to do. But I did tell them, with each new set, what the correct answers had been. And I watched their confusion grow. And my heart continued to sink.

Let me be clear, my heart was NOT sad because I thought that the beautiful children sitting in front of me were bad people with bad hearts . In fact, it is just the opposite. My students are incredible human beings with big hearts and an extreme amount of compassion. And, still, they were carrying around (as we all do) these biases that were a direct result of the messages that our society has surrounded them with.  And biases that were a direct result of the books that we, as teachers, have surrounded them with.

When we got through all of the results. I shared with the students that what we were really going to be talking about was bias and stereotypes. And I watched their faces. As I began to explain more of what I had been thinking and what I noticed, I watched the looks on their faces as they came face to face with their own biases. I listened as they worked to make sense of how so many of them could have gotten almost every single guess wrong. I listened as they tried to reconcile the fact that they, themselves, carried biases and stereotypes and prejudices that they never knew they had.

It was a powerful moment for all of us. And a moment that showed us all just how much further we have to go.

One of the hardest pieces of data for me to look at was the results for books 7 and 8.  image4 (2)

In both of my classes, the majority of the students thought that book 7 was the book about dealing with sadness and struggle and loss. And most students thought that book 8 was about the joy that exists between family members. After revealing what we were really looking at, I pulled up these two books to look at with my students.  I shared that even though book 7 had a woman smiling on the cover with her baby attached to her back, still most of us assumed the book was about struggle and sadness and loss.  I pointed out her big smile. I pointed out her child and several students said, “Oh! I didn’t even see that!”

And I think that is the point.  They didn’t see the evidence that could have helped them because I think that what they saw instead was the skin color of the woman on the front and the background that reminded them of a place they thought they understood.  And this is what guided their guess.

I shared with my students that I also carry biases. I wish that I didn’t. But I have also been exposed to many different messages throughout my life. And the fact that I carry biases does not make me a bad person. However, what I do believe is harmful, is refusing to look at and acknowledge our own biases. I believe that what makes a person brave is being willing to look at our own biases and then actively work to understand them, understand where they come from and then dismantle them bit by bit. And this was my hope for the work that we would do together.

And because I teach two groups of wonderful children, I then listened to powerful conversations that came from what they were noticing. I listened to them try to make sense of all of this and then, even more impressively, I listened to them share that they wanted to understand these biases better so that they could work to dismantle them.

So after looking HERE and HERE at our data, I asked the students to craft an inquiry question that might guide our next phase of learning. And in each class, we came up with a similar version of the following question:

FullSizeRender (17)

And so that is what we will set out to discover next.



This Cannot Be The Solution

Explaining what it means to be gay is so easy that a two year old could do it. Literally. I’ve seen my own kid do it.

My wife and I and our two and a half year old, Millie, were at the park one evening. As kids so beautifully do, my daughter made friends with another little boy who was at the park with his dad and his brother. They ran all over that park. After a while, they had worn themselves out so the two of them sat down on a bench together. My wife and I stood nearby, far enough so that we didn’t appear to be the smothering, hovering types of parents that inside we were dying to be, but close enough that we could still hear what these two were discussing.

I can’t exactly say that the exchange between the two kids qualified as a discussion, but at some point Millie pointed to my wife and I and said, “That’s my family.” And the little boy then pointed to his own father and brother and said, “That’s my family. That’s my brother and my daddy. Where’s your daddy?” While my wife and I were ready to swoop in and make the potential discomfort go away, Millie didn’t skip a beat. She simply replied, “I don’t have a daddy. I have a Mommy and a Mama.” And that was it. The boy sort of nodded his head and then they ran off to dig in the dirt.

And in that moment. I was reminded. We adults. We have messed things up big time. We have taken something that could be explained quite simply, as my toddle has now proven, and we have turned it in to something that resembles a bit of a mess. We have taken something simple and we have made it political. We have made it controversial. We have made it uncomfortable.

And no where is this clearer to me than in the discussion that surrounds using books with LGBT characters in the classroom. Every so often another story makes it into the news that a school has had some controversy surrounding the use or mere presence of a book with LGBT characters in a classroom or in the school library. Usually this is somehow connected to younger children. And usually one of the loudest arguments is that parents do not believe that they should have to explain what it means to be gay to their young children. That this will be too confusing for their child. That this will mean they will have to talk about sex with their first grader. That this will open too many dangerous doors. That this will somehow harm their child and destroy their child’s innocence.

To those who are making this argument, I would like to offer my two year old daughter to help you out. Seriously. Have your child call my child and she will quickly explain what it means to have gay parents. If your child has been exposed to the book And Tango Makes Three or the book In Our Mothers’ House and is simply perplexed by the existence of a family with two moms or two dads, then just have your kid give my kid a call and she will help you out.

