Anyone paying attention to big-name book publishers and their “new release” calendars is aware that publishers are making efforts to fill-in the massive hole that is BIPOC authors and characters in their library portfolios. With so many eye-catching titles, its more important than ever for school districts (and lets face it, individual teachers!) to be discerning when they make decisions about the books they are buying for their classrooms now and for next year.
But where to begin? What do we prioritize? There are surely a wide range of opinions on the matter. The outline I’m sharing below is the structure I’ve presented and put forward for the classroom teachers brought together in my district to do this work, knowing that books selected by teachers are much more likely to be read by teachers!
Step 1: Know your desired outcomes
It’s way too easy to start snatching any book off a bookshelf and add to your reusable bag. Easier still to jump on a website and fill up your digital cart! Knowing the sorts of books you are seeking is important and what you intend to center in your home or classroom conversations and learning. The graphic below shares the three priorities elevated in our district selection process. Which of these would you prioritize or de-emphasize and why? Your decisions may become clearer by first doing your own book shelf audit and identifying what you already have, and what you don’t…
Step 2: Do your research!
It takes time (all the more reason to do this with colleagues!) but before you run to the local bookstore or your browser, investigate the catalogs of your local library branch. Searching for titles from reputable recommended reading list or award winners and using the handy “hold / transfer copy” buttons common within library networks will leave you with a steady stream of books coming your way for review without spending a penny. Instead of gathering in one of our administrative offices for our opening meeting, I asked teachers to meet me at the local library, where our incredible town librarians were gracious enough to put together an ensemble of books that met Step 1 criteria I shared with them a week prior. Coupled with my own gathering (full disclosure, I did personally purchase copies of books that were not available in the library network) the teachers had a tremendous spread from which to work from and discuss together.
Step 3: Whose story is this? Whose voice is being heard?
It can be easy to blame others, or ‘the system’ for the racial achievement gaps in our classrooms across the country. The conversation gets tougher when we reflect on our small, but not insignificant part fo that system. Publishers pay attention to what gets purchased and what has been purchased for a long time before making decision about whose work goes to print and whose does not. What did your shelf look like when it comes to the diversity of authors, illustrators, and their characters? What are the foundational texts being elevated by you and/or school leaders? We all have blindspots.
My teachers and I are no exception to the rule, which is why even with the explicit goals laid out earlier, I’m asking teachers to put each text they elevate through a framework of questions shared with me by the incredible library media specialist, Jennifer Reed of the Newton Public Schools during her Primary Source: Mosaic America presentation on culturally responsive classroom book titles.
Whose story is this?
Whose story is missing?
Whose voices are not heard?
Who is advantaged? Who is disadvantaged?
To make this even more explicit, I asked teachers to chart out current titles and the books they have elevated to the top of their lists through a simple table that poses questions about author and character identity, as well as questions or concerns they have about using the title in their classroom that we can pay special attention to answering as a group, and then through communication during future distribution.
Step 4: Celebrate and Share!
When the order is in, it’s time to celebrate! If you’re a classroom teacher, celebrate by telling students, “check out this great book I just purchased!” Letting our children and/or students know that spending time and money on books new and old is a message we can’t share enough. Share in your excitement by letting other educators know what you’re reading with your children or classroom. Share pictures of your titles with your parent community. Transparency is more important than ever, as television and podcasting pundits disparage teachers for pushing a “hidden agenda”. Bring families into the conversation and share the what and why. Make clear the connections to state standards and other titles that share similar essential questions to drive learning deeper. I’m excited to share my district’s lists with TBR readers next month as the last post of the year once our decisions have been made. Do you have suggestions for criteria to consider that I’ve been remiss to leave out? What does your process look like?