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When Students Tell You #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Most of my sophomores were out yesterday, so I used the class period to get to know the students that were there better. We were hoping to go on a writing marathon, but the weather looked less than promising, so we compromised. We would have a reading marathon, tie up loose ends of Of Mice and Men, and have a class discussion about the book. With an extended time for reading, I was able to knock out many reading conferences that I'd waited too long to do. My goal was to meet with every student before the end of the marking period. I'm close!

During sixth hour, however, students wanted to take the class in a different direction. One student brought up her past experience in a charter school that encouraged her to switch to our school. Apparently a staff member there didn't see the value in appreciating diversity, and she didn't feel comfortable there.

In sharing her story, I asked her to tell me about how our school was different. First, she said that she felt comfortable in my class talking about issues of race. She felt like she could be herself. (I hope that part of this is my insistence upon appropriate rather than proper grammar at the beginning of the year.) She talked about the power of having Sacred Writing Time in class, a space where she can vent about her frustrations and have an opportunity to share them with her  peers. She also felt as if the staff would listen if she had a concern.

And then another student chimed in. This student is normally quiet in class. She prefers to observe more than talk. But today, her words were the most powerful I've heard in a long time. She talked about how some students just "give up." They're ignored, suspended, or viewed differently rather than appreciated. She continued to talk, but it's this idea of being beaten, of not having a chance or a remote possibility of something different and better, that had me up early this Saturday morning.

The conversation segued into a discussion about the books we ask students to read and the fate of so many characters of color in those books. What happens to Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird; Emmett Till in Mississippi Trial, 1955; and what issues does Walter endure in A Raisin in the Sun? Students asked when we would see a character that looks like them, talks like them, and that finds ultimate success without having to overcome obstacles of race or that play into racial stereotypes. 

I've also talked with several colleagues lately about how our books should represent our students. In brainstorming with these students and colleagues, we identified very few of the positive representations of characters of color that students have encountered so far. How can we help them build positive  identities, especially as readers, if they only encounter tragedy after tragedy in the texts we ask them to read? 

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