I don’t mean to sound snarky (though of course I really do) but I honestly am just enraged by this argument. As I have written before, if you do not want to be bothered to explain that there are different kinds of people in this world and different kinds of families in this world then what would you like me to do about my family? Should I honestly hide myself from you and your child so that your child doesn’t ask you any questions? Should I tell my daughter to lie about who her family is so that she doesn’t accidentally make you uncomfortable?

I have tried to write about this without getting overly emotional, without sounding angry. But I just can’t. I understand that people will read this and think that of course I feel this way. I am biased. I am gay. Of course I want their to be books about people like me in the classroom. I am only seeing one side of this argument. And yes, of course that is true. But I also think there is cause for discussion here.

We now live in a country where gay marriage is legal in every single state. We now live in a time when more and more gay and lesbian couples are having children. We now live in a country where more likely than not, every single child growing up today will one day come into contact with a gay or lesbian or transgender person. And when that time does come, when that moment arrives, I would hope that these children will not be surprised to discover that LGBT people do, in fact, exist.

What an incredible opportunity for each child to first meet LGBT people through the pages of a picture book. Just like many of our children first meet someone with a disability or someone of a different race or someone from a different country within the safety of the pages of a picture book, so too can they now meet people who are LGBT in the same manner. However, they can only happen if we allow our children access to these books. These books that now exist. These books that are now being written. These books that are now being published. We must do our part to put them into the hands of children.

A few months ago, I was engaged in several discussions about the book George, which tells the story of George who was born a boy but has always felt that she is really a girl. More recently, I have been reading stories of a school in Michigan who decided not to allow the newest Captain Underpants to be sold at their in-school book fair because one of the main characters is revealed to be gay. In both of these discussions people arrive at what they believe is a compromise. What they believe is a solution. And it always involves parent permission.  Because it seems wrong to ban these books all together, schools are willing to allow these books, or others just like them, to exist but in some sort of special section. And students can only have access to these books if they have a parent’s permission.

It seems like that is no big deal. It seems like that is a solution that will make everyone happy. It seems that this is a solution. But I truly believe, with my whole heart, that this cannot be the solution.

I think about the message that this sends to any child who is gay, any child who is transgender, any child who has gay or lesbian or transgender parents. And that message is not okay. It is not okay to tell children, through the actions that we take, that who they are or who their family is will not be okay for any child to read about. It is not okay to tell children that who they are belongs in a separate section of the library. It is not okay to tell a child that their family cannot be read about in the same way that all other families are read about. It is not okay to send the message that who a child is not only makes them different but it also makes them unsuitable for a picture book.

I imagine my own child coming home one day and telling us that she could not check out a book from her school’s library that was about a family just like ours until we signed a permission slip for her. I imagine her holding out that permission slip and I imagine my own heart breaking.

I imagine a child who has felt different his entire life finally finding a book, like George, that tells the story of exactly who he is and then finding out that he cannot check that book out until his parents sign a form telling the school that it is okay for him to read it. Before he ever gets a chance to find out if his own parents would accept him or not, he is sent the message that some parents wouldn’t want their children knowing that people like him exist in this world.

I imagine an older child who is scared to death of her parents finding out that she might be gay. I imagine her relief in discovering online that there is a book, like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, that is written with a character just like her who has to navigate through the world feeling uncertain of whether or not her family will accept her once they find out who she really is. I imagine that child so excited to get advice and wisdom and solace from this book and then finding out that in order to check this book out from her school’s library she has to have her parents, the very ones she is terrified of, sign a piece of paper before she is allowed to read the book.

I imagine these children finding themselves so close to the very books that could save their lives or save their hearts and then finding out that they cannot read them.  That these books are different than all others. That these books require adult permission.

And I imagine all the other children. The children who simply want a chance to learn about others who are different from them. The children who have heard people saying negative things about people who are gay and wanting to simply learn more about what that even means. The children who have heard jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and simply want to better understand what someone like Caitlyn Jenner might be experiencing. All of these children who are simply looking to learn from the pages of a book, to build empathy for others, to discover what it is like to be someone so very different than themselves. All of these children who are searching for these books, but not finding them because they have been pulled and put on a separate shelf, or behind the checkout counter, or on a different bookcase behind the teacher’s desk. These children also deserve these books and deserve a chance to meet these characters and better understand their lives.

I am certainly not saying that every book written with an LGBT character is appropriate for every age of students. I would never book The Miseducation of Cameron Post on the shelves of my 5th grade classroom library. The book is not appropriate for fifth graders but not  BECAUSE of the existence of an LGBT character. And I suppose that is what I am asking. Do not count out a book simply because of the presence of an LGBT character. That character alone cannot make a book inappropriate. That character alone is not justification to seek parental approval.  That character alone is not reason to put the book in a separate section.

