Robbinsdale Area Schools

“Daunting and Joyful” – Ensuring students see themselves in our district

Matt Schneider, media specialist at Sonnesyn Elementary, shares these thoughts on the importance of books that reflect them and their cultures.

Why does it matter that students have books that reflect their cultures and have characters represented in literature that look like them?

For as long as there have been children's stories, we have understood that kids benefit from seeing themselves in what they read and hear. There is a reason Little Red Riding Hood is picked to bring grandmother her basket. If the story was about an adult walking through the woods, kids wouldn't engage with it in the same way. This holds true for other aspects of our identity as well. We see some commonality between ourselves and a character, and that becomes our entry into their story. 

For many students, it is also validating to see their identity or experiences celebrated by being included in a book. It tells them that an author, publisher and librarian all agree that this part of them "belongs" in our school community. Perhaps it is their ethnicity, race, gender identity or even their family makeup or immigrant status. We want all children to feel welcome and valued, and this is one way our schools can do that. 

Students should also get opportunities to explore the cultures and identities of their classmates by exposure to books that guide them through an experience unlike their own. One of my favorite examples of this is the book Don't Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller. The main character is a young black girl who gets overwhelmed by everyone admiring (and touching) her curls. This is an experience that is shared by at least one child in every classroom at my school. Discussing the book shows those students that they are seen, and gives the other children a chance to understand their classmate's experience in a new way. 

Does it help increase students' desires to read if they have access to multicultural books, characters, languages, etc?

Children love to read. Every child starts out fascinated by reading and eager to become a reader. To keep that love alive, they need to feel like they are successful. By giving them access to books that they may understand more readily, we give them a better chance to be successful and continue developing their skills as well as their love of books. 

In your time as a media specialist, what changes have you noticed or helped with in getting more diverse books into the hands of kids?

Through district initiatives and funding from partners like the Seven Dreams Education Foundation, our classroom libraries and Media Center collections throughout the district have evolved. This task was taken on by district stakeholders, with outside consultation, over the past decade. Their efforts included not just purchasing new materials, but also reexamining our existing collection and re-organizing and highlighting resources to engage students with new perspectives. This is work that never ends. We constantly strive to reexamine prejudice, representation and the experiences of various marginalized groups. It can be daunting, but it is also joyful work.

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