5 steps to ensure students see themselves in instructional content
Social justice protests this year sparked a wave of reflection and change across our nation. In education, the movement revealed the need to intensify efforts to provide students with diversity and inclusivity in books and reading programs.
It’s imperative that curriculum providers proactively incorporate a range of cultures, characters, and experiences within instruction materials. Follow this five-step plan to ensure educational content supports an anti-racist mission and addresses issues of systemic racism, injustice, inequity, and inequality.
1. Ensure texts serve as both mirrors and windows.
The scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, widely considered the “mother of multicultural literature,” published an influential essay in 1990 in which she advocated for children’s texts that are “mirrors and windows.” When reading “mirrors,” students see themselves and their lives reflected in the texts they read. “Windows,” on the other hand, enable readers to gain an understanding and appreciation of experiences different from their own.
All students should have the opportunity to read about people who look like them, share their culture, their heritage, and their beliefs and values. These “mirror” texts are empowering, affirming, and motivating.
Students also need to be encouraged to develop empathy, respect, and understanding for the life experiences, culture, background, and beliefs of others. This is why students need “window” texts, especially those who have limited interaction with people who look different from them, or have different cultures or backgrounds.
2. Find reputable sources.
Think about the company you keep. To help in your mission of delivering an anti-racist curriculum, look for like-minded publishers. Do the legwork to find those which are proven to offer content that is trustworthy, well-researched, and supports social justice efforts. When identifying publishers, you should also look for those which have demonstrated a commitment to diversity and anti-racism in their publications, and are known for high standards of quality.
Once you identify the partners that meet your objectives, prepare to choose the content pieces best suited for your curriculum.
3. Rely on experts to tell the story.
Look for texts written by experts. Encourage students to read texts written by authors from a range of cultures and backgrounds. Talented writers can distill difficult topics into appropriate texts for children that serve as powerful, informative mirrors and windows.
For example, Dr. Duchess Harris, an academic, author, and legal scholar, is an expert in many fields. As a professor of American studies specializing in black feminism, U.S. law, and African American political movements, she writes about issues in ways that resonate with students. Dr. Harris pulls readers in with how she details the experiences of people of color, talks about the legacy of slavery in today’s world, and explains how racism continues to be systemic in American society. Her books also address social justice issues around LGBTQ rights, feminism, and the experiences of indigenous people.
4. Ensure images support diversity.
There is a reason the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has withstood the test of time. It’s important to not only examine the texts used in the classroom, but also the accompanying imagery. A text does not need to be specifically about issues of race or gender to be supportive of diversity and anti-racism. A text describing a career in tech and science, for example, can feature images that normalize female engineers and computer programmers. Narratives about families need visuals that reflect the family structures of all students, including those with same-sex parents or multiracial families.
5. Be sensitive to language choice.
Finally, remember that words matter. Examine your personal writing preferences or house stylebook to determine if there is room to improve your terminology so it is more inclusive of your student community. Observe how other content providers and publishers have shifted in recent years on their chosen terms, descriptions, and capitalization.
For example, style guides are beginning to shift to the singular “they” pronoun to refer to a person without the context of gender. In June 2020, the AP Stylebook announced it would capitalize “Black” when used in the context of race.
The words we use make a great impact on our students. Just like the work of being actively anti-racist, this process requires ongoing effort to remove the unintentional biases that emerge as language evolves.
Randi Bender is the chief content officer at Reading Plus, a research-backed online program that uses personalized instruction to improve students’ reading proficiency. She believes reading literacy is a human right and is devoted to ensuring students of all ages and abilities become stronger, more confident readers.