And I am not speaking to the teachers who do not love and accept LGBT people in general. I am not speaking to those who themselves believe that being gay is a sin. I am not speaking to those teachers and librarians and administrators who are still hoping that gay marriage will once again be illegal. I am talking to all the rest of us. Those who support and love LGBT people and students and parents. Those who wish for a world where all LGBT students and teachers feel safe being who they are in our schools. Those who tell me they are happy for me and for my family and for my daughter. Those who tell me I am brave for coming out.

You are the ones who have the chance to really make a change. Because I am only brave if I am doing what I do on my own. If I am standing up all by myself. If I am not surrounded by others who are also reading books with LGBT characters and also suggesting books with LGBT characters and putting those books into the hands of our students. Then yes, I suppose what I am doing is brave. Because doing anything on your own is a scary thing and a brave thing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all decide to make these books available for our students. We can all help our students to read these books and understand these books and these lives. We can all start to make our schools and our world safer for LGBT students and parents and people.

I like to think that despite the continued news stories. Despite the continued controversy. Despite the continued outrage. That one day, we can learn something from my two year old. One day we can see that answering a child’s questions about someone who is gay is not as hard as we have made it seem. And, in fact, it just might be the very thing that we need in order to create a world where books about all sorts of people can exist together on the bookshelves in our schools and in our classrooms.

The Good News is They Don’t ACTUALLY Hate Reading: They Only Hate What School Has Done to Reading

Over the first few days of this school year we have had several powerful conversations. Conversations that have had an impact on what I believe as a teacher and conversations that have changed the way I thought about reading and writing and school in general. Already this year, my new students have taught me so many things. But this has only happened because from the minute that they walked in this room, I let them know that I wanted to hear what they had to say. I have asked them, over and over and over again for their thoughts, for their input, for their ideas. I have listened when they have made suggestions and so they know that they can share.

I am so thankful that they are willing to share their thinking with me because it is what led to our incredibly powerful conversation about reading yesterday.  At the end of the first week of school, I asked my students to fill out this survey.  Before they began, I asked them to please be honest with me.  I reminded them that we cannot fix things if we can’t even talk about what exactly needs to be fixed. I asked them to trust me. And they sure did.

Over the weekend, I read through all of their responses and I noticed a disturbing trend. Multiple students said that they HATED reading. Not that they didn’t like to read, but that they HATED reading. I was surprised. I don’t often find this kind of hatred for reading in fifth graders. But it came up in several surveys and it matched the responses that parents gave on their surveys. Many parents spoke about a gradual decline in a love of reading over their child’s school years.

What all of this told me was that I to dig deeper to find out what was going on.

So yesterday, our reading lesson was simply to talk about what we loved about reading and what we hated about reading. I broke the class up into four groups and asked each group to make a chart that had two columns. One to list what they loved about reading and one to list what they hated about reading. Again, I asked them to be honest and I asked them to try to be specific. And then I sent them off. As the groups worked together, I circulated around the room asking questions and pushing the groups to be more specific on their charts. Here are a few images of what the groups came up with:

IMG_8134 IMG_8132 IMG_8130 IMG_8140 IMG_8138 IMG_8137 IMG_8136 IMG_8135

After the groups were finished, I asked each student to walk silently around the room and read the words and the thinking of the other groups. I asked them to look for trends and patterns that they noticed and to be ready to share them with the class.  After a few minutes, the kids worked their way back to the carpet and I asked them to share what they noticed.  Based on what they shared, we created the following anchor chart:


As we were wrapping up, my heart was experiencing all sorts of mixed emotions. I wasn’t ready to share them all with the kids yet because I needed to think about them more. But what I did say to my students is the following: “Well, good news everyone. None of you actually hate reading. You only hate what school has done to reading.” I saw heads nod in agreement.  I then went on to share with the kids that I hear them. I hear what they are saying and it gives me a lot to think about. I told them that no teacher EVER wants to make kids hate reading, but I think that we may have been doing that accidentally. I told them that I cannot promise that I will NEVER ask them to do the things that they have shared that they hated, but that I will think carefully about my purpose for doing them and I will make sure to check in with them to see how those things are working.

And then we moved on. Then we read. Then I watched my students happily gravitate towards the books that they had chosen and I watched them find a comfy spot in the room and I just watched them read.

But my mind and my heart did not easily move on from this conversation. The charts that my students made stayed with me all afternoon and far into the evening. I woke up still thinking about my students’ words.

I woke up thinking about what we, as a school system, have done to reading. I woke up thinking about the assignments we give whose only purpose is to check up on our students and make sure they are reading. I woke up thinking about how little choice we give them when it comes to the books they read or the kinds of books that we deem worthy or the ways they think about those books and document that thinking. I woke up thinking about all of the things that we do that get in the way of helping our students to become life long readers and not just readers who read because they feel that they have to.

