“Mr. Witmer, the kid on the cover of this book looks like me.” At that moment, I smiled, as a student in my class got the chance to experience a piece of literature that made him feel represented. That smile quickly faded as I realized that, as a student in second grade, he made it this far without seeing himself represented in his classroom. Take a moment and think about the diversity of students in your classroom. Now think about whether your classroom library reflects the diversity of your students, or of our world. There is the power behind representation. As a white man, and with all the privilege associated with that, I feel a sense of responsibility, and a high desire to allow my students to grow up and learn in an environment where they are not only represented but where they feel valued and seen. I personally have no recollection of diverse literature from my days in elementary school.
When it comes to educating students on the inclusivity of race, I remember a quote I have heard many times from many different people. “If you are teaching about diversity and inclusion during black history month alone, you are not doing it right.” Black History month is extremely important, but the history of black individuals should not be secluded to one month. Diversity education does not begin and end with slavery. Black History is OUR history. All students deserve to see themselves in everyday literature. They deserve to see themselves as the protagonist in a story they carefully select from their classroom library shelves, any day of the year.
Experiencing diverse literature is not only needed for students of color. The students we teach, are the future. The values that we raise our students with, become the values of our country and of the world. If you are teaching in a school where the majority or all of the students are white, diverse literature is just as important. Diverse experiences for anyone, benefit everyone. When I first realized how “white” my classroom library was, I had a sudden urge to splurge on all new books. There are so many ways to gain diverse literature for your classroom. Utilizing Amazon wish lists, book donations, Scholastic Book fairs, are a few great ways to gain additional literature for your classroom. My personal favorite is the used section on Amazon. Kids do not care if a page is bent or the spine is worn. A book is a book! The process for gaining diverse and inclusive literature is a slow one.
I am currently in my fourth year of teaching and still wish I had more books for my students. The important thing to remember is the power that you give each of your students by allowing them to see themselves represented. I am so excited for the day where a student will never be surprised when they see a book character that looks like them because it will be the norm. I urge you to reflect on the availability and access that your students have to inclusive literature. I did, and it changed my approach to teaching and will continue to benefit my students for years to come. If you need book recommendations or want ideas of where to start, contact me!
Derek Witmer is a second-grade teacher at a large school district in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In his fourth year of teaching, Derek has his Masters of Education and Leadership from the California University of Pennsylvania. He has a high interest in diversity and STEM education.