Teacher to Teacher: A Bridge to Diversity
By Janice Ewing
In a recent post on this blog, 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.
HI Janice! Though I didn’t get to see you at PCTELA, I did mention you―and this wonderful post―during my presentation. I love this idea of bridge books. I shared some titles at PCTELA including using something like David Levithan’s Every Day as a bridge to the question of what does gender really mean when you are “jumping” bodies every day as the man character does in that book. That could serve as a bridge to titles Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. A book like None of the Above about an intersex teen could also serve as a similar bridge to more titles like Two Boys Kissing or Ask the Passengers.
Hi, Janice. What a wonderful post. Since I’m fully immersed in the YA book world I thought I’d share some additional secondary level bridge books:
Anything Could Happen by Will Walton
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan & John Green
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Far From You by Tess Sharpe
Rapture Practice (memoire) by Aaron Hartzler
Lies We Tell Ourselves (historical fiction about desegregation) by Robin Talley
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
YA is filled with books that tackle the tough subjects (bullying, suicide, mental illness, politics, racism, rape culture, poverty, etc…. If anyone is going to the KSRA conference in a few weeks, look for me, I’m presenting with fellow YA author Tiffany Schmidt and Elisa Ludwig on this very subject – using novels to bring current events into the Language Arts/English classroom.
Again, great post, Janice.
Thank you, Kate! I will also be presenting at KSRA, with colleagues Mary Beaman and Karlene Connor. They work with students with autism and incarcerated youth, respectively, and our session is called “Honoring All Voices.” I hope we can all connect there.
Great! I, too, hope we can connect at KSRA.
Great list Kate! I haven’t ready many of these titles but I added them to my reading list. Have you read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Saenz? I feel that this story would be excellent at bridging the topic of marriage equality.
Thanks, RJ. I haven’t read that book, but I shall definitely add it to my TBR pile!!
Hello Ms. Ewing,
I am a graduate student at West Chester University and I loved your column. I had always thought that the best was to combat intolerance and ignorance is from the grassroots. If children are brought up being exposed to those different from themselves and are taught that that is okay, I would think that there is a much better chance of them growing into accepting, well rounded adults, perhaps even if their parents are not as open. However, I did wonder about how one might go about bringing up such delicate topics especially in the classroom. You have a great idea of easing the children in with a “bridge book”. Acclimating children to the world around is more important now than ever and your gentle approach sounds ideal. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t myself interested in some of your mentioned titles. (Especially the one about the two male penguins). I wonder if such a technique could be applied at a secondary education level or perhaps at that age children don’t need such a gentle touch and could be exposed to more direct and frank pieces.
Samantha, thank you for your feedback. I’m glad this post resonated with you. A couple of recent commenters added suggestions for applying this idea in secondary classrooms.
In response to Janice’s question, there are young adult novels that may be used to teach diversity. I took a course in young adult literature in the spring, and the instructor suggested the following novels to address diversity at the secondary level: ‘None of the Above’ by I.W. Gregorio, ‘My Heart and Other Black Holes’ by Jasmine Warga, and ‘Simon vs, the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli.
Yvonne, thanks for sharing those titles. They were new to me, and I’ll look for them.
Janice, thank you for your wonderful post! I love embracing new teaching concepts, and your idea to use ‘bridge books’ is a fresh take on introducing more complicated issues into the classroom.
Since your strategy seems more directed towards elementary and middle grades, I, too, was curious about how ‘bridge books’ would play a part in the secondary classroom. At the high school level, I feel we are fortunate to have a large selection of controversial pieces at our disposal. Perhaps a relevant and familiar short story or poem would be considered a form of a ‘bridge book’? The brevity of these pieces allows for a nice transition into literature that embraces a bigger ‘mirror or window’ on a more complicated topic. It’s an idea I would be willing to try.
Thank you for getting my wheels to turn on the subject!
I love the idea of using a poem or short story as a bridge. If you try it, I hope you’ll share some examples.
What an interesting read! I too believe that diversity should be something discussed outside of special months and times during the school year, but I also see your point about using these special moments to highlight books that open the door for discussion. I think that the best discussions often come when we are challenged to think differently and your idea for bridge books is an excellent way to ease students into this. Lately, I have been very interested in creative non-fiction and I love that you use non-fiction texts as a bridge; I think it’s a great idea to use fiction as the bridge for this, because I know as a student myself, non-fiction stories always pack the biggest punch and allow me to think the most.
Lastly, I agree that at the secondary level, bridge books are not as needed, but they definitely have a place, especially if you have students read a fiction or non-fiction piece first and then they choose from a variety of options to read independently. Bridge books at this level would then serve as an opening to many possibilities for students to explore on their own.
Thanks, Gabriella. I love creative nonfiction too. For me, it’s the best of both worlds — I’m learning something new within the context of a story. I definitely agree that “the best discussions come when we are challenged to think differently…” It’s an exciting part of our role as teachers to facilitate those discussions!
Janice, thank you for such a timely and innovative approach to a sensitive topic, Your “bridge” method paves the way for sharing of texts more comfortably among teachers and with students.
I love your notion of using bridge books to help teachers transition into texts that they might otherwise be uncomfortable “drop-sharing” (sharing without an introduction into possibly offensive subject matter).
You seem to be talking mainly about younger children. Do you think that there are similar bridge books for the secondary classroom? It may be that high school students have reached a maturity level at which bridge books aren’t needed. Since they are older and have experienced more, I think secondary students may be able to digest “touchy” subject matter more easily. What are your thoughts?
Thank you for your response. I love the term ‘drop-sharing’! I do think there’s a place for bridge books at the secondary level, although possibly not as much of a need. I hope that others will offer some suggestions.