And after all that thinking, here is what I have come to. I am hopeful. Yes, I am so sad that this is what my students have had to deal with. Yes, I want our current ways of teaching reading to change. Yes, I wish that more teachers would just ask their students how their instruction is working for them. Yes, all of those things exist and I am angry and sad about them. And yet, I remain hopeful. Because what I walk away with is how much power we, as teachers, have to change the way our kids feel about reading.

I can give my students more choice. I can ask my students how they want to share the thinking that they are doing with me and with their classmates and with the world. I can ask my students how they want to talk to others about books. I can give my students the freedom to read the books that they love. I can trust my students to tell me about their reading habits instead of asking them to time themselves and have a parent sign their reading logs. I can take away any worksheet or packet or task that does not serve the purpose of growing readers who love books and who think deeply about what they read and talk about their thinking with others.

These are all things that I have the power to do or not do. There are so many things that I can change. There are so many ways that I can help my students to begin to fall back in love with reading.

And that is a really powerful thing.

In Just Four Years: Changes in LGBT inclusive picture books

Almost exactly four years ago to the date, I started a very different kind of blog. It was the beginning of our adoption journey that eventually led us to the amazing human who is our daughter. For anyone who has been through the adoption process, or for anyone who has seen someone else go through the adoption process, it is grueling. For every single person involved in the process, it is a difficult one.

There is an incredible amount of uncertainty wrapped up in the process and perhaps no aspect of the process is as anxiety ridden as the waiting. It is the most uncertain kind of waiting that I have ever done. From the moment the paperwork is finished (which for us took over a year itself) you live this strange life where you could become a parent any second and you also might not become a parent for several more years. It is impossible to plan for and it is impossible to stop your heart and mind from planning.

One of the ways that my wife and I dealt with the months of uncertain waiting was with books.  We decided that each month that we were on the wait list, waiting for our little one to find us, we would allow ourselves to begin building our one-day child’s library by buying one or two books. So each month, we would head to the book store, often to our favorite bookstore, Women and Children First in Andersonville, and we would each pick out one or two books that we wanted our child to have. While nothing really helped deal with the waiting, this book buying tradition was something that we could do that kept us feeling positive and looking ahead to the future.

One of the things that we struggled with during our book buying days was trying to find books that had families that looked like ours. We wanted to make sure that right from the start, our child knew that there were other families who looked like ours and other families who looking nothing like ours and they were all families and they were all filled with love. And these LGBT inclusive picture books were hard to find.

We shopped online for books with LGBT families, our favorite bookstore was right in the heart of a very gay-friendly neighborhood, we did a whole lot of research about books with LGBT families and still these books were few and far between. There were certainly a few mighty ones and we purchased those right away.

But there were not many families that looked like ours to be found in the pages of picture books.

And that was only four years ago.

So now, fast forward to the present. It has been four years since we began our journey. We are now parents to an incredible two and a half year old. Her bedroom is filled with books.

And we live in a very different world.

Just four years since we began our journey and we have seen so many changes. First, civil unions came to our state, then gay marriage came to our state and then this past summer gay marriage spread throughout the entire country.

And when we search for books now that contain families that look like ours, there are SO many more choices. It is amazing to me and it brings me to tears to think about the books that we can now give to our child and the books that we can now put in our classrooms. In just four years, we have come so far.

Not only are there now books that are about LGBT families, but there are books that are just about families and they also include LGBT families. There are books that have LGBT characters in them for young children, middle grade children and high school children. There are picture books about children who are transgender that can help to teach our youngest children about people who once were forced to stay hidden in our world. Now we can use picture books to teach our children and our students right from the start of their lives about acceptance and tolerance and love.

And yes, we have a really long way to go. But these books give me hope.

Knowing that there are now enough books that we can really make choices about the ones we want to buy. That is amazing to me. Knowing that this kind of change is possible within a four year time span. That is amazing to me. Knowing that there is a much better chance that my child will walk into a library or a classroom and see herself reflected in the books that are in front of her. That is amazing to me.

To see some really great lists of the kinds of books that I am talking about, check out some of these resources:

Welcoming Schools Book List

San Francisco Kids’ Library List

GLBT Resources for Young Children from ALA

Starting the School Year With Wonder

Last year, I completely rethought the way I handled the first day of the school year.  This year, I hope to keep many of the same elements in my first day of school plans because I love the way they started my year off and the messages that the activities sent to my students.

But there is one thing that I want to change.  I want to leave space, on the very first day of school, for wonder.

This summer, I had the absolute privilege of attending a workshop all about informational texts run by my incredible literacy coach (and a very dear friend of mine). She is brilliant and her message was brilliant as well.  As teachers of reading, we have a responsibility to share not just wonderful works of fiction with our students, but also to share wonderful works of nonfiction. And if we choose these works of nonfiction wisely, then they can spark wonder and joy and passion within our students. If you are interested in seeing her wonderful recommendations of nonfiction texts, I put them together in a Padlet that you can find HERE.

