My Why (In a Time of Cultural Crisis)

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I became a teacher 13 years ago, not because I had some dying desire to teach kids about conjunctions or writing essays, but because I wanted kids to feel loved and seen. I knew that I had the power to make kids feel accepted and safe, and to this day, I can proudly say that my greatest strength as a teacher is creating an environment in my classroom where diversity is not only accepted but appreciated.

My goal is simple. I want kids to know that they are loved. I want them to know that they are valuable and that they have a place in this world.  I want them to feel accepted and safe. I also want them to respect others. I want them to understand that their culture is not the only culture, and that there are many ways to celebrate holidays, pray to God, live your life, and be your true self. But how do you teach these things in a world that is ever-evolving, and not always in a positive way?

Ignorance breeds hate. People fear and hate what they do not know. We live in a political climate where it is completely acceptable to say things that were completely unacceptable just a few short years ago. This past weekend we have had more hate spread in our country than many can handle. We had 13 lives taken (11 senior citizens in Pittsburgh at a temple,  2 in Kentucky) all due to hate. Hate, brought on by ignorance, and a lack of acceptance for people not just like you.

This is why I am on a mission to push diversity in children’s literature. I can’t stop all of the evil in the world and nobody can. But we all have to use our voices, in whatever capacity we have, to spread the importance of acceptance.  It’s important that books serve as both windows and mirrors, and while mirrors are very helpful for children to see their own cultures and identities reflected to them, windows open children’s eyes to the “others.” It is essential that kids see other cultures, religions, and experiences, because we fear what we do not know.

As a teacher you get 180 days with a kid. In 180 days you can’t save the world, but you can show kids a window into cultures they may not know about. When we learn about others we often see that we are all quite similar on the inside. It is essential to share about the power of diversity. To share books that show how divisive hatred can be and to show the power of coming together.

I’m not foolish enough to thing a children’s book can prevent an act of terrorism. I am, however, a strong believer in teaching kids to love others while they are young. All kids come to us with the innate ability to believe in the power of good over evil. When we, as educators, expose them to other cultures through deliberate choices of books, news stories, and lessons, we are opening their eyes. Ignorance fuels hate. Hate fuels terrorism. And hope fuels the future. Hope fuels children. Most children believe in the power of kindness and acceptance. We, as teachers, wield the power to show kids a vision of the world that is positive and possible. We can provide kids windows into the world in a safe environment. And perhaps, when kids grow up with exposure to the unknown, they will come to see that the unknown is quite similar to their own lives… maybe then we can have a future with a little less hate, and a little more hope.

Authentic Voices Matter

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My students had the great fortune of having Gita Varadarajan come visit our school again last week. Her book, Save Me a Seat, was a large part of what pushed me to see the immense need for diversity in children’s literature. Her visit to my school last year was the turning point for me; my experience with diverse books went from awareness to advocacy. Seeing the connection she made to the students was life-changing for me and I knew I’d make it my professional mission to give kids and teachers tools to provide all children with windows and mirrors to their identity.

This time when she came to my school she spoke to my 5th graders about authenticity- the need to tell authentic stories, based on your identity, and the impact that has on the stories you create. The statistics on diversity in children’s literature are pretty dismal. While 31% of children’s literature published in 2017 features people of color, only 7% of those books are written by people of color. So who is writing these stories? And how can they authentically tell the story of a person of color? Why is there such a gap? And what does this say about the publishing industry?

Last year when Gita was at my school she ran a writing workshop with students in 4th and 5th grade. She told me to take note of the names my students chose to include in their writing. While most of my students are Indian, Asian, or African American, they often choose very “typical” American names and not names that reflect their own identity. What kids are telling us with this simple choice is that they do not feel people of their culture are characters in stories. This simple action of selecting to name a character “Bob” or “Mary” when their family is full of “Arnav” or “Sanjana” or “Tyree” means they don’t believe their story, their identity, is what stories are about.

So how do we fix this? How can we, as educators, help this? How can we help kids to tell their authentic story? Over the past year I’ve found a few strategies that have really helped.

