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):
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:
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.