When I think about my past school years, as a teacher of reading and writing, I do not remember sharing any nonfiction books with my students until much further into the school year. Yes, I read them nonfiction books as a part of our science and social studies work, but in reading and writing I just don’t ever start my school year off with nonfiction books. And often this means that I am missing incredible opportunities to start my school year with wonder.

And that is a shame.

So this year. On the very first day of school (or maybe the second since I always seem to run out of time) we are starting with nonfiction books and we are starting with wonder. Because I think that one of the most amazing things that can come from sharing more nonfiction books with our students is that they can reignite a sense of wonder that is too often lost in the early years of a child’s life.

I see it with my own child. My child is a quintessential toddler. She is feisty and energetic and she just doesn’t ever stop. Ever. And that goes for her questions as well. A walk to the park takes five times as long as it has to because we have to stop every few steps for her to ask, “What’s that?” And it is amazing. She is so curious about the world. She is so interested. She wonders all the time. Every second of every day brings new discoveries for her. And it is incredible to witness.

And it is also exhausting.

And sometimes, the exhaustion gets the better of me. Sometimes, I don’t want to answer one more question. And so sometimes, I tell her to stop asking questions. Or I tell her I am only going to answer one more question. It is often at the end of a long day. Often as we are reading our final books before bed. Often as a moment’s peace is so close I can hardly stand it. It is understandable. And it is also just so sad.  So quickly, as adults, we start to suck the wonder right out of our children.

I do it with my own child and I do it with my students. Because often we are in such a rush. We are in such a rush as parents and we are in such a rush as teachers. We have to get through this lesson, we have to get through this unit, our mini-lessons are only supposed to be so long so we have to keep moving. We have too much that is important to us that sometimes we forget to stop and listen to what is important to our children, to our students.

And whether we realize it or not, we often stop leaving any space for wonder in the craziness of our school days.

So I want to make a promise to myself. And I am sharing it here in the hopes that it will keep me accountable. I want to leave space for wonder in my classroom this year and I want that to start on day one.

My plan, for the moment, is to start a Padlet wonder wall on the first or second day of school.  This is a brilliant idea that I first heard of from the inspiring Katie Muhtaris on her website Innovate, Ignite, Inspire. I will introduce the Padlet to my students as a way to share with them my hopes for wonder in our school year.

Then, I am going to share with them the book Just a Second by Steve Jenkins. This is a book filled with fascinating facts about the amazing things that happen in the span of just a second or slightly longer periods of time. What I love about the book is the way a quick snippet of text can lead to incredible conversations. I also love how many questions the text leads to.  I want to read the book with my students and just allow them the time to write up their wonders on our wonder wall. I want to give them the time to talk about the things they learn from this book and the things that this book makes them want to learn more about.  I want to give them time to wonder. From the very first day of school. So that my students know, from the beginning, that in this classroom their thoughts, their ideas, their questions, their passions are valued and worthy and will have a place in our time together.

From there, I am not sure where we will go. I hope that our wonder wall starts to fill up and that it will be a place that we can return to. From this wall, I hope to find investigations that we can dive into together as a class. From this wall, I hope to grow more wonders. From this wall, I hope to find authentic reasons to seek out new nonfiction texts and journey together into inquiry and research. From this wall, I hope to grow a larger space for wonder in our classroom and in our school year.

I can’t wait to try this plan out. I can’t wait to see where my students will lead me. I can’t wait to fill our room with wonder this year.

Books Can Be Our Rainbow Flags

Yesterday I was driving home from my sister’s house with my daughter in the backseat blabbering away about some nonsensical thing and all of a sudden I noticed a rather large rainbow flag hung on the outside of one of our local synagogues.  I did a double take. Was there really such a large symbol of gay pride and gay love and gay acceptance hanging on the outside of a religious institution? I slowed the car, turned around and did a second drive by. And sure enough, there it was. A rainbow flag.

I stopped for a moment and then at the insistence of the two year old in my backseat, I continued on towards home.  But that image stuck with me throughout the rest of the day, far into the night and it is still strong in my mind today. That image said so much to me.

You see, in places where LGBT people have previously felt unwelcome and unsafe, there is often still the assumption on our part that silence or a lack of recognition means that we should still feel unwelcome and unsafe. Unfortunately, there are perhaps few places in this country that have been more unwelcoming and unsafe for LGBT people than religious institutions. We, as gay people, have been stared at in synagogues, kicked out of churches, told from pulpits of all faiths that we are going to hell, counseled into making “the choice” not to be gay so that we could live a life without sin, and largely made to feel as if we are less than and unworthy and immoral.  And I know that there are exceptions. Of course there are exception. But the overwhelming and very public narrative coming from religious institutions in the past has been mostly unkind towards who we are.