1- Have diverse books, written by diverse authors, on display. While I have a large collection of books in my library I make sure to prominently display books that reflect my students on the end caps, at the front of baskets, etc. I don’t want these books buried in the library and missed!

2- Feature read-alouds about diverse children, in diverse countries, written by diverse authors! It’s not enough to just have them housed in the classroom- share them!

3- Use diverse names in your own writing! Anchor charts, math story problems, scenarios you write out in science labs… anywhere you are writing a name is an opportunity to “normalize” your students’ diversity. If all of our math word problems show names like “Mike” or “Kelly” why would kids feel comfortable writing one about “Palak” or “Tyshaun”? How are we, as teachers, providing kids with mirrors to their own identity?

4- Support diverse authors! Buy their books! Share THEIR stories! Follow blogs that support diversity. I cannot speak highly enough about Lee & Low Books. They are my go-to resource for diversity in children’s literature.

5- Use your authentic voice and encourage kids to do the same. I am a white woman, so I cannot write from the perspective of any other racial group. I can share authentic stories of my culture, my religious upbringing, my family dynamics, and my life experiences. Similarly, my students can share stories of their own backgrounds! Embrace and encourage them to use their strengths of their own identity to find their voice.

6- Don’t be scared. I spoke to my superintendent today about how sometimes I fear having a voice on this topic because I feel I don’t “deserve” to have a say on a topic that isn’t something I’ve personally experienced. Feeling this way is normal- but we all need to stand up for diversity and helping children to be proud of who they are. Remember, kids spend 6+ hours a day, for 13+ years of their life, in a classroom. That comes out to about 14,040 hours. That’s a LOT of time! We as educators have power to help shape lives with all of that time, but we can’t be scared. Be brave- no change will come from stagnation!

 

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

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As I’ve spread my passion for diverse children’s literature I’ve had many joys and unexpected victories- watching children connect, hearing other educators join in on the mission… but few compare to this. The power of diversity in literature is it can bring us together and allow us to connect to students as they share their stories with us. I had this such pleasure when my student, Ashlyn, discovered the book Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani.

I am fortunate to work in a school with a librarian who is tirelessly working to increase the diversity on the shelves. She goes above and beyond the call of duty to get new, high-interest, and diverse books on the shelves. This past week one of my students, Ashlyn, saw this graphic novel, Pashmina, and picked it up. As she was checking out I asked to see her book and did a quick flip-through. I mentioned to her that it looked interesting and to report back.

The next day she came to me to tell me she had finished and asked me if I wanted to read it too. Let me tell you, my teacher-heart was so excited. First of all, this child read the whole book in one night! Second, she wanted to allow me to share in the experience with her. I took the book and read through it quickly myself, captivated by the illustrations and the story.

Pashmina is one of a kind! It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of a young Indian-American child who has been raised by her mother in California. She has never been to India and doesn’t know much about her culture. One day she discovers a pashmina that has magical powers. When she wears it she is able to “transport” to India and learn about her culture. The graphic novel is in black and white, except for when the magical scarf transports the wearer, which then transforms the book into beautifully colored illustrations.

When I spoke to Ashlyn about the book she told me she really related to main character because like Priyanka, our main character, she too is Indian, lives in America, and has never been to India. She told me that this story helped her to discover more about Indian culture and increased her desire to go there and see the family she hasn’t met. As a teacher, I loved that in the story Priyanka struggles with her cultural identity, but in the end reclaims her identity when she reclaims her name and asks her peers to call her Priyanka instead of Pri.

This novel is a fast read but a powerful read. There were sub-plots that are above the heads of my fifth graders, but are intriguing to an older audience. The fact that this is a graphic novel makes it a show stopper. We need more diverse books, written by diverse authors, in diverse formats. Kids LOVE graphic novels so this is perfect fit for so many readers. A must have for all middle-grade classrooms!

I’m Not “Just” A Teacher

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(Pictured: Monica Goncalves- Union County TOTY 2017, Maire Cervenak- NJ DOE, Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year, and Me!)

Today I had the immense pleasure of spending time with incredible educators at the NJCTY Fall Leadership Conference. As the 2015 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year I have increased my Professional Learning Network to include so many amazing educators from across the state and beyond. This network has afforded me the opportunity to view myself as a leader in education and to imagine having a reach that goes beyond the four walls of my classroom. A few times a year I get to spend time with these incredible people and each time I leave an event I am reinvigorated.

Since my year serving as the County Teacher I’ve watched many of my peers leave the classroom. I’ve watched them enter administration, jobs at the DOE, working for companies as presenters, etc. Each time someone else left the classroom I felt a slight panic. I felt like I was being “left behind.” I felt like if I didn’t push myself to find what was “next” for me I’d be wasting this experience. I felt like I needed to do more because people expected me to do more. I felt like being “just” a teacher was not enough.

You see, in all other careers when you are high-achieving you get a promotion. In education all moves are lateral moves unless you leave the classroom to go into a different role. I quietly watched as each person left their room and I wondered, “What about me? What should I do next?” It was a quiet panic because I didn’t have something I wanted to do next…. I wanted to teach. But was that enough?

I applied for a job I thought I really wanted. When I didn’t get it I began to doubt if I was good enough. I began to wonder if there was a “next” for me. At the urging of many well-meaning educators I applied to graduate school to get my administration degree. I got in, I paid my deposit, I enrolled… and then, a few weeks before classes were to begin,  I deferred my enrollment. You see, at this point in my career, I don’t want to leave the classroom. I don’t want to do anything other than what I’m currently doing. I’m young and my career ahead of me is long, so I reserve the right to change my mind at some time, but for now I am CHOOSING to be “just” a teacher.

There is a push for teacher leadership. To allow educators to stay in the classroom but have a bigger voice. This is what speaks to my soul. I look at Pernille Ripp, who has a hugely transformative role in education and is arguably a “household name” in the world of reading instruction, but she’s still in her classroom. I look at Colby Sharp, who is pushing us to think about reading and book access for kids, and he is still in his classroom. And I think… maybe I can find a way to lead… but not leave.

You see, as a parent, when I think of my child’s teachers, they are not “just” a teacher. They are the person I am trusting to form my child’s educational journey. They are a name we say daily in our homes, a person we discuss at dinner. They are the person he respects more than me most of the time. They are rock stars… they are not “just” a teacher.

The need for leadership, to have a voice, to be heard, has been sparked and cannot be dimmed. My experiences as a County Teacher of the Year and the ongoing role that it plays in my life has lit a fire that cannot go out. I will never look at education as just what happens in my classroom, but always as a part of a larger picture. I will continue to push myself to achieve more, to increase my voice and my reach, but I will never be “just” a teacher. I am a teacher. I am a teacher leader. I am someone who believes that people who choose to stay in the classroom have something to bring to the table. I do not believe that the only way to be heard is to leave. I refuse to believe that I am “less than” because I do not have ambitions beyond a classroom. I believe that strong passionate teachers are the backbone of this society, and because of that, I am NOT “just” a teacher.

The Invisible Boy

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When you begin looking into the world of diverse children’s literature and the research surrounding it you will quickly stumble upon the concept of “windows and mirrors.” Windows are books that open your eyes to the experience of others, letting you see in to a world unfamiliar to yours. Mirrors are books that reflect your personal experience, validating your experiences, and deepening your understanding of who you are. Kids need both types of books in order to grow as people. As I read this story, The Invisible Boy by Patrice Barton, I felt I had the opportunity to view this through both a window and a mirror. That is such a powerful experience!

In this story we meet Brian. Brian reminds me a lot of my son in some ways. He’s sweet and kind, but he can easily blend in to the background because he does as he’s told but doesn’t “stand out”. In preschool a teacher once said she almost “forgets he’s there” referring to my son because he’s so good and quiet. While she meant it as a compliment, I was sad… knowing that to her, my son was invisible. When I first read this book I was taken back to that moment. Fortunately for my son he doesn’t struggle socially the way Brian does, but for many kids, that struggle is so real. When Brian couldn’t find a partner I could remember all the times I told kids to “pick a partner” and you see the frantic eyes as they search for someone to partner up with. When the kids were picking teams at recess and Brian wasn’t chosen, I thought of my own experiences in gym class. I was always chosen last because athletic abilities are pretty low down on my list of strengths. Brian provided so many mirrors for me to my own life that I instantly loved him.

