Educators Roundtable – Part 2

Educators’ Roundtable Part Two

This is Part Two of the Educators’ Roundtable. These were the questions posed in Part One by moderator Allie Jane Bruce:

As an educator, what asks do you have for book creators and the publishing industry? and/or

As a writer, what asks do you have for educators?


How can these two fields help each other teach children honestly and create a more equitable society?


renee-watson“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. [Books] taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

–James Baldwin

Reading Baldwin’s words makes me wonder what educators can do to make sure that young readers feel connected to all the people who are alive, or who have ever been alive. How can educators not only diversify their libraries but encourage cross-cultural reading so that books with girl protagonists are read by boys and book covers with black characters on the cover are handed to all children, not only to black children?

So often I hear a teacher or librarian say, “I would select more diverse books but my school doesn’t have that much diversity.” When I hear this I think about all the books I read as a child with main characters who were white, with dialogue that did not have the same cadence as my mother’s or the friends I played with in my neighborhood.  And yet, I knew the same anger and sadness that Leigh felt towards his father in Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I was curious and wondering about my faith and my body just like Judy Blume’s character, Margaret, in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In high school my English teacher introduced me to the poetry and prose of Sherman Alexie and Martín Espada and I learned that poetry could explore issues of race and class and speak out against injustice. I learned that reading is not only about relating to the characters. It’s also about learning from them, experiencing their world. Reading a wide range of stories built in me the capacity to practice empathy and begin to understand my personal story and how it intersects with others while still being its very own, unique mystery.

My ask for educators is that we continue to stretch ourselves beyond the first step of diversifying our bookshelves. My ask is that we engage in meaningful conversations about the pain and heartbreak of this world and about its sweet, sweet joy. I ask that we bring the world into our classrooms in the stanzas of poems and the pages of novels so that our young people don’t see difference as a threat, as wrong, so that they grow up to be compassionate citizens of the world.

–Renée Watson is an author and educator. Her books include Piecing Me Together, This Side of Home, and Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. She has worked as a writer-in-residence in public schools and community centers across the nation. Her articles on social justice education have been published in Rethinking Schools, Oregon English Journal, and Guild Notes. She has given readings and lectures on the role of art in social justice at many renowned places including the United Nations headquarters and the Library of Congress. In 2016, she launched I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing voices from marginalized communities. To learn more about her work visit her at


Photo by Della Nohl Photography

I ask that the publishing industry present Native peoples as peoples of our respective Native Nations.

Let me explain.

Presently, most depictions of us—even when they’re accurate—show us as people of color. It might seem that depicting us as people of color with tribally specific histories and cultural practices is a good thing, but those depictions leave out the single thing that is most important to who we are: nations.

Did you know that there are over 370 treaties between the United States and Native Nations? Most people have a bit of knowledge about “broken treaties” but that knowledge is rather superficial. What do those treaties mean, in practice?

Let me elaborate.

Did you know that, once you’re within a given tribal nations jurisdiction, you will pay a speeding ticket to a tribal court? Did you even know that we have courts? Too many people don’t know. That lack of knowing is a failure of the educational system in the United States—which is, in large part—driven by textbooks that districts purchase. Are you a teacher? Pull out the history or literature textbooks that you’re using. Do you see nation anywhere? Do you see anything about Native peoples as part of today’s societies, employing those treaties to support our nationhood?  Take a look at the fiction and nonfiction you’ve got in your classroom or on your library shelves. Do they reflect nationhood?

In short, I have a series of asks.

My first one is to ask teachers and librarians to look critically at what publishers are providing. It can be better. There’s no doubt about that.

My second one is to ask teachers and librarians to ask publishers for better materials. You can write to them directly, but I also encourage you to use social media. Public requests matter, too.

My third ask is the one I opened my essay with. I’ll repeat it here: I ask that the publishing industry present Native peoples as peoples of our respective Native Nations.

And my fourth one? I ask publishers to seek out Native writers, and listen to them. Don’t try to persuade them to make their manuscripts sound “more Indian” – which is essentially asking them to conform to misinformed expectations of who we are.

My last ask is that publishers put money into promoting Native writers they publish. Send them on book tours! Put their book covers on the cover of your catalogs! Get them on radio shows! Work with Scholastic to get their books into Scholastics book fairs and catalogs!

Those are my asks. They are reasonable, don’t you think? We’re here! We’re readers.

And we want to see publishers do right by who we are.

Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. A former school teacher and professor, her book chapters and articles are taught in Education, English, and Library Science courses in the US and Canada. Her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, is her way of reaching a broad audience of people who work within children’s literature. She gives workshops and lectures widely, in person and through social media.


anne-sibley-obrienPicture books can reduce prejudice.

In 2010 I got an email from Dr. Krista Aronson, professor of psychology at Bates College, asking if I’d help develop sample books for a research study investigating extended contact theory: whether stories and images of positive interaction between races can reduce intergroup anxiety. Researchers including Krista have demonstrated that reading Cross-group books, followed by short discussions emphasizing the fun characters are having together, can result in positive changes in how children perceive each other’s groups.

Krista and I began examining trade picture books for Cross-group examples. It was amazing to discover how few there were; we located only about a dozen among in-print books. Across the nation, children of all races and cultures are going to school and playing together, but there are very few books that reflect that reality, except in background images of diverse classrooms and playgrounds. Publishers, more contemporary cross-racial friendship books, please, especially between characters of color.