So now, if things are really changing, that is an amazing thing. But we, we aren’t that trusting. We have been hurt and shamed and embarrassed and it takes a while to work our way back from that. Even with the incredible Supreme Court decision of this summer. So a public symbol like a rainbow flag goes a really long way in sending a different message, in proving that the narrative is changing.  A rainbow flag, anywhere, tells me that we are safe here. We are welcome here. We are accepted here. Even if I am not always ready to believe that.

And that makes me think about our schools.

I think that a lot of LGBT people, in the past, have felt similarly about schools as they have about religious institutions. And though I hate to admit it, I think that many LGBT people today continue to feel that way about schools. They feel as if they are unsafe. They feel as if they are unwelcome there. They feel as if they cannot be who they really are within the walls of their school buildings.

And it is certainly not just LGBT people who feel this way. There are so many people who have been marginalized within our school systems. There are so many groups of people who have been made to feel unworthy and undervalued and misunderstood within our schools. There are so many people who look at a school building and think, “This is not a place for me. I am not welcome here. Who I am is not celebrated in this institution.”

And because there have been so many bad previous experiences for so many people, we, as teachers, must go out of our way to change the narrative. We must go out of our way to send new messages of love and acceptance to students, their families, and to the other teacher with whom we work. We have to find ways to say, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”

And I don’t think that rainbow flags are the answer. I don’t think that every classroom in America needs a rainbow flag hung outside the door. Because A) That would just get ridiculous and B) This goes way beyond just LGBT people.

So instead. I think we look to books.

I think books can be the rainbow flags of our classrooms.

Because I think that having books, the right kinds of books, can send new messages to kids and teachers and families who really need to hear them.

I imagine a child who is transgender walking into his new classroom on the first day of school and seeing the book Jacob’s New Dress prominently displayed on the bookshelf right alongside all of the other books. That child automatically receives the message, “You are welcome here. You belong here. This is a place where you will be loved and celebrated.”

And I imagine another child who has two moms walking into that same classroom and seeing the book In Our Mothers’ House. And another child who is adopted from China seeing the book Red Butterfly. And another child who is African American and whose life revolves around basketball seeing the book The Crossover. And another child from India seeing the book Chained. They see those books and they instantly know that this is a safe place. This is a place they are welcome. This is a place they will be loved and celebrated.

Our books have the power to send those messages to our students. To their families. To our fellow teachers.

And in this way, our bookshelves can become a place of hundreds of different flags celebrating hundreds of different kinds of people.  Our bookshelves can become a beacon of hope for children who have never before felt safe or welcome or accepted in school. Our bookshelves can become a place where children see themselves and learn about others.  Our bookshelves can become a place where every person who walks into our classroom can see that he or she is welcome here. Safe here. And will be celebrated here.

In Defense of Reading That Is Fun

Somewhere along the way, I got lost and I forgot what being a teacher of reading was all about.

Somewhere along the way I decided that I knew what were the best kinds of books for kids and I believed that it was my job to make sure that those were the only books my kids were reading.

Somewhere along the way I started to believe that the books that I was moved by were the only books that my kids would be moved by and that there was only one way to be moved by a book.

Somewhere along the way I began to think that it was okay for me to demand that my students push themselves to read books outside of the genres that they loved, while I stayed hidden comfortably within my own love for realistic fiction.

Somewhere along the way I started to falsely assume that certain books were worthy while books like graphic novels and humorous fiction didn’t count as real reading.

Somewhere along the way I became confused and truly started to believe that books that made my students laugh were not worthy of reading in my classroom. Because how could you possibly think deeply about a book that was funny or fun? And what was the point of reading in school if you weren’t going to think deeply?

Somewhere along the way, I got lost and I forgot that it was my job to help create life long lovers of reading and not just readers who read in the way that I decided reading was supposed to be.

I am so thankful that I realized how very wrong I was. And I am so thankful that I have started to find my way back to what I know.

You see, when I began teaching, I taught first grade. And in my first grade classroom, we laughed our way through books all the time.  My classroom library was filled with all kinds of books. Books that could make you cry and also books that could make you laugh. Because at that point, I knew that what mattered most was that I had the right kind of books to hook each of my readers and to help each of my students fall in love with reading. I knew that it was important to have books that spoke to all kinds of readers. I knew that it was important to make sure that my students knew that reading was fun and enjoyable and also hard work, but work that was so so worthwhile.

And then, I started teaching fifth grade. And this is when I began to forget what I knew.

This is when I began to only choose books to read aloud that were serious and led to what I considered to be “deep thinking.” This is when I stopped looking for books that made me laugh and that would make my students laugh.  This is when my classroom library began to feel so unbalanced with shelves full of bins of realistic fiction books while my graphic novel bins sat empty.  This is when I began to think that books that made you cry had more worth and more value than books that made you laugh. This is when I began to think that preparing my students for junior high was more important than preparing my students for a life full of reading.

