By: Jessica Michael Bowman
My Shock of Recognition
Growing up, I can remember the first time I peered into a book, and that book became a mirror, myself reflected back to me. I remember early on the feeling of the author tethering the heart of a character to mine and feeling the pull of that cord, even when the cover was closed and the spine outward facing on the classroom library shelf once more. This recognition, this connection transcended the page, and I imagine that even as I was walking home, this invisible cord kept us tethered to one another. I was George Bailey, and this book was the moon.
This book was Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, where a young girl, who grew to become an independent woman and world traveler, wanted so much to make the world a more beautiful place, even though she didn’t quite know how to go about it. As she stood there, a child, wondering how she might make the smallest difference and spread some beauty, so full of hope and dreams, my third grade self felt that. I didn’t have a name for it yet, but I felt a sense of purpose, a desire to do more, to reach beyond myself and to impact the lives of others. The lasso was cast, and I could the feel slack tighten as I placed the book back.
Then, when Hermione Granger’s hand shot up and she felt like she might die if she didn’t get the chance to share what she knew was the correct answer, or when time after time she was unabashedly book smart, socially awkward, but always braver than she realized, I was about as there for it as you can be. I felt the hot blush of embarrassment for her when her isolation from others was scrutinized, the swelling pride of another triumph met because of her bright wit and quick thinking. Another lasso cast, another connection made. I was tethered to her story, and she to mine.
I didn’t realize it then, but as I read book after book where independent female protagonists tapped into the resourcefulness, bravery, and strength they did not know they possessed, I was experiencing Melville’s “shock of recognition.” I saw myself – awkward, feisty, indignant, big-hearted, and clever – struggling to love myself, battle my insecurities, and make an impact on the world, for the better.
I was also steeling myself for what laid ahead; recognizing myself reflected back to me, but also learning about the strength and cleverness within and how to kindle the spark, not diminish it. As I became older, I cast the lasso out more and more when I read books where these women were second guessing themselves, riddled with self-doubt but pushing back against insecurity, striving toward and attaining self-love, fulfillment, and empowerment.
By now, if you were to see these invisible connections, you would think I am as much marionette as reader, I have become tethered to so many books and characters over the years. As a reader, I was inspired and I had to share this experience, to help someone else see themselves the way I had. As a teacher, I needed to hand my students the rope… guiding them in lassoing their own moons so they could feel the joy that is being recognized and known.
The Real Shock
It wasn’t until years later, as a first year teacher, that I found myself grappling with the realization that not all of our students are able to share this experience, to recognize themselves in the books that fill the shelves of their classroom libraries and are read aloud at meeting areas and carpets daily.
It was a hard truth, and I could not ignore it. Even though I had thought I was attuned to culturally responsive teaching and inclusivity, I had unknowingly contradicted these beliefs through many of the books I had chosen. My classroom library (a place I had dedicated to high-interest texts for independent reading) was a reflection of my own connections, consisting of mostly white, female protagonists who were clever and brave. While this narrative is vital, it was exclusive. Series that I loved, and characters that I connected to filled our book bins.
My philosophy of literacy has always been rooted deeply in student choice of independent reading texts and a desire to help them forge connections to these texts, to tether their hearts to the books they would love, and I had unknowingly pulled the cords from their hands. The books in my classroom were a reflection of me, not my students, and it was a wake-up call I was fortunate to have experienced early in my teaching life. It began with my students’ independent reading texts and transferred to our read aloud and mentor texts.
When it came to these texts, truthfully, I had thought I was beyond this. I had prided myself on warning against using books like Martin’s Big Words and We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song only during Black History Month. Like saving poetry exclusively for April, this practice seemed ridiculous to me and seemed to send a misleading, harmful message to students – this is the one time a year we place these books on our shelves and learn about this. Not in MY classroom.
Social justice and activism have always been part of who I am, so it was an organic part of our classroom culture as well. My students were familiar with the global struggle for equal access to education and so books by and about Malala Yousafzai and others were essential fixtures in our classroom. I didn’t realize, however, that most of the diversity in the texts in our classroom was reserved for books about social justice or acceptance.
More than the shock of recognition I had experienced in my reading life – the shock from this realization left me reeling.
While my students were engaging with profound texts that undoubedtly deserve a place in our teaching and learning, where was the diversity in the everyday? Were my readers only exposed to diversity when we were learning about issues of injustice and intolerance, not just in everyday life? Was I implicitly sending the message that their perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds were only valuable if steeped in struggle? Or worthy only when viewed through the sepia toned lens of history?
WHERE WERE THE BOOKS?!
I began to search for them – the books that celebrate, honor, and reflect our students’ diversity. Books that promote self awareness while widening our lens and opening our hearts to the struggles, joys, and realities of others. Books that help us to break past barriers and confront us with our own self truths, biases, and contradictions. Books that save our lives and remind us why life if is worth living.
THE BOOKS OUR STUDENTS DESERVE.
What Our Students Deserve
Honestly, they were sometimes hard to find.
Over the years, as my understanding of diversity has broadened and I’ve taken a more inclusive approach to selecting books for our teaching and learning, I’ve come across organizations and resources that are dedicated to just that, and that make finding books that reflect all of my readers easier and more intentional.
We Need Diverse Books™ describes themselves as a non-profit and a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry. They urge this industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. Their mission is to give all children access to more books featuring diverse characters, so that all children can see themselves in the pages of a book. My third grade reader self and my current teacher self are both rejoicing.
They have a plethora of resources for teachers who are interested in making diverse books accessible to their students, including diverse book lists, which are a great way to introduce readers to their literary soulmates, and therein themselves.
If you’re looking to inspire that shock of recognition in your students, you may find yourself needing to #buildyourstack. I certainly did! NCTE has spearheaded this initiative that seeks to grow teacher’s knowledge of books in the hope that the right books will be in the hands of our readers. Check it out for text suggestions and pairings, and share your own stack! It’s also a great way to connect with other ELA teachers and find out how they’re using these books in their classrooms. After all, connections are at the heart of what we do.
Behind much of human connection, and connection to the books we are tethered to, is the desire to be known. Known, understood, and maybe even accepted. As one of the greatest influencers of the books my students read, I know my students deserve to recognize themselves – their experiences, their dreams, their joys, their struggles, and their fears – in the books we share. They deserve to be known as they are and accepted for who they are. They deserve books that are as diverse, complicated, and wonderful as they are.
WVCTE is wondering… What’s in your book stack? What diverse books do you recommend?
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Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.