Education

Unpacking Children’s Books

Last month, my feeds were filled with mentions of antiracist books, social justice movies, statements in solidarity, and diverse book and toy purchases for younger loved ones. Are any of these things inherently bad? Of course not! But, it gave me cause to pause. Tre Johnson’s Washington Post article, “When Black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs,” is a thought-provoking read. I find myself asking, “What’s next?” How do those of us who identify and pass as white listen, learn and contribute in a way that doesn’t center whiteness or frame diversity as “diversity for white people”?

In thinking about children’s books in particular, there are significant concerns about how Black writers are treated and paid by the publishing industry and the lack of diverse representation in the field as a whole. 86% of children’s books have white main characters. This is the case despite the fact that children’s books with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) main characters sell, as reported by Dashka Slater for Mother Jones.

I hope that children’s books are unpacked with children. How do parents learn what and how to unpack concepts of race, gender identity, ableism, and class? We need to do our own work first. Read anti-racist resources. Complete an implicit bias test. Research to learn more. I’m thankful for those friends and students who were willing to teach me, but I had to do my own work, too. As a cisgender-heterosexual-white female, I’ve needed to unlearn biases and messages that I’ve received throughout my life.

A book or movie is more than just that. When we read or watch things, they become part of our moral imagination. We began to envision a world like we read or see. What we read or watch can reinforce or challenge our thoughts about ourselves and the world. (For example, there was a student who wrote their capstone on how the casting of a black male as US president in the television show, 24, helped prepare viewers for a black male president before the 2008 election.)

There’s also a downside to our moral imagination at times. How do we read stories by a variety of voices about a myriad of experiences and not assume that one person’s experience is representative of all experiences? How many stories that don’t play into problematic tropes and stereotypes get published? Again, I see this as unlearning biases and discussing what and why tropes are problematic. There’s also a need to recognize that one voice or character is just that — the voice for that one real or fictional individual — and not representative of all experiences of individuals who look or identify similarly.

How can we apply critical thinking skills to how we consume information? I approach children’s texts similarly to how I approach texts that I read or teach. Both what is and what is not included in a writing are important. And, parents and caregivers can also unpack the text as it does or does not apply and relate to their own lenses, values and experiences. If you notice in the questions below, it’s imperative to ask not just who and what, but the why.

Next, I think about how I can unpack all of this in an age-appropriate way with my seven-year-old daughter. I typically let her read books on her own, do a fast skim of what she’s reading at some point, and then discuss the text with her at a separate time.

I’ll find a time when we have five-ten minutes to talk that’s not too late and ask her to share her thoughts about the book. I’ll ask a few follow-up questions to discuss the why behind the characters’ decisions or feelings. Then I’ll share my thoughts about the book. If the text warrants multiple conversations or is a longer chapter book, we’ll talk more about it at later points.

Obviously, you know your child best. But, what books and entertainment you expose your child to and how you frame them are worth considering. If you’re reading a fairy tale, can you take a few minutes after to talk about how cisgender women don’t need saving or provide a few examples of people who found their happily ever after without being in a relationship? If you’re a white family and you’re reading a book with a main character of color, how can you discuss the book without centering whiteness or viewing the character as representative of all BIPOC individuals?

How have I approached unpacking popular children’s books? Click here for my thoughts on The Bad Seed by Jory John.

How have you approached these conversations? What resources have you found to be helpful? Any questions? Please comment below xoxo

Doing Diversity Well at Predominantly-White Schools

In my previous post, I asked whether predominantly-white schools center whiteness in a way that “others” black families. I hear from fellow white parents that their children’s school does diversity well. But, how do we know? How does the school know? Is diversity code for diversity for white people?

