10 Criteria for Choosing Diverse Texts for Your Classroom
Can you hear me clapping? Can you hear me screaming in happiness? If you can't, imagine one excited English teacher from Kalamazoo, MI that is proud and excited her district is approving thousands of dollars in research to help infuse the curriculums and classrooms in it with diverse literature in grades Kindergarten through 8th grade. Currently, I am working on a team of teachers to read, research, and review hundreds of diverse texts.
Now, these curated booklists are not a new phenomenon. However, something I appreciate is that the district is asking the teachers their opinion to choose these texts. It also brings up the conversation that there is a significant amount of criteria that goes into choosing a text that will increase the comprehension and cultural relevance in a classroom and a curriculum. This feels less like reinventing the wheel and more like we are getting our voices heard in choosing texts that will create a cohesive curriculum that is heading in the direction of cultural proficiency.
This cultural competency continuum is the same image that my district uses in our cultural responsiveness professional developments each fall. As the district strives to reach proficiency, keeping in mind misconceptions about the reason why we put these diverse texts in our classrooms in the first place is an excellent reminder of the purpose of the work. Jennifer Gonzalez from Cult of Pedagogy discusses the first misconception of culturally responsive teaching in that people think it is synonymous with multicultural education and social justice work. In summation, the reason why we put diverse texts in our classroom in order to be more responsive is that it helps our individual students meet their "learning capacity" as stated by Zaretta Hammond. Each student needs to see themselves represented in texts and needs to also see themselves not represented in texts to become more aware learners.
Simply, have a class of all white children? They need to see inside and outside of themselves. Have a class of all children of color? They still need to see inside and outside of themselves.
The goal of diverse literature is to provide a window to the inside and outside of self.
Before the work began, everyone read the article from Teaching for Change entitled "Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children's Books." This article provides an excellent summary on how to avoid stereotyping and examine characters engaging in change. After reading this article, I have come up with my own personal checklist that contains 10-point criteria when it comes to reviewing these books that I wanted to share with my fellow teachers looking to revise their curriculums and add more diverse texts to their shelves.
Note: This post does contain Amazon affiliate links to books and products.
All authors are able to write about diversity. Many misconceptions stem from the idea of infusing our shelves with diverse literature and banning white authors from shelves. This is not the case. Instead, the focus is on including diverse authors as much as other authors and looking at the experiences that our white authors are presenting in their texts. It is invaluable to present insider perspective. Each year I have the same conversation with students, "Can female authors capture male perspectives in the text?" The short answer is yes.
However, an insider perspective cannot be replaced.
Don't immediately exclude white authors because they are outsiders. Immediately include diverse authors of all races and ethnicities so that there is a balance of color represented in your authors. Simply, because the world of publishing is disproportionate in the representation of color in authorship. If the author is in the white majority, how do they represent characters? How do they display people of color in their texts? Looking into the upbringing and background of the author is integral in getting students to understand writers and how they write. Remember, at the end of the day, I am encouraging all students to be authors. They need to see themselves in the books they read.
Amazon summary: "The two-time Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt delivers the shattering story of Joseph, a father at thirteen, who has never seen his daughter, Jupiter. After spending time in a juvenile facility, he’s placed with a foster family on a farm in rural Maine. Here Joseph, damaged and withdrawn, meets twelve-year-old Jack, who narrates the account of the troubled, passionate teen who wants to find his baby at any cost. In this riveting novel, two boys discover the true meaning of family and the sacrifices it requires."
#2: Published/Copyright Date
I tend to favor recently published material. I want my students to have what is current in their hands the same way I want what is currently published in my hands. But we also need to honor those stories that need to be told again and again. I like to look for texts that are within the 10-year or newer range. Often, you see older texts leaning more towards stereotyping characters of color through a lens of attempting "historical accuracy." Instead, look to texts that represent characters in current texts and historical texts outside of stereotyping, tokenism, and invisibility. There are some older texts that remain classics and in the class novel rotation due to quality of representation. Here is oen of them:
Maniac Magee was written in 2003, so it technically falls outside of my criteria for wanting new texts. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. I have the best conversations with students about this book about the topic of color blindness. I also love how Jerry Spinelli deliberately uses commas in a series repeatedly throughout the text. This makes it a mentor writing hit!
Amazon summary: "When Jeffrey Lionel Magee, a scruffy 12-year-old kid, wanders into Two Mills, Pennsylvania, a legend is in the making."
