Throughout my tenure at Books of Wonder, my responsibilities shifted and evolved. When Covid-19 forced the store to close and left me jobless, the work was perfectly in line with my personal values. I had become the school outreach manager—a job that seamlessly wove together school & library marketing, professional development trainer, and event planning .
I collaborated with parent volunteers and our school book fair book buyer to create book fair events unique to each school community. I created timelines for the events, handled logistics, and managed sales staff for the book fairs.
I booked authors for school events and created an educator night at the store for publishers to pitch their newest titles.
But the aspect of my job that I really loved was meeting with teachers and administrators to talk about the importance of diverse books. We talked about the Lee & Low Baseline Survey and the CCBC statistics and infographic. I pitched the newest #ownvoices titles and made a few sales. We had honest conversations about parents who might throw up obstacles to LGBQIA+ content. (Most often, the administrators who invited me in said, “Send them to me.”)
Now, I’m thrilled to see that lists (that have existed for a long time) of #ownvoices books are making the rounds on social media. Educators are jumping in and that’s a great thing because increasing and constant school & library demand for these books will ensure that they continue to be published.
I have long advocated for changes to required reading lists to include newer and more diverse titles but there are a series of arguments that keep these lists frozen in time. (BTW: You can replace “lists” with “classroom libraries” in all of the following arguments.) Some of these lists are frozen in time with the excuse that the books on them appear on state and national tests. Some of them are frozen in time because the school has class-sets of those books and has not/will not allocate resources for new titles. Some say they cannot change the list because the books are “classics.” (I urge those teachers to ask themselves, classic for whom?) Some think that because their classrooms are filled with majority white students, that their lists are just fine. Some say they just don’t have the time.
But some of them are frozen in time because educators are used to teaching those books or feel like an imposter teaching other books.
A couple of stories:
- I once taught at a school where a teacher had a file of 180 index cards each with her daily teaching plan. She was a veteran teacher, and while I don’t know how long she’d been using those cards, she didn’t deviate from her plans in the five years I taught at that school. That meant any student-led inquiry had to be contained within her box of index cards.
- I advocated for new more diverse literature to be added to my son’s AP English required reading in 2017. My plea started when I saw the list at an open house and continued back and forth with the teacher and my school board member until the teacher finally emailed this:
Teachers, at least teachers like me, select art from an extremely personal place. I am not capable of teaching certain books well, because I don’t have a deep connection to them.
Since your question at open house I have been trying to nail down why I don’t teach more authors of color; why I don’t feel a strong enough connection to many authors who are not white Europeans. The answer is simple: I’m a white woman, educated in Canada and Europe, with a focus on Slavic languages (still white, though). The literature I know I can teach well (which may be different from the stuff I read) comes out of those European traditions.
The other truth that rushed in before I shut the door on this insight was that what we need isn’t so much white, middle-class ladies teaching about the African or Hispanic or Asian experience to our very white population, which always seemed a little fishy to me–what we need is to hire teachers of color. That is the perspective we are actually missing, in my opinion.
Absolutely, schools that hire all white faculty need to do better. But in my opinion, that is not an excuse to rob all children from reading widely. To me, teaching literature, teaching anything really, is not about knowing everything. It is about curiosity, passion, lifelong learning, and being vulnerable to new learning in a way that inspires your students to do the same.
If your reaction to updating your required reading lists, your classroom libraries, and your curriculum is, “I don’t know enough about these books,” here are some suggestions.
- Use this summer as an opportunity for professional development and take a Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ literature class at your local university.
- Read more.
- Research more.
- Invite local scholars to talk to the class and pay them.
- Plan virtual visits to museums that highlight the author, history, or the culture depicted in the text.
- Plan virtual author visits and pay the authors.
Or…say to your students on day one. “This year we are changing our required reading list and I’m learning too. Over the next three weeks we will come up with a list of criteria together, do research, and change this list to reflect diverse, high-quality, literature.” Students are amazing. They are demanding change.
And where there is demand, there needs to be supply.