This week I had the gift of time with K-5 educators across my district participating in the final of four “curriculum council” meetings we’ve shared this year. Teachers were first provided time to prepare by first reading a January/February 2022 article from the NCSS publication, Social Studies and the Young Learner titled, “Reading Diverse Books Is Not Enough: Challenging Racist Assumptions Using Asian American Children’s Literature.” Penned by Dr. Joanne Yi, the article shares her reflections on the experience of encountering “persistent challenges faced in combating the invisibility and racialization of Asian Americans” while exploring several picture books with first graders as a “gateway to rich conversations about diverse representation in stories and cultural identities.”
I selected this article to explore for a variety of reasons. One, many educators, especially those in my district, have come to embrace the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop introduced over thirty years ago picture books as “windows, mirrors, and sliding doors”. Two, our community’s demographics have steadily grown in both the number and diversity of ethnicities represented. Such changes necessitate the need for teachers to better acquaint themselves with and deliver on culturally responsive teaching practices and an awareness of the different forms of racism and stereotyping that require dismantling.
When conversation rounds began with teachers, many shared that they had experienced surprise similar to the author’s when reconciling the contents of the picture books read with students reactions and own interpretations of the story’s read, whether it be the location of the story, identities of the main characters, or main ideas thread through the text. When asked what surprised them about the article, one teacher frankly shared the most surprising thing they found was that the author was surprised first graders hadn’t better grappled with understanding such aspects of the text. As they put it, “this happens with my fifth graders all the time. Of course its going to happen with first graders!”
Though the confines of our schedule limited deep conversation, the article brought forward important questions and practical ways to address deeply seated racialization of Asian Americans as a monolithic population and their stereotyping as “forever foreigners”. It also provided some background information surrounding our history of Asian American exclusion legislation and the forced removal of Japanese Americans into incarceration camps during World War II. Most educators, and American population more broadly have little understanding or even awareness of this history, and the ways present day actions and stereotypes can be tied back to these movements and moments in our country’s history.
Reading professional journals with the intention of reflection and discussion with a wider audience increases the likelihood of deeper engagement with the learning and prospects for action. Conversations spur collaboration and can shift thinking and priorities within the classroom and school community. It is my hope that this article will act as a jumping off point for future conversations with teachers introducing new picture books to the classrooms that provide windows, mirrors, and sliding doors into the lives of the indigenous and global majority. For simply reading diverse books is not enough. The intentional use of such books to chip and strip away misconceived attitudes and ideas about diverse populations will ultimately be required to drive shifts in individual and community thinking and culture.