And the truth is, that for some kids, this worked. Some kids found plenty of books in our classroom to read. Some kids connected easily with the books that I chose to read out loud. Some kids had easily found a way to stay in love with reading in our classroom. But the truth is also that many kids did not.

Without realizing it, and certainly without meaning to, I was shutting out a whole bunch of readers from the reading community that I was cultivating in my classroom.  I was sending the message to kids that I knew better than they did what books were best for them.  I was pushing students out of being readers because I told them that what they liked to read had no place in our classroom.  I set up our classroom library so that some students looked at it and immediately thought, “There is nothing for me here.” I was saying to my students, without using these words, that what they loved to read most had no worth or value in our learning.

And when I think about that now, it is enough to make me want to cry.

Because that is NOT what I had intended to do.  What teacher would ever mean to do that? But that is exactly what I was doing.

So last year, I started to change. I started to even out our classroom library. I spent time in my own reading life pushing myself to read new genres. I made a promise to myself and to my students to read more graphic novels, read more books that were funny, read more fantasy and read more science fiction.  And I invited my students to join me. I asked for their help. I let them be the experts in the genres that I didn’t know enough about. I listened to their recommendations. I read the books that they asked me to read. I laughed out loud as we read books that were funny together. I shared with them my struggles and I learned from my students how to get through them.

And slowly, my graphic novel bins began to fill up. And slowly, more books that made people laugh found their way into our classroom library. And slowly, my students taught me that there is all kinds of different thinking that goes on in the minds of readers as they read all kinds of different books.  And if I only just was willing to listen to my students, then they were happy to teach me about the different ways that they thought about books.  And I learned to see the ways that funny books could open up the minds and imaginations of my students. I learned to see the ways that graphic novels allowed students to feel successful as readers when they never had before. I learned to see that fantasy books required readers to hold on to so many important pieces of information and keep track of incredibly complex plot lines. I learned that no matter what the book was, or what kind of book it was, if a child finished it and loved it, then he or she was so willing to run and pick up another book to read. I learned to see that every single book that was read by every single reader in my room had value. Had worth. Had substance. Had a place in our reading community.

I still have a lot of work to do. I still have a lot of holes to fill in our classroom library. But I do know this. I now feel confident that I will be able to say to every single child who walks through my door this Fall, “I have the perfect book for you in our classroom library.” And if I don’t, then I will do everything that I know how to do in order to find that perfect book and hand it to my student and say to him or her, “I bought this book for our classroom library because I just knew that you would love it.”

Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 3)

This is the third and final blog post in a series about the work my students and I did in order to try to take apart the messages that we are surrounded by in the media and in the picture books and novels that we read.  If you are interested, here is PART ONE and here is PART TWO.

After we had finished our work with gender messages in fairy tales, it was time to move on to other types of texts. As a class, we compared the messages on gender that were written into the fairy tales we had read and the messages on gender that we saw in the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue.  We discussed that though the fairy tales were written quite a long time ago and the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue was a very current text, the same messages on gender were found in each.  What that told us was that though we like to pretend that there are no longer the gender stereotypes that there once were, we can see that these messages are still present and prevalent in our society.  And if this is true of gender messages, it is probably true of other types of messages as well.

This is when I asked my students to make a pretty big leap with me.  I said that many of us had talked before about messages on gender, but that now I wanted us to look beyond just messages on gender.  I explained that I hoped that we could now begin to examine messages on race and messages on family structure that exist in more current texts, in order to help us understand how many of our own biases are formed.

So I told the class that they would have a choice.  They were going to be able to focus on one type of message.  They could continue to look at gender in children, they could push a little bit to look at gender roles in adults, OR they could choose to look at messages on race or messages on family structure. I wanted to offer this choice because I knew that there were some students who were ready to take on the harder concepts of race and family structure and I also knew that there were some students who would be more successful in simply continuing to study messages on gender. I knew that in the end, we would all be sharing our learning with each other and I knew that the entire class would be involved in discussions on all four areas. So, at this point, I wanted to offer the choice to my students.

I was fascinated to see that most students wanted to tackle concepts of race and family structure. I am not sure exactly why this appealed to so many students, but here is my best guess.  In elementary school, we work really hard to protect children from things that we think are going to be too difficult or too messy for them.  We keep LGBT issues out of their grasp because we worry that they won’t understand them or we worry that for some reason it will lead us to have to explain sex of all types to our students.  We keep issues of race off limits for so many elementary school students because we aren’t sure we will have the answers they are looking for or we worry that we will upset someone or we worry that children will feel uncomfortable.

But the thing is, these are the EXACT issues that our students want to discuss. They want to discuss them because they want to understand them. They want to grapple with the things that they see as important around them, but that they don’t quite understand yet. Because that gives real purpose to their work. That gives real purpose to their learning. And that is what our students so desperately want.

