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Books represent students in state’s most diverse district

A matter of academics, equity

Kentwood — East Kentwood High School juniors Sareya Tyler, Arlene Roberts and Cora Lewis enjoy a variety of books and genres.

Sareya loves crime and mysteries, autobiographies and books on Black history. Arlene loves mystery and romantic fiction and books about Black culture. Cora loves fantasy romance, realistic fiction and reading about many different topics.

While working on essays in the school’s media center recently, the three students talked about how the district provides many titles to choose from that feature characters as diverse as the students surrounding them.

“The district is really involved with everyone’s culture. It’s very diverse. You see people who look like you, who don’t look like you, and I feel like they incorporate that in the library,” Arlene said. “I like the sense of representation. There’s not a lot everywhere else, but at school, it’s nice to see things you can connect with.”

Kentwood Public Schools educators intentionally seek, research and purchase books representing different backgrounds, races, religions and identities. In the most diverse district in Michigan, where more than 80 languages and countries are represented, it’s both a matter of academics and equity, they said. 

“It’s been said before, but it’s absolutely true: students need to see themselves in their reading choices, ” said Jessica Baker, secondary English Language Arts coach and former high school English teacher. “When my students were presented with a greater variety of titles with students who looked like them, sounded like them, were from experiences like their experiences, they were drawn to those stories. 

“Even my reluctant readers, who were so hard to pair with books, were finding titles they were willing to try. That right there is a win.”

Educators in Kentwood Public Schools share the love for reading, projected on the media center’s walls

The Quest for Diverse Books

Melisa Mulder, secondary ELA intervention coach, began a project to share diverse books with Kentwood students after she attended a Michigan Reading Association conference in 2019 on the importance of classroom libraries. Her project involved surveying middle- and high-school teachers about the number of books in their rooms and if they consisted of diverse titles. She worked with school librarians and clerks for input on high-interest titles from a variety of genres that appeal to boys and girls at appropriate reading levels and with diverse characters and authors.

“We were lacking not only in quantity, but in quality concerning representing our students with all their varying backgrounds. That in itself was a motivating factor — students want to see themselves and have that connection (with books),” she said. 

“I’ve seen a shift in a good way, but it’s still an ongoing process… We have to continuously update our libraries, replenish our libraries, and there’s a lot that goes into it.”

The district provides teachers with funds to keep building their classroom libraries, which benefits students in many ways, said Sanela Sprecic, director of the EL program. For English-language learners, it helps them develop their English and literacy.

A Need for Representation in Books

Statistics show a disparity in books featuring characters who are people of color compared to white characters. According to 2019 data on U.S. publishers from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, books represented primary characters from the following groups:
• Black/African: 441 (11.9% of total books)
• First/Native Nations: 37 (1% of total books)
• Asian/Asian American: 325 (8.7% of total books)
• Latinx: 197 (5.3% of total books)
• Pacific Islander: 2 (0.05% of total books)
• Brown skin: 343 (9.2% of total books)
• White: 1,555 (41.8% of total books)
• LGBTQIAP+: 115 (3.1% of total books)
• Disability: 126 (3.4% of total books)

Note: “Brown skin” indicates books in which the primary character clearly has brown skin, but there are no specific racial or cultural signifiers in the illustrations or text.

The East Kentwood media center offers books representing many cultures

“This is critical for students who are culturally and/or linguistically diverse. Having access to a wide variety of books including those that reflect their background, culture and/or identity empowers our multilingual students’ identities,” said Sprecic, an immigrant from Bosnia. “When students can relate to the characters and their experiences in the text, their academic language/literacy development and overall learning are positively impacted.”

Other Kentwood educators have also embraced the mission. Leanne Reilly, a former middle-school teacher who started as a secondary ELA coach this school year, shared resources last year for teachers to review to help them better understand their building’s demographics. 

‘The district is really involved with everyone’s culture. It’s very diverse. You see people who look like you, who don’t look like you, and I feel like they incorporate that in the library.’

— East Kentwood High School junior Arlene Roberts

She also shared book lists from a Michigan Department of Education conference titled “Building Mirrors and Windows: Children Seeing Themselves and Others in the Literature that We Teach.” 

“Representation matters,” Reilly said. “The diversity that we embrace here, we want our children in the classroom to feel. When you are focused on literacy, like we are as a district, you need to do all the things necessary to make sure kids are engaged in their reading.”

From the resources Reilly provided, about 75 secondary teachers selected books. At the elementary level, media clerks compiled book boxes for classrooms, also representing the student population. The staff reviewed middle- and high-school teachers’ lists to make sure they were age and grade-level appropriate.

Reilly introduced her own new books in a “speed-dating” format where students quickly read book covers to find ones they wanted to read. 

“I definitely noticed an increased interest in the new books,” Reilly said. “The majority of the new titles were consistently checked out of my classroom library. I had to keep a ‘wait list’ for some of them, because students were so excited to read the ones where they saw themselves in the books.”

East Kentwood media clerk Elizabeth Measell with a display of diverse books for all reading levels

The Art Form of Book Purchasing

East Kentwood High School media clerk Elizabeth Measell is always working to meet the needs of all students, including English-language learners and students who have special needs. When choosing books for the library, she uses a variety of resources and considers factors including student and staff recommendations; if it’s something students would be interested in, and what book reviewers say.  

“Buying library materials is really an art form. When I was first hired, I struggled to buy books. Now in my fourth year here, I have a better understanding of the community I serve, and my purchasing habits have adjusted accordingly,” she said.

And she’s seen the impact of offering diverse books.

“Students need a wide range of reading materials. They may be reading a book that mirrors their own background (and) experiences. Or a book that educates them about the experiences and cultures of others. Last year, I purchased several books that feature South Asian and Middle Eastern characters,” she said. “This led to a wonderful conversation and a big thank-you from one of my Nepali students.”

‘Representation matters. The diversity that we embrace here, we want our children in the classroom to feel. When you are focused on literacy, like we are as a district, you need to do all the things necessary to make sure kids are engaged in their reading.’

— ELA coach Leanne Reilly

Still, there’s work to be done. “While there is more diversity in books than there was 10 years ago, some still have stereotypes,” Measell said. “For example, it is difficult to find immigrant stories that are not about the refugee experience, or LGBTQ+ books that are not romances.” 

In the media center, Cora said she loves having many options to choose from. “There are a lot of books that I have read in this library, and they are all very different. I get bored of books easily, so if I read the same book over and over again I get quite bored, but all the books are very different.”

Sareya said she enjoyed last year when Angeline Boulley, the author of The Firekeeper’s Daughter, a young adult novel featuring a half-native, half-white main character, visited the school last year. It was the kind of experience made possible through books that students can relate to.

“She spoke about her book and her struggles,” Sareya said. “That showed a lot of people who have colored skin that you can be successful.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She 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, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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