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Our classroom libraries are in trouble. Just as more teachers are learning that their libraries need books that reflect their student populations, they also have to fight policies at the district and state levels that ban many of these same books from their libraries. Florida, for example, is banning certain materials in classroom libraries and taking away teachers’ discretion when selecting the materials for their students. The consequences for breaking this law are severe and can include felony charges. The juxtaposition of outdated, one-dimensional libraries with policies that embrace censorship is extremely troubling for teachers and students alike.
As new laws and regulations threaten our ability to do what we do best (tailor our instruction to our students), we must take every chance we have to support all our students. We have to ensure now that all of our students can access affirming, inclusive stories in spite of these policies.
With a little time and organization, you can revamp your library to include books that reflect the students who are in your class and highlight those who are not.
Look at your students.
Before you even start buying new books for your library, look at your class. Who are they? What are their backgrounds? Are any of your students neurodivergent? What do their families look like? What are their religions? What are their interests? Look beyond race and gender.
Take all your students’ unique interests and features into consideration. Make sure to organize and record your students’ demographics and data. Whether you create spreadsheets, color-code index cards, or scrawl ideas on the back of an old faculty meeting agenda, make sure to keep notes on your students.
I taught an athletic boy who loved football. His favorite books were Disney princess books. If I had not asked him about his preferences, I would have provided him with football and sports books. He read every princess book from cover to cover. Boys’ interests may lie outside of typical gender stereotypes as well. Don’t make assumptions or forget to ask students directly what they want to read.
Another student of mine, an eight-year-old White boy, loved it when he found a book about a squirrel with food allergies “just like him.” He is very well represented in children’s books regarding characters that look like him, but this character experienced something that he had to deal with in a way that other kids didn’t. If representation trickles down to such a nuanced level, we must find books in which all kids can see themselves.
Students also need to see the success of people who don’t look like them, so even if you have a relatively homogenous population of students, make sure to include books that focus on other demographics. Children absorb so much of the content they see in all types of media. When children repeatedly see certain groups of people portrayed stereotypically, they are more likely to internalize that representation as accurate. We want students to see those who are different from them portrayed positively. Everyone, especially those who are well represented, such as students who are White, male, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied, or Christian, needs to see the layers of diversity in society and understand that they are one part of a larger community.
Inventory your library.
If you want to inventory your library yourself, do it in stages and start earlier in the school year (or before the year even starts). Try getting through one shelf or one bin at a time. If you want to be successful at updating your library, don’t do it all at once in the middle of the year, or it will likely feel very overwhelming.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask your students to get involved. They’ll get to see what’s in the library that they already like, and they will purge things that they don’t like. If you start with mini-lessons on genre and other ways to organize books, you can spend a few days giving groups of students baskets or shelves of books to peruse. They can sort the books into piles based on genre, including a discard pile. Take the last 10-15 minutes of each lesson to have students reshelve or replace the books into baskets, along with a new label for the new categories.
Alternatively, you can create a center during your ELA block. You can set out one basket of books a day on the rug or a table and have a group work together to organize them into new genres or categories. Provide new or recycled baskets and new labels for the students to use.
Make sure while you are reorganizing your books that you keep a running list of what you have in each genre so that you can fill in the gaps later. One teacher devised a free, downloadable spreadsheet that you can use to track your books. The easiest way to do the inventory is to sit with each group and record the titles as they place the newly organized books back into their baskets. Students may be able to fill in the inventory for you, starting in third grade.
Compare your class with your library.
Look at the notes you took on your students’ backgrounds, religions, interests, families, etc. Then look at the books you actually have. What content and genres are you missing? Start making a list.
“When I brought out Nabeel’s New Pants by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, one of my students said, ‘This is my culture! Eid is my holiday! Can we read this?!'”Your Students Deserve a Diverse Classroom Library. Here’s How to Set It Up. Click To Tweet
Pick ONE area to start expanding.
If you try to update your entire library at once, there’s a great chance that you’ll feel completely overwhelmed and not finish. It takes work to do it well. Pick just one area or genre to research and update. You’re going to have to explore titles from a few different places, so rather than trying to capture the entire spectrum of your class’s interests in one fell swoop, make small changes throughout the course of the year. If you have time and the ability to revamp your entire library at once, by all means, try it. But if you cannot do it all at once, tiny changes over time add up.
For example, if your students are interested in STEM, update your STEM section. STEM is stereotypically a male-dominated field. Instead of reinforcing that stereotype, make sure that you have examples of people from all backgrounds and genders in your books. Not just books about famous people in science and math, but stories with engineers as main characters and how-to books on science experiments. It is beneficial for all students to read about other people (who do not look like them) being successful.
Mix up your books across the board.
When you are trying to make sure students of various races see themselves reflected in texts, balance books where children of their background are the main characters with stories that focus on their specific culture. For example, select a book about fairies where the main character just so happens to be a Black girl. But, also select a book about Black girls celebrating their hair. Mix up books that center on culture with books that happen to contain characters with a certain background.
You Don’t Want a Unicorn by Ame Dyckman is a great example: It’s about a boy who loves unicorns. The main point of the story is how much he loves unicorns. It is not about how it’s okay for boys to like unicorns or what it’s like to be a person of multiple ethnicities. He just happens to be a boy, and his parents just happen to be an interracial couple.
Regarding religion, do not feel like you need to get books that teach about the tenets of various faiths. But kids do want to read stories that revolve around their holidays. The Polar Express centers around Christmas without involving religion. Many Hanukkah books tell stories infused with the magic of the holiday without being religious: The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming by Daniel Handler and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel are two examples. When I brought out Nabeel’s New Pants by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, one of my students said, “This is my culture! Eid is my holiday! Can we read this?!” Find stories that have religious celebrations as backdrops.
I read Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown with my third graders. The main character is a girl who lived in New Jersey (where I taught) and spoke Spanish. My Spanish-speaking students loved explaining the Spanish words, and I loved their connection with the book and seeing them shine.
Find informational texts, how-to manuals, poetry books, picture books, chapter books, and a plethora of characters and topics for your students to read.
Try these methods to build your diverse classroom library.
There are a few ways to find and fund new books for your classroom library.
Check social media and blogs. There are lots of groups on social media dedicated to self-published authors – many of whom are writing in order to tell their own stories and increase their own representation. You can preview many of their books for free on Kindle Unlimited. There are also quite a few blogs and groups on social media dedicated to diverse literature and representation. These pages highlight interesting new books that represent children from all walks of life.
Write a grant. Representation in literature is an important trend in education right now, so you could fund a significant amount of your library through a grant.
Use book fairs and the PTO to help. The points you get when your students order through a book catalog do add up, and if you exchange them for a few new titles every marking period, you can update your library throughout the course of the year.
While new teachers can be overwhelmed with the frequent changes happening in education, and veteran teachers can simply be tired of them, it is easy to want to turn our heads the other way. But our students need to see themselves and their peers in their books. With the increasing frequency and intensity of attacks on diverse children’s literature, we have to make sure that we do everything in our power to support all of our students. Building an equitable and inclusive library is critical to the well-being of our students, and the time to do so is now.
Jennifer Chiaramida is a former elementary Reading Specialist with over eighteen years of experience. She now writes for several companies in the edtech universe. She is passionate about literacy, libraries, and all things ELA.
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