Messenger number two came in the way of an online graduate course I took on cultural pluralism in children’s literature. The course challenged me to look at my collection with a new, more inclusive lens and frankly, I found this new insight a bit shocking. For example, a look at a classic book, The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, that was (at that time) still being shared as a read aloud by one of my colleagues, a classroom teacher, turned my view of the book on its head. A discussion on the American Girls’ Historical Fiction series published by The Pleasant Company had a similar effect on me. At the time, I just couldn’t believe that I, a self-defined “open-minded” library teacher with a former career in publishing, could possibly overlook the very evident colonialism in these text and yet I did. I was a bit horrified at my own ignorance, my own lack of understanding that a great story doesn’t necessarily equal a great representation of a population.
So from there I got thinking about what I might be able to do in my little homogenous corner to bring the whole wide world to the school library in the K-5 school where I am the Library Research Teacher. How could I get my elementary students to read books outside of their comfort zones? How could I get my Diary of a Wimpy Kid readers to read a book about brave kids who persevered despite living in poverty, in war torn countries, experiencing trauma, being prejudiced against for any number of reasons, etc.? How could I get my students to see the world through a lens beyond white privilege? And while I hesitate to use the term “white privilege” and some may challenge me on it, I needed to be honest and realistic about my school community. In my district, we luckily live in a world of mostly “Haves” but there are definitely the “Have Nots” and I want ALL my kids to understand that regardless of where they fall on the pendulum of socio-economics and life experiences, they are ALL equally valued, loved and belong here and thus, need to treat one another with the exact same level of understanding.
I’m not suggesting that students in my district, or similar districts, are to be blamed for being culturally ignorant about other populations. I am also not suggesting that within my own district there are not students who have unique experiences, or students who face trauma and/or prejudice. However, after the graduate course on multiculturalism and the lenses I found that I myself was looking through in life and literature, I knew I had to do something to instill more cultural sensitivity among my students - especially since our district was tying a core value to this understanding.
My attempt at addressing my concerns came in the form of a reading challenge for my 3rd, 4th and 5th graders. I decided to challenge those students who were mature enough to wrap their brains around the idea of inclusivity to read a certain number of multicultural books or global literature by mid-year and they would be rewarded with both knowledge and a small prize. Because I have real estate on report cards, I tied the first half of the challenge to their “literature” skills grade and made their effort mandatory. The second half of the year students were encouraged to continue with the challenge and if successful, would then receive a second prize in June. The class at each grade level with the highest percentage of participation throughout the year also would win a popsicle party the last week of school! Who doesn’t want a popsicle party in June?!
I set up some parameters that are not 100% hard and fast and can easily be tweaked based on the student population if others want to try the challenge out. Qualifying books can be any genre, any reading level (so differentiated learning is not an issue - all students are equally capable of achieving the goal), even picture books with no words count in the challenge as long as they have a multicultural or global element (think Allen Say’s books!). To be clear, I’m defining multicultural and global lit as any text, fiction or nonfiction, any genre, any reading level, that feature people or places that involve marginalized societies, disadvantaged individuals mentally, physically, socio-economically, or historically, or are simply culturally or globally focused.
This is a challenge that EVERY student can meet! I want my kids to be reading about the whole wide world and come away with the understanding that not everyone is like them and yet, (hopefully) they should, and will, embrace EVERYONE. Not every child’s experience is the same and so, in order for the world to get along we must try to understand one another and imagine walking in someone else’s shoes. I run book clubs for Grades 3, 4 and 5 in the library so try to pull in multi-cultural reads on our book lists so the members can “double dip." I allow family read alouds, audio books and books read aloud to students (outside of school) to count toward the challenge. Really the only thing “not allowed” to log in for the Challenge are books I read aloud to the kids or books read aloud by the classroom teacher.
To keep track of progress, I have Reading Challenge Log Sheets in a binder kept in the library. Students are reminded each week to log in their recent multicultural/global lit reads by Title, Author and Culture during Library Class. The binder is available for them to log in books independently any time throughout the year so they do not need to wait for Library Class.
I am in year 4 of the Multicultural/Global Lit Reading Challenge and in retrospect it has been the most fulfilling and successful initiative I have implemented in my 14 years working in the school library. My kids discover worlds so beyond their own experiences and it makes them hungry for more learning about this great big world that we all share. Try it...I hope you enjoy it as much as my students and I have! We have learned so much about people and experiences different from ours. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of recommended books.