Teacher to Teacher: A Bridge to Diversity
By Janice Ewing
In a , guest poster Stacey Shubitz talked about the values of ‘mirrors and windows’ in children’s books, specifically in relation to their use as mentor texts. Stacey also expressed the view that books dealing with diverse characters and families should not be reserved for special months. I strongly agree, although I also feel that there can be value in highlighting particular groups at certain times, especially if it gives us, as teachers, the motivation to explore new texts, authors, or genres. Stacey also shared a list of excellent titles that may provide mirrors to some, windows to others, great readalouds/mentor texts for many.
So here’s something I’ve been thinking about – what are some strategies for the teacher who wants to embed more diversity into the classroom library, readaloud, and/or writers’ workshop, but has concerns about taking the leap into topics that might be controversial or out of his/her comfort zone? For most teachers in today’s climate, I would think (hope) that books featuring racial or religious diversity would not be cause for concern, other than that they portray authentic portraits, without stereotypes or tokenism. Can we say the same for books that portray non-traditional families, or explore sexual orientation? I think for many teachers, these are more complicated issues.
In response to this concern, I have been exploring a concept that I’m calling ‘bridge books.’ I’m suggesting that teachers might share a book that they are either already familiar with, or, if not, would most likely be comfortable sharing with their students, and then use that book as a bridge to another book that might be more of a stretch. Here are a few examples:
- Many primary teachers are familiar with the work of Kevin Henkes. Chrysanthemum, in which a little girl is the object of teasing due to her unusual name, is a popular choice, particularly at the beginning of the school year, when teachers are highly aware of building community. Could the conversation and reflection that results from that book build a bridge to one of the excellent titles from Stacey’s List, Stella Brings the Family, by Miriam B. Schiffer and Holly Clifton-Brown, in which a kindergarten girl is teased for drawing two moms in her family picture? How about a gem I recently discovered―Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchinio and Isabelle Malefant, in which a kindergarten boy is teased for wanting to wear a dress, or 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, in which a young man’s scorned dreams of design come true? Can we build that bridge?
- How about a nonfiction bridge? Todd Parr is a popular writer and illustrator of books geared towards young children (enjoyed by all age groups). Among his many popular titles is The Family Book, which artfully and playfully depicts families of various configurations –honoring their differences as well as their commonalities. Could we build a bridge from that book to the highly awarded and highly challenged And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, which is based on a true story of two male penguins who care for an egg?
- For middle grade students, many teachers share R.J. Palacio’s popular and powerful Wonder. The main character, Auggie, struggles to adjust to life as a fifth-grader in a ‘regular’ classroom, in spite of a facial deformity. Readers are moved by both the cruelty and kindness that he experiences, and develop their empathy muscles. Consider this wonderful book as a bridge to others, such as Patricia Polacco’s In our Mother’s House, in which the main characters experience both bullying and support from neighbors as a result of their family structure.
- Are you familiar with Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman? The inspiring main character yearns to play the part of Peter Pan in her school play, and stands up to objections based on her race and gender. Could we extend that to George by Alex Gino, in which a transgender child, seen by others as male, yearns to play Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web? Or how about Tim Federle’s Better Nate than Ever or Five, Six, Seven, Nate, funny and poignant stories of a boy whose search for his identity takes him to Broadway!
So what do you think? Can we use the tension that some of these books might create as an opportunity for growth, for ourselves and for our students? Do we have the strength and courage to build bridges to diversity, and guide our students across them?
Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.