Turning the page toward equity

New book titles represent diverse authors, students

Eighth grader Shay Wilks checks out a book from library clerk Kelly Austin

Pinewood Middle School eighth grader Shay Wilks said she reads four to six books a month. While visiting the school library recently, she commented on the book, “Blended” by Sharon M. Draper. The main character is a biracial girl. It’s one of her favorites.

“She has my same skin tone,” Shay said. “Sometimes she would get bullied for her skin tone, and sometimes I do too.”

Eighth grader Allie Watkins discovered the book ‘Warcross,’ by Marie Lu, during a challenge to read diverse books

Shay said the fact she related to the character was one reason she loved the book.

That kind of connection is what Kentwood educators are seeking in stocking teachers’ classroom libraries with diverse books that reflect students’ cultures and backgrounds, and through which students can learn about others’ cultures and circumstances.

“We are the most diverse district in the entire state and seventh in the nation. We are very proud of that,” said Melisa Mulder, secondary ELA intervention coach, who is leading the effort. 

Mulder attended a Michigan Reading Association Conference on the importance of classroom libraries, which prompted her to survey middle and high school teachers about the number of books in their rooms and if they consisted of diverse titles. “My hunch was our libraries were not as diverse in terms of the amount of books they should have or in showing what our kids represent.”

Minority cultures remain underrepresented in books. In 2015, according to statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, just 7.6% of children’s books had African or African American characters; 3.3% had Asian or Asian American; 2.4% had Latino; and 0.9% had Native American.

“It’s really about inclusion and wanting them all to be represented,” Mulder said.

Mission: Stock Libraries

The survey found most classroom libraries did not have the minimum 300 books recommended by the Michigan Reading Association, and the ones they did have lacked diversity. 75% of teachers had about 100 books, with the majority of teachers using their own money to buy them.

Mulder presented a plan to to Evan Hordyk, executive director for secondary education, who supported her efforts. The Board of Education approved the purchase of $1,500 in books for each secondary English language arts teacher, about 78 district-wide. The goal is to allocate $1,000 per teacher next school year, too, and $300 every other year to follow to keep titles current. Teachers, using a list of considerations about creating diverse book collection, ordered the books they wanted, and replaced outdated titles.

Pinewood’s library clerk, Kelly Austin, is championing the effort. Last year she and librarians at Crestwood and Valleywood middle schools started “Books for Us,” a program in which students are challenged to read a minimum of six books representing diverse authors and characters.

Last school year, more than 50 students read, journaled and held lunch meetings to talk about the 10 books, which were chosen by the librarians. The culminating event included hearing a guest speaker, a catered lunch and voting on their favorite book. Students received a T-shirt, commemorative bookmark and swag bag. The challenge starts again in November.

Another way to get books in students’ hands is through the KDL Bookmobile,which visits Pinewood every three weeks. Students can check out books right from the traveling library. The district has also ensured that all students have a library card.

The overarching goal, Mulder said, is equity. Students who feel connections with books are more motivated to read, and therefore will become more skilled at it.

Eighth grader Shay Wilks has learned how books can be a mirror and a window for a reader

Finding ‘That Book for that Kid’

Added Austin, “If I have books in here that are not by diverse authors and do not represent the kids, that’s not equitable because you can’t come in here and find a book about your experience. …“To me, it’s important to listen to them and to get their input about what books we have, what books they are enjoying.”

She said finding a reluctant reader a book she or he loves can help them develop a joy for reading

“Building the love of reading is like the icing on the cake… If I don’t try to keep my library current and diverse I may never find that book for that kid.”

English-language learner teacher Diana McDiarmid said her students are benefiting from the new books on her shelves. She’s had trouble finding books for students who come from all over the globe. “It’s going to impact them a lot because they will actually have books they want to read… It’s something they can connect with.”

Eighth grader Allie Watkins read all 10 titles in the “Books for Us” challenge, and loved “Warcross” by Marie Lu, which represents the Chinese culture. “I thought it was so cool to learn how different people react to different situations,” Allie said.

She said her classmates will like finding books that reflect their culture and through which they can learn about others.

“It will benefit them because their are people here from all different cultures. It will be nice for them to read books from many cultures.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Way to go, Kentwood Public Schools! I recently did an analysis of children’s books about the construction industry and was shocked by the lack of equity representation in a lot of areas. I applaud you!

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