A teacher friend, Allison, recently told us about watching her kindergarten students play Hi-Ho! Cherry-O. As they were deciding which tree and character each would play, an African-American boy said, “I know which one I will play,” and he turned the board so the dark skinned boy was in front of him. He said, “He looks like me.”
Allison also shared that she sometimes wonders if her concerns that students find themselves in the books she reads with them are somehow exaggerated. Does diversity in images really matter? After watching her students play Hi Ho! Cherry-O, she realized that not only is diversity an important text selection criterion, it is a critical one. Children need to see representations of themselves in the games they play, the television they watch, and the books they read.
At the moment, Kim and Jan are miles apart (New York and Georgia) knee deep in identical collections of all the books that Lerner Publisher publishes and distributes. We are working with them as they restructure their collection, reorganize their catalog, develop their books into topical categories, and consider the ways their content can support instruction in the Common Core. The collection includes an abundance of non-fiction, including biography, narrative nonfiction, informational texts about how things are made, etc.
We are charged with gathering books along themes and today, as we worked with other writers and educators moving books in and out of categories, our colleague,Bridget, noticed the many biographies in our “girl” collection. She said, “If you look at the covers of these books, you get a very different rendering of history than that traditionally told.”
Bridget went on to observe the real power of labeling book categories, sorting history, and teaching about people. It’s a weighty responsibility and as we work to decide whether we name a category “Strong Girls,” “Female Protagonists,” or “You Go Girl,” we will always second guess ourselves. Do we make libraries geared toward boys? Towards girls? If so, what goes in them? Do we give girls a book about monster trucks and boys a book about the color pink because this will break stereotypes? Which books are worthy of being included? Which ones do we throw out?
Much like our conversations about balance or scheduling a literacy block, the point can’t be that the categories are “right” or “best.” There will always be pros and cons to a categorization, whether books or schedules. The real point is recognizing the power that we wield when we sort something into a category, especially resources that teach children. Our choices subtly influence developing minds which means that if our intent is to act on the behalf and best interest of children,we must remain committed to questioning our choices and continuing our conversations about the choices we make.