Here are my thoughts to help spur conversation and hopefully action:

  1. Definitions: What does diversity mean at your child’s school?
    • Does diversity just refer to race or is it more comprehensive? The National Education Association includes “race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, and immigration status” under the dimensions of diversity.
    • Is there a difference between diversity, inclusion and equity (also known as DEI) in practice at your child’s school? Should there be and if so, in what ways?
  2. Strategic Plan: Is there a strategic plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at your child’s school? If not, why not? Should there be? If so, take the time to read it, noting questions or comments.
  3. Benchmarking against Other Schools: What are similar schools doing with respect to DEI? (By similar schools, if your child attends a parochial middle school in a suburb, then other parochial middle schools would be most similar to your child’s school. But, there is a lot to learn from schools that don’t fit the same criteria, too. )
  4. Facilitated Conversations for Educators: Are administrators from your child’s school in conversation with their peers at other schools about DEI? Who facilitates those discussions? (Ideally, there will be opportunities for individuals to learn and not feel judged by their mistakes. But, there also needs to be some outside facilitation to challenge the status quo and provide more objective assessment.)
  5. DEI Work: Who leads or should lead DEI efforts at your child’s school? How should DEI responsibilities be allocated? What are the responsibilities and limitations of a formal position?
    • Is it worth establishing a Task Force or committee to have more people from different roles at the school (staff, teachers, administrators and parents) involved in these efforts?
  6. Benchmarks and Accountability: What are benchmarks that are or should be established? Having a plan is good, but how do you as a parent or school administrator know if that plan is working?
    • Is there a timeline to meet specific goals?
    • How are or should benchmarks be assessed, and by whom? If the assessment is done by someone at the school, are there checks and balances to ensure that this is done well?
    • What does accountability look like?
  7. Buy-In: Is there buy-in for this from administrators, faculty, staff, the board, and the PTA? (Note that these groups are not monolithic. Every person within each of those groups has their own life experiences, knowledge base and interest in DEI. )
    • How much buy-in is needed for these efforts to be successful?
    • How will buy-in be assessed?
    • What support and resources are needed to effectuate a plan or the designated benchmarks? Recognize that support and resources involve time, money and an open mind.
  8. Parent Education: What expectations do parents have for the role that the school will/won’t play in educating their children and parent education?
    • Is it worth setting up a survey (possibly anonymous) to help check the pulse of the community?
    • What programming is of interest for parents, for children and for the whole community? Should the school encourage and provide a space for parent/family education such as a monthly book club? There could also be a secure parent education portal with vetted articles and resources divided by topics (like disability, class, race, gender identity, intersectionality, talking to kids about [X] topics, etc.). This could be a standing and living repository.
    • Are PTA meetings and newsletters accessible to all parents regardless of technological access, visual and hearing impairments, and English-language literacy?
  9. Curriculum: How does the curriculum work with DEI goals? Ideally, the DEI strategic plan and assessments will work with the larger strategic plan and assessments for the school.
    • Love Sees No Color: For some, in-class exercises and books that stress how we’re all the same on the inside are viewed as good thing. But, what is problematic about these exercises? How can DEI be taught in age-appropriate and more realistic ways? How can DEI incorporate discussions of power, agency and oppression?
    • Curriculum audit: Has there been a curriculum audit to evaluate what is being taught and whether the sources, lessons and pedagogical practices further the school’s DEI goals? If so, what has that audit revealed and what are the next steps? If not, how can an audit be done, and who is in the best position to conduct the audit, evaluate the findings, and recommend improvements?
    • Community service: How can community service, volunteering and service-learning be connected more effectively to DEI and curricular goals? This could be anything from presenting on othering language to discussions about power and wages
      • Can there be a fact sheet or myth busters to connect with community-service assignments? How can the community (parents, students and staff) be educated along with their children? How can service be framed in a way that doesn’t perpetuate othering and the white-savior complex?
    • How can DEI be infused in the curriculum and programming throughout the year (not just MLK Day or Black History Month, and not just related to race)? Why is this important?
  10. Grading Equity: How does your child’s school currently assess grading and feedback? How does/should that assessment factor in bias?
    • Should professional development for administrators and teachers look at bias in grading and feedback (everything from the words we use to describe work by girls over work by boys to evaluating non-native English speakers to racial bias)? In his article in Education Week, Joe Feldman provides the following example: In classrooms taught by white teachers, African-American students are typically rated as poorer “classroom citizens” than their white peers, and thereby are more likely to have a lower grade for those behaviors because of the teacher’s biased perceptions.
  11. Discipline and Opportunities: How does your child’s school approach student discipline and which children have access to certain opportunities (advanced coursework, leadership roles, etc.)?
    • You might wish to go onto Ed.gov’s Civil Rights Data Collection to search for a public school in the US. I find the site easiest to navigate by just searching by zip code and then clicking on the link for a specific school.
    • What are the demographics of the school you chose? What are the rates of AP classes by gender identity, race and ethnicity? What are the rates of school suspensions by gender identity, race and ethnicity? What does this data tell you?
    • If your child’s school is on this list, are these numbers that could/should be improved upon? If so, how and by whom?
    • If your child’s school is not on this list, has the school gathered and analyzed demographic data on disciplinary action and access to gifted classes and leadership roles? If so, what has the data shown, and what are the school’s next steps? If not, is there a plan to do this, and by whom?
    • Whether or not your child’s school is on this list, what are the school’s objectives related to this item?
    • Does your school utilize healing circles or restorative justice practices?
  12. School Demographics and Retention: What is the school’s demographic breakdown in terms of student body, teachers, staff, and administrators? Are those percentages similar or different from comparable schools? Have these percentages been stagnant?
    • Is the school retaining teachers, staff and students of color?
    • Is the school promoting and hiring teachers and staff of color for administrator roles?
    • Are administrators and staff trained to prevent or reduce bias in student admissions, hiring and promotion decisions?
    • Are there exit interviews when families and school employees leave the school?
  13. Bias Reporting: Is there a clear procedure for reporting bias concerns? Are these procedures the same or different for students and school employees, and why? Who handles bias concerns? Are school employees required to report bias concerns to someone in their chain of command? How are bias concerns addressed?

Again, my hope in writing this post was to start a dialogue. What did I miss? What are your thoughts? What are schools (without naming them) doing well?

Decentering Whiteness

As a white parent in Upper NW DC, my feed has been filled with discussions about how to be an anti-racist parent. But, how do we know what we don’t know? How can we recognize our biases? What does accountability look like to know we’re getting it right or that we need to do better?

My intent in writing this series of posts is to start a conversation, not write a definitive treatise on anti-racist parenting. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender parent and educator, I need to listen and learn, too.

Parents and educators can and should talk to young children about race, as Katrina Michie recommends. But, before talking to children, you might want to think about how that statement centers whiteness. What do I mean about that? Think about how and why whiteness is viewed as the default and the norm.

For example, a publication only mentions a person’s race if that person isn’t white. Or, a show has a token or short-contract character of color, or your workplace has very few black individuals in leadership roles. Think about which parents teach their children about colorism and racism to survive and which parents teach their children about colorism and racism to be a (seemingly) better person. Then think about the why behind these realities and how they relate to systems of power and oppression.

How are and how can you model anti-racist behavior? There are so many examples, but one from Rachel Garlinghouse is: Do you have true friendships with others who don’t share your race, religion, age, or ability?  Margaret A. Hagerman asks parents to think about who they invite over, what media and books they consume, how they handle race questions, who/what they roll their eyes at, and when they lock their doors.

I think about how whiteness is centered in what books and entertainment are labeled as “multicultural” or “diverse.” A children’s book by a black author with a black child as the main character should not be regarded as a “diverse” book. A box of crayons to represent a range of skin tones shouldn’t be labeled “multicultural.” Books or lessons that talk about how we’re all the same on the inside ignore how racial differentiation was created to serve social and economic purposes. How can parents unpack what our children read and play with in age-appropriate ways?

At predominantly-white schools, is whiteness centered in a way that “others” black families? I hear from fellow white parents that their children’s school does diversity well. But, how do we know? How does the school know? Is diversity code for diversity for white people? Check out my next post if you’d like to explore this topic more.

Join me if you’d like to share and learn about resources and approaches. Comments and criticism welcome.

Most importantly, I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well. And, a special thank you to my former students and colleagues who helped me become a better educator, person, and parent. I wouldn’t be where I am on my journey without you. xoxo