I feel like this debate has been everywhere right now in the world of English Education. Should we talk to kids about their Lexile or reading levels? While I don't believe in focusing in on levels as the point of conversation, I do believe we should be having conversations about reading habits with readers. I don't hide levels from students, but I don't make them feel less than because they are where they are.
We can talk about levels in a human way.
All too often, I see teachers putting books in front of kids that aren't at their reading level. Now, research supports that students should get a choice about the books they put in front of them, but as I put it to a commenter on the blog: "You need choice and structure to move struggling readers." Having frank conversations with students about their reading level leads to results for the reader, not just the teacher. So often, we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings about their low reading level when in reality we just bring students into the fight regarding their low reading scores. This then shows them how to help themselves and participate in the learning you are providing.
I like to have the student on my team when fighting back against deficits in reading comprehension and fluency.
I like to use the Lexile Finder in order to gauge my books. The Lexile Framework for Reading shows the levels where they put letters on the elementary scale, percentiles, and also shows Lexile bands. All of the metrics are used to help diagnose a given reading level and ability.
Ghost Boys is a HL360 Lexile book. While 360 is far below middle school grade level, this text has content that appeals to this age group. The High Low Lexile Level makes this text accessible to struggling readers. Reading Rockets provides a great article here about the appeal of High Low Lexile books.
Amazon summary: "Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that's been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing.
Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey towards recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father's actions.
Once again Jewell Parker Rhodes deftly weaves historical and socio-political layers into a gripping and poignant story about how children and families face the complexities of today's world, and how one boy grows to understand American blackness in the aftermath of his own death."
#4: Grade Level
Just like Lexile, grade-level content also matters to the book selection. Think of this criteria in terms of grade-level appropriateness. This can also spark a heated debate as one teacher may feel like profanity is not a barrier to grade-level selection as another teacher is adamant in the idea of no curse words. Some teachers develop coping skills in teaching students to look at situations of violence. An example of this would be my entire Advanced 7th-grade curriculum focusing in on the 1940's Decade of Change. Images like those seen in Auschwitz are always up for debate In terms of grade-level consideration; however, more often than not it is left up to the teacher discretion what they are presenting to students. Here are some points to consider:
Violence/Use of Weapons
Situations of Fear
Common Sense Media provides an interesting breakdown by age grouping if you are completely lost. I always urge new teachers to go with their gut regarding what you are showing students. Ask yourself these three questions: 1.) Do they need to see it? 2.) Is it important to their understanding of the world that they view or read it? 3.) Will they become better people based on the lesson?
Maus I is the first book I teach to my Advanced 7th Grade students. It makes an excellent choice for the grade level content area due to the general topic of the Holocaust, but specifically "The Prisoner on the Hell Planet" section where there is some nudity and profanity.
Amazon summary: "A brutally moving work of art—widely hailed as the greatest graphic novel ever written—Maus recounts the chilling experiences of the author’s father during the Holocaust, with Jews drawn as wide-eyed mice and Nazis as menacing cats.
Maus is a haunting tale within a tale, weaving the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father into an astonishing retelling of one of history's most unspeakable tragedies. It is an unforgettable story of survival and a disarming look at the legacy of trauma."
Looking at diverse texts often instigates a binary approach to choosing texts. We want texts with white characters. We want texts with black characters. However, the spectrum is more than this binary. This diversity wheel by Johns Hopkins University provides a more inclusive approach to what we need to be looking for when selecting diverse texts:
Examining this wheel, we can reiterate the obvious: Selecting diverse texts is more than choosing texts that contain a variety of races or ethnicities. The goal of putting diverse texts into a classroom curriculum or classroom library is to promote an awareness of a diversity in all areas. Proficiency results by promoting an understanding of culture at all levels. Therefore, including an array of races and ethnicities seems to be the default in choosing diverse texts in the classroom. However, the lens needs to be larger to include gender, sexual orientation, income, ability, national origin, age, etc.
Amazon summary: "This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.
When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.
This is a happy-meaningful romantic comedy about finding love, losing love, and doing what it takes to get love back in a crazy-wonderful world."
I like to look at genre to provide depth to a curriculum or scope just as I would other factors that pertain to categories. I don't want all historical fiction or non-fiction. I want to mix in novels-in-verse, fantasy, adventure, dystopian texts, and more. I teach middle school so the drive of looking at what is appealing to students is inherently linked to what genre the text belongs to overall. I want students to learn how to examine different genres in order to provide a new scope and sequence for them as writers. Remember, when we teach them how to be writers we are encouraging them to imitate the authors we put in front of them. This makes it necessary to put authors of color and each category in front of our students that can relate to them.