Yet, this book also gave me the brilliant exposure to a mirror through Justin. Justin comes to school and is new to class. He is Korean and has bulgogi for lunch. He faces the experience of being an outsider culturally and the implications it has on his first day. Yet, we also have Brian… sweet, sweet, Brian, who extends himself to include Justin, literally breathing light and color into Brian’s life. The illustrations and the use of color/black and white added such a deep element of conversation for my students.

The Invisible Boy was a valuable book that showcases a child from a diverse background without the whole focus of the book being on his “differences.” It showed the importance of reaching out to others and being inclusive. It taught kindness and compassion. It touched me and I think it’s a book we all need in our classrooms.

Alma and How She Got Her Name

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Today was day #8 of school and this wonderful story, Alma and How She Got Her Name is the fourth book I’ve read that focuses on a child and their name. To some that may seem like overkill, but I’m doing it with a purpose. The purpose is to make it clear to my kids that their name has value. That their identity has power. That who they are is enough, is worthy, and should be respected. I’m driving the point home by repeatedly reinforcing through the use of diverse children’s literature that our cultural identities are who we are and that should not be hidden or something to be embarrassed by.

In this story we meet Alma, who doesn’t like her name because it is so long. As her father explains to her what each of her names means and why they were chosen she comes to see that each of these names truly represents her, making it the perfect name for her. It’s an adorable story, perfect for young elementary kids (although my 5th graders enjoyed it). My personal favorite part was the last page where the author explains why she wrote this book and explains how as a child in Peru she didn’t appreciate her name until she came to America. The questions posed open up conversation and allow kids to share their own identities.

All of these books focusing on the power of our names have had a huge impact. For years I’ve been teaching in a school where the vast majority of my students have names that are traditional to their various cultures. For years and years I’ve said their names wrong and the kids never corrected me, even when I asked them to. But this year? This year is so different. My kids are really working with me to help me learn their names and pronounce them correctly. They aren’t scared to correct me because we are building a community of respect. They believe me when I say I want to say their names correctly because I’m devoting so much time to sharing with them the value in a name. I now see that while I told them to correct me if I was wrong in the past I didn’t reinforce the value of their identity, and these books have made all the difference.

Always Anjali

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Today I read Always Anjali to my class and I can say, with complete confidence, that this book embodies why I have made my mission as an educator to spread the value, necessity, and importance of reading diverse books. I held this beautifully illustrated book in my hands, and before I even read a word, a little girl in my class raised her hand  and said, “Anjali is my grandmother’s name.” A little boy from the back chimed in, “Yeah! That’s my sister’s name!” Prior to me even reading the book my kids knew this was a book that would represent their culture. One little girl raised her hand and asked, “Is this an Indian book?” I told the class it was and she said, “Oh, cool!”

This opened up the conversation I’ve been dying to have. My kids don’t know me yet, we’ve only been together 7 days, so they’re not ready to open up their hearts and souls. And that’s ok- that’ll come. But I’ve been dying to ask them if they feel represented in traditional literature. So I asked, knowing the conversation would likely be very surface level. One boy, oh so eloquently and well beyond his 10 years, said, “Even if Indian students are the majority in our town, we make up only 2% of the population in America. We are not represented in books.” We went on to discuss how sometimes we see traits of ourselves in books and characters, but many of us don’t see our cultures, religions, family dynamics, and countries of origin. (Well, except for in book 4 of Harry Potter as both classes quickly pointed out!)

I loved the conversations that Always Anjali opened up with my class, even with us still not knowing each other the way we will a few months from now. We discussed what it’s like to find our names on fun souvenirs at amusement parks, and why many of us don’t. We discussed outright racism and how using something that is valuable to one’s culture (specifically a bindi) and using it as an insult is demeaning. We marveled at the incredible illustrations that truly set this book apart from many others. We cheered for Anjali as she found her confidence in herself to be proud of who she was. Whether your name is Mary, Courtney, or Anjali, this book showed us the value of embracing who we are, and with my students approaching that tender age of pre-teen life, I can’t think of a more important lesson.