The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani

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I evaluate every book I choose to read aloud to my students by questioning if it will provide a window or mirror to my students. Will this book reflect who they are? Will it open their eyes to a life much unlike their own? I love watching my students faces as they experience characters much like themselves, but I especially enjoy watching their faces when they realize the world is a little bigger, a little more unique, and often a lot more challenging than they expected.

As an adult, the books I read for pleasure are often windows…. I see into other people’s lives, the rich, the famous, the struggling… and I imagine. However, when I was flipping through some books in my classroom and came across The Whole Story of Half a Girl I noticed  instantly that this book might reflect my own experience. In this book our main character, Sonia, is half Indian and half Jewish American. The first part of the book really explores this sense of identity and how youth often try to figure out who they are based on the roles and identities their born into.

I was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I grew up in a town with very few Jewish people and often felt very “left out” when kids spoke of their CCD experiences, Confirmations, and more. But because my dad was Catholic, I also felt “left out” at Hebrew school… I had Christmas, Easter, and a dad with a large Jesus tattoo on his arm. Needless to say I too felt like “half a girl” in these settings.

As the story goes on, Sonia’s father loses his job and struggles with depression. As a child, both of my parents battled addiction and the mental health issues that come with that disease. Growing up, I never saw my experience reflected in books. I wonder how transformative it would have been to me as a child to see a little bit of my life in Sonia’s. I may be 34 now, but I was 11 again as I read about Sonia and deeply related to her family. It makes you feel “normal” and like you’re not alone, even when your life might feel a little abnormal. That’s the power of a great book!

Sonia also experiences all of common social struggles and triumphs that our tweens face. She had to navigate social situations, friends, standing up for who she was, and being true to herself while also navigating her home life. As a teen I often felt I had two lives- school, where I could be “normal”, and home, where I had to be an adult and handle situations many kids didn’t. I really felt if Sonia was a real person, she and I could have shared stories and been friends.

I didn’t expect to find a mirror in this book when I grabbed in from my classroom library, but that’s why we as teachers need to not just have books in our classroom, but also read them. You never know what you might find… and what student you can recommend it to who might find it to be just what they needed.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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I read Front Desk for the first time last summer (2018) and instantly knew this book was a must read for my class. At first I thought I’d start my school year with it, but I decided to “hold it” for last. Read aloud time in my class is the most precious time of our day. I teach 5th grade, and if you came into my room during read aloud, you’d see 28 kids on the rug, stools, the bookcase (not my favorite spot!), but what you wouldn’t see is anyone off task, talking, etc. It is a sacred time and the conversations that come from our read aloud are always my reminder for why I teach. I knew that Front Desk would provoke some deep conversations and I wanted to save it for when the kids knew me, knew the culture of our room, and had the comfort that comes at the end of a year spent together.

Front Desk tells the story of Mia, a child who has immigrated from China to the US. She is going to school in California, where she and her parents also run (and live) in a motel. The book covers racism on many fronts- between different races, within the same race, between the police and races, and more. It covers economic disparities and the shame some kids face when they feel “less than” their peers. It covers family dynamics, immigration, and so many issues that you could probably spend months reading and discussing this with your class.

What I love about this book the most is that it is completely age appropriate for my students, while also forcing them to think deeper, challenge their preconceived notions, and explore the world through someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t hurt that the author, Kelly Yang, is a pretty incredible inspiration for my students with an awe-inspiring story to share. I read to them a little about her before we started reading since Mia is based on her life, and they were instantly hooked.

I’m so excited that this is the book that was selected for GRA 2019 and cannot wait to share this reading experience with my class next year as well.

How Do You Measure, Measure A Year?

If you’re reading the title to this post and singling along to “Seasons of Love”… we should be friends. When I look back on my college years I can say that Rent was a defining part of my college experience. I listened to the soundtrack, saw the play, watched the movie when it eventually came out… and hearing any song from Rent will always take me back to my years in college.

As a teacher I measure a year on a different timeline than most people. To me a year starts in September and ends in August. I look at my years in terms of school years. When I look back on all the years in my career there are different events that mark the year in my memories.

When I entered the classroom in late August of 2018 I was confident of what this year would be. This would be the year I chased my passion for diversity in children’s literature. From August through January I presented on the topic three times, added countless titles to my library, and started this blog. I had the pleasure of bringing two incredible authors into my school and felt I could see my dream coming to fruition.

And then my year changed. My father got sick and ultimately died. My dad was a big supporter and a huge part of who I was. His death rocked me and still does as it’s only been 3 months. In that time it’s not that my dream changed, it’s not that my focus changed… it’s that my priorities changed. For this period of time it was about survival and perseverance.

But time has passed and I feel more like myself. I am ready to return to sharing my passion. I’m ready to get back to reviewing books and sharing this message. When I think back to how I measure this year, it’ll be a mixed bag of emotions, but while there will always be the sadness of his passing, there is also the joy in knowing I am helping to bring voice to a topic that is so important.

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


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


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


(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.