Amazon summary: "With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering," announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he's got mad beats, too, that tell his family's story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander."
"Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story's heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family."
The guide that I mentioned at the start of this post talks in-depth about avoiding stereotypes, tokenism, and invisibility in diverse text selection. This may be the hardest category to pin down because often outsiders are judging insider texts. When considering stereotypes, the "Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children's Books" by Louise Derman-Sparks states, "A stereotype is an oversimplified generalization about a particular identity group (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, ability/disability), which usually carries derogatory, inaccurate messages and applies them to ALL people in the group. Stereotypes dehumanize people. So, too, does misinformation." The same applies to tokenism and invisibility. The question should be what do readers see when they look at characters?
I always ask teachers to look at what the image of the person represented in the text portrays. Here are some questions to ponder when looking for these areas in texts:
Is the image historically accurate?
Does it represent people in the current context?
Is the image representing an entire group of people?
Is there only one type of character in the text?
Are there inaccurate depictions of characters?
Lions of Little Rock contains a setting in the Civil Rights Movement, yet she also integrates characters that step outside the bounds of stereotypes. While there are some token characters in the text, Levine creates a world where there is another type of character to offset the token or stereotype. She weaves a story that takes a stance against stereotyping and tokenism.
Amazon summary: "As twelve-year-old Marlee starts middle school in 1958 Little Rock, it feels like her whole world is falling apart. Until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is everything Marlee wishes she could be: she's brave, brash and always knows the right thing to say. But when Liz leaves school without even a good-bye, the rumor is that Liz was caught passing for white. Marlee decides that doesn't matter. She just wants her friend back. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are even willing to take on segregation and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families."
I like to balance narration and character representation in books. For example, my Advanced Sixth grade curriculum has 4 books with female protagonists and 1 book with a male protagonist. It's obvious that this gender balance leans toward the female perspective, but we must remember that there is more than just the male or female perspective sitting in our classrooms. My goal is to provide an insider perspective to those voices that are not in my classroom and who are in my classroom. This certainly ties back to category, but you are also looking closer at writer's craft when choosing what characters to put in children's hands. My goal is always to provide a balance again of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, and more.
Amazon summary "Inspired by the author's childhood experience as a refugee—fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama—this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child's-eye view of family and immigration.
Hà has only ever known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope—toward America.
This moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing received four starred reviews, including one from Kirkus which proclaimed it "enlightening, poignant, and unexpectedly funny."
An author's note explains how and why Thanhha Lai translated her personal experiences into Hà's story. This paperback edition also includes an interview with the author, an activity you can do with your family, tips on writing poetry, and discussion questions."
#9: Cross-Curricular Opportunity
Anytime I can work with my colleagues to tag-team a project, I will. I have an amazing Social Studies teacher that conducts an amazing unit on environmentalism and pollution. She also has another unit that we team up on talking about child labor. For that project, I use Iqbal by Francesco D'Adamo or I Am Malala. We always meet before we begin a project and look at the end assessment. Often, we will approach a paper from two different perspectives to see the complexities there are in writing.
Amazon summary: "It's city-girl Maddy's first summer in the bayou, and she just falls in love with her new surroundings - the glimmering fireflies, the glorious landscape, and something else, deep within the water, that only she can see. Could it be a mermaid? As her grandmother shares wisdom about sayings and signs, Maddy realizes she may be the only sibling to carry on her family's magical legacy. And when a disastrous oil leak threatens the bayou, she knows she may also be the only one who can help. Does she have what it takes to be a hero? Jewell Parker Rhodes weaves a rich tale celebrating the magic within."
#10: Writing Style/Appeal to Readers
There are books that kids just can't put down. It is hard to teach students to quantify writing style, and even though I give them the voice by using the six traits of writing, I know that sometimes a good book is just a good book. I often find that this travels with certain authors as well. An example of this is Jason Reynolds. I literally have had a group of struggling students scream at me to not stop reading...and they had an option to leave to go see a reward movie. When we have stories like this that relate to readers and pull them in we can't deny them in our classrooms.
Amazon summary: "An ode to Put the Damn Guns Down, this is National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestseller Jason Reynolds’s fiercely stunning novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.
A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.
And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.
Writing Mindset Reflection: Make some books recommendations in the comments below! What diverse texts do you use to mentor writing?