So needless to say, the majority of my students chose to look at the unintended messages on race and family structure that are present in the picture books we read.

I left the work pretty open to the kids.  Some students chose to work alone and some in groups. Some students immediately began pulling bins of my picture books onto the floor and flipping through them, looking at their covers, researching their authors and skimming their pages. Other students chose one or two books and went off to study them closely. Other students asked to go to our school library to look through books there.  Other students chose to go into one of the three other fifth grade classrooms to look at the books available in those classroom libraries.

I did provide some thinking sheets to help give the kids some ideas on what they might want to look for.

Here are the different sheets that I made available (the kids only used them if they felt like they needed some ideas):

Messages on Race

Messages on Family Structure 

Messages on Gender Roles for Kids

Messages on Gender Roles for Adults 

As I began to circulate the room, I was simply blown away by the conversations that I overheard. I would stop in to help clear up some misconceptions for kids or I would gently guide a child toward a better understanding of what he or she was seeing, but overall the kids were really getting it.  The kids were so engaged in their work and right before my eyes I saw kids starting to understand the very things that we all had been so afraid would upset them and make them uncomfortable. Except, it was doing exactly the opposite. These discoveries they were making were not making them uncomfortable, they were making them question what they thought they knew and they were growing in these huge and important ways.

So often teachers say that they don’t have conversations on race or on gay and lesbian issues because they worry that they will say the wrong thing or they worry that they won’t know what to say, but what my kids showed me through this work is that sometimes you, as the teacher, don’t have to say anything at all. Sometimes it is enough to ask the kids to look at what is right in front of them and question it and deconstruct it and think about it. Sometimes it is enough to help kids see the things that we ourselves do not understand and the things that we know need to be better.

After giving my students two days to work on their chosen area of focus, I put the kids into groups so that they could learn from each other. Students who focused on race had a chance to hear from students who focused on gender or family structure, etc. Again, incredibly powerful conversations took place.

When we pulled back together as a whole class, I asked my students to share what they talked about in their groups.  Every single group had come to the conclusion that there was a real problem with the way our picture books were written. Every single student noticed the extreme lack of diversity that existed in the characters in our picture books. They noticed the lack of African American characters, they noticed the lack of Hispanic characters, they noticed the lack of mixes of races in books, they noticed the lack of families with two moms or two dads. They noticed so many things that had been right in front of them for years, but that they never really saw before. Some students noticed this simply by looking at the people drawn on covers, others noticed this by looking at the families that existed in each of our books, other students went further and looked into the races and ethnicities of the authors of many of our picture books.

I so clearly remember one group sharing the results of an investigation they did. They looked at fifty of the picture books in our classroom (a random selection of two of our picture book bins) and they shared that only 12 of these books had non-white characters on the covers. And then, one child said, “And if this is how it is in your room, Mrs. Lifshitz, I can’t imagine how much worse it is in some other classrooms!” My students knew that I made an effort to bring in diverse books and still this was the truth of what books existed in my classroom.

After this concept was brought up by each group, I knew that it was time to introduce my students to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.  Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog post sharing some ideas that eventually turned into this reading unit.  An incredibly kind reader, Samantha Mosher, left a suggestion to have the kids contribute in some way to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I am so incredibly thankful that she left such a brilliant comment because that suggestion turned into one of the most powerful learning activities of our school year.

I began by sharing the WNDB website with my students.  We read about the campaign, its beginnings and its mission. We then watched a WNDB video that my students were incredibly moved by.  After begging me to let them watch it for a third time, one student suggested that we make our own video and contribute our own tweets to the campaign using the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.  And so we got to work.

We used our class Twitter account to tweet our messages about why we needed more diverse books.  We used the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and used Tweetdeck to see how our tweets were not a part of an international conversation. We wrote blog posts about why we needed more diverse books.  We sent out Twitter messages with links to our blog posts. And finally, we each created a sign to explain why we needed more diverse books, we took pictures of ourselves with the signs and we complied the pictures into our own We Need Diverse Books video.

You can see some of our work here:

One student’s blog post on why we need diverse books

Another student’s blog post on why we need diverse books

Our class video on why we need more diverse books

As we submitted our work to the world, my students were simply abuzz with the possibility of affecting change in the world. This unit brought us so much incredible learning and I am having a hard time summing it all up in this blog post.

This unit left me with a desire to do more of this kind of work in the coming school year. I saw how deeply moved by these issues my students were and I heard the comments that continued to come throughout the rest of the school year about the unintended messages my students were now seeing in the world around them.

There are days when i don’t have a whole lot of hope for this country of ours, but then I think back to the work that took place in my classroom during this study of unintended messages and I take some solace in knowing just how amazing our students are. All they are waiting for is for us to give them the opportunities to grapple with the issues that matter and then help them to find ways to start making the world a better place.