Our next collaboration was “Books as Bridges: Using Children’s Books to Talk About Race”, a workshop sharing research about how children learn race and develop racial identities, and the importance of discussions that give children language and permission to name what they are already seeing (children notice racial differences in infancy). We proposed a developmentally-appropriate scaffolding of book topics, building a foundation of positive ideas about race and differences before introducing conflicts such as slavery and the civil rights movement: Celebration of Difference, Every Child, Cross-Group, Identity, and Race & Racism.

All of this led to our current endeavor: The Picture Book Project: A Bates College Collection Portraying People of Color. The focus of our work is examining picture books about people of color to discover who is represented and how, as a tool to add to analysis of cultural authenticity. To date, we have gathered close to 2000 books, concentrating on those published since 2008; developed a thematic coding system; and analyzed the titles for theme and content. Over the next year we’ll be developing a Resource Hub, an online collection building tool for identifying and coding these titles, to be made available later in 2017.

We’re hoping to assist publishers, educators and librarians in considering not just whether books are diverse, but what messages might be conveyed by different themes and the importance of a wide range of representation of children of color.

–Author-illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien ( has published more than thirty picture books featuring diverse children and cultures, receiving the Africana Book Award, the Global Korea Award, and two Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature. She blogs about race, culture and children’s books at


Version 2We know young people are smart. We forget how they are smart. They notice all the ways they are included or excluded, heard or silenced, encouraged or discouraged. They notice their own and others’ differences, as they also gauge how they might explain themselves to others. When differences become the focus for media hype, youth recognize the cycle of fear and hate that invariably hovers over every conversation or interaction, diminishing their humanity once again.

Diverse literature, well-researched and edited and thoughtfully discussed, contributes to sturdy yet flexible frames of reference for understanding diversity as it is represented in literature and experienced in everyday life.  A frame of reference includes, for example, the idea that Latinx experiences should be understood through multiple time periods, migration experiences, and nations of origin – and not only through a few holidays and traditions.  One book cannot form a frame of reference, nor can one book overcome the many superficial depictions of Latinx experience, sketched in so lightly, even carelessly, that they become tinder instead of frame for engaging with diversity in classrooms and communities.

Diversity is also managed through school calendars that turn otherwise valuable frames for diverse stories into a set of boxes, closing off intersecting identities and interrelated histories.  Given the limited time and selections integrating diverse literature into the curriculum, youth (and adults) learn, implicitly but powerfully, that 10% of the curriculum focused on difference is enough. Anything more risks too much change. Even so, teachers are seeking book collections that offer both great stories and frames for asking questions and hearing one another’s stories.

Thousands of books are needed to change this calculus of risk taking. Every book that accurately and compassionately represents the distinct experiences and intersections of young readers’ lives increases the possibility that youth will frame differences in themselves and others as treasured beyond measure.

–Patricia Enciso is a professor of Literature and Literacy in the Department of Teaching & Learning at The Ohio State University. She is president of the Literacy Research Association and a member of the Tomás Rivera Book Award national committee. Among other publications and presentations, she is a co-editor of the Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature.


cornelius-minorI don’t believe in diversity anymore. I don’t think that “diversity” is something that education can guarantee or that publishing can give. This tumultuous election cycle reaffirmed what Frederick Douglass tried to teach us long ago. That anything given–freedom, representation, access–can be taken. And that the only way to achieve equity is to win the multiple fights required to secure it.

Diversity is not what I believe in. I believe in full inclusion. Diverse books are not enough, publishing industry. LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities and people of color need to be included in human resources and supported as we work. We need to be included in acquisitions. We need to be editors. We need to be managers. We need to be book buyers, and librarians and booksellers. At the same time, we need to be authors, because we have so many different things to say.

You say that change is slow. I do not believe you. We put people in space, we battled polio, and invented the Internet. Because we decided that we wanted to. We decided it, and built an infrastructure to support it. Inclusion will not happen just because we wish it. We must decide it and dedicate the resources to building the infrastructure to support it.

–Cornelius Minor is a frequent keynote speaker for and staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In that capacity, he works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support deep and wide literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe.

Recommended Resources

Books and Booklists

I’m Your Neighbor Books – searchable database of children’s literature about the contemporary immigrant experience

Teaching for Change’s Multicultural, Social Justice Booklists

American Indians In Children’s Literature

We Need Diverse Books’ resource list, Where To Find Diverse Books

Native American Heritage Month 2016 Reading List

Lee and Low Books – about everyone, for everyone.

1000 Black Girl Books Resource Guide, led by Marley Dias.

The Brown Bookshelf

Teaching Resources and Research

Blog series on Loudness in the Library curriculum at Bank Street.

Native Americans: Negative impacts of media portrayals, stereotypes by Farah Qureshi

The Harm of Native Stereotyping: Facts and Evidence, available at Blue Corn Comics

Culturally Responsive Instructional Resources from the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education

Using Their Words

Rethinking Schools

Teaching Tolerance


Harjo, Suzan Shown, (2014). Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Washington DC: National Museum of the American Indian, in association with Smithsonian Books.

National Museum of the American Indian, (2007). Do All Indians Live in Tipis? NYC: Collins, in association with the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute.

Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education by Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo