By Heather Barcan
When I was growing up, I thought I was White. Like Amelia Bedilia and Nancy Drew. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March, and Margaret Simon. Life experiences taught me otherwise, that the way I see the world and the way the world sees me is nothing like the ways that these characters experience the world. I was viewed as different, other, and wrong.
According to others, my family ate the wrong foods, weird and smelly foods with odors that lingered in the house for days. We never went on vacations. We only traveled to visit our inordinately large family. I never went to summer camp and rarely went to sleepovers.
Eventually, I realized that my experience as a child was wonderful and magical exactly because of these differences. They were not deficits in my life; they were enhancements. The close-knit family I had loved me as much as they got all up in my business. The ways we learned to rely and depend on each other taught me to trust in my family and to give back to my community. This realization happened when I was 27.
As a teacher, I make it my goal to honor and reflect the students that walk into my classroom. I don’t want my students to experience the alienation and shame that I felt. I want my students to feel known, seen, and heard. I want them to see that we all have something to contribute to our community of learners and to our society as a whole.
To be clear, this goal is not a quick and easy one. The shift is gradual and constant. Finding ways to bring texts, discussions, and activities into a classroom to reflect the diversity of your students does not just happen overnight.
First and foremost, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. This is not an easy journey. You may make missteps. But think of this as an iterative process. You make changes, evaluate, and adjust. Rinse and repeat.
You may face some resistance. You should be prepared with your rationale for teaching the texts that you teach ahead of time. On the other hand, you may not get any sort of reaction at all. People may just shrug their shoulders and move on. Regardless of the reaction or lack thereof, having a clear understanding of why you are doing this is important: What is your goal? Who would this shift in pedagogy benefit and in what way(s)? What are the best ways to address the inequities in our society and in our classrooms? What texts will help to support your goals? What will you say if there is resistance from parents or students or other staff members?
Once you have written your rationale, you should think about exactly where you can enhance your curriculum.
I spoke to Rita Ramstad, Centennial School District’s Media Specialist, about ways to start thinking about bringing more diversity into your classroom. Here are a few suggestions:
Conduct an analysis of the books you teach and that live on your shelves. There are many resources out there to help with this, but the basic gist of this is to analyze: How many people of color are included in the novels? How many titles were written by people of color? How many titles represent gay or non-binary or trans students? How many reflect disabled students? Do the novels represent diverse people in a variety of ways—joyful and otherwise? And do these numbers align with and reflect what your students are like and what they need?
Ask around. The idea of bringing diverse books into the curriculum has been brewing for a while but in some places more than others. Ask colleagues and friends, ask librarians, ask administrators, ask students what books they are reading and loving and talking about and sharing. Start in your immediate group—department, building, school district, area, but if you don’t find support, then look further afield.
Join with like-minded individuals. Attend workshops and conferences that focus on building diversity and social justice. Meet people there who can support your goals in the classroom. Meet people there who can help you find other resources to help support you. Volunteer to help. There are also plenty of groups and organizations to be found online and through social media—Twitter is a great resource for this.
Develop partnerships with local bookstores and BIPOC-owned businesses to get donations or funding for diverse books. Jennifer Sah-Loeung, a Language Arts teacher at Centennial High School, suggests writing grants and participating in programs like Portland’s “Everybody Reads,” a yearly event hosted by Literary Arts, Portland, that provides books and tickets to a book talk featuring the author of the book selected for that year. These programs will help to build the diversity of your classroom bookshelves or of the school’s library and book room. Sah-Loeung believes that it is a great idea to “have lots of options,” for students to choose from because “sometimes we don’t expect what texts the students will engage with.”
Read. A lot. Read many different texts from many different authors and poets. Find out what your students, friends, and colleagues are reading. Find lists of books from online sources that give suggestions about readings appropriate to your classroom and read them—as many of them as you can. You will find writings you love and that your students will love.
Start small and build. Once you have figured out where your curriculum could be enhanced, and which books or texts you would like to include, then you will need to figure out how to get them into your classroom and into the hands of your students. Again, having diverse books in our classrooms is the goal. But you might need to start with a few books on the shelf and then work towards adding diverse books to your curriculum.
Chloe Avila, a Language Arts teacher in Woodburn, Oregon described her journey to increase the diversity of texts and curriculum in her classroom: “My first year I started with what I could control: All of my models, prompts, discussions, warm-ups, choice reading, and warm-ups had an emphasis on social justice, BIPOC characters, current social issues, etc. These were the assignments that I felt I really had control of and what really got my students engaged.
Then my second year, I jumped into literature circles [as] an easier way for me to convince the school to purchase more diverse texts. It somehow felt better for them to buy five books here and there rather than dive into larger class sets of a book they weren’t totally sure about.
In my third year, I added If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson to supplement Romeo and Juliet. This book has been one of the biggest hits and highlights for my kids. For many of them, it is the first outline they have ever had for engaging with issues of racial[ized] police brutality in an academic setting.”
This method of adding texts slowly to our curriculum seems to work because we have to get a feel for what works with our existing curriculum, and with what themes we want to address in our classrooms.
I have been working on increasing the diversity of the books in my room for several years now. I have moved districts and schools more than once. But the library I have been building, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way, come with me. Some additions were more powerful and impactful than others. Some additions that were hot and relevant a few years ago are now outdated. But new possibilities arise every day.
Ultimately, we just need to start building our library and developing a curriculum that reflects and represents the diversity of our classroom and of our world. We need to help foster conversations and discussions in our classrooms that lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of one another. We need to let our students know that the diversity of opinions and lived experiences in our classrooms are something to celebrate and not to shame or hide. Our students deserve better than waiting until they are 27 to realize that they too have a voice.
Heather Barcan is a Filipino-Pacific Islander from California with roots in Hawaii. She has been teaching Language Arts for over twenty years in both California and Oregon. She currently teaches at Centennial High School in Oregon and has a passion for increasing representation and diversity in classroom curricula. Heather now lives with her husband and six year old son in Portland, Oregon.