She Looked Like Me

By Todd Nesloney, Guest Blogger

Being a connected educator has changed everything for me. No longer do I work in a silo surrounded by ideas that are limited based on my location or experience.

Because I have chosen to connect with and learn from educators from around the world, I have had my eyes opened on many occasions.  From those experiences, not only have I grown, but I have gotten better for my students as well.


This summer I spent a lot of time learning from some of my Reading EduHeroes: John Schumacher, Donalyn Miller, and Jennifer LaGarde. I had the pleasure of learning from them in person, over the phone, through twitter, or just by reading their blogs/articles they’ve written.


One of the most powerful things I’ve educated myself on this summer, thanks to John, Donalyn, and Jennifer, is the importance of providing books to our students that have characters who look like them. Characters who talk like them. Characters who live like they do.  
You see, being a white male who was raised in a white family, I grew up with those kinds of characters. I never thought twice about it. As I became an educator, and now a campus leader, again, I never thought twice about the characters I was reading about with my students.


After listening to Donalyn, John, and Jennifer this summer continuously talk about diverse characters and stories, I reflected upon my own choices of reading materials with students. And I found that many of the books I had selected had predominately white and/or male characters.  Now, this wasn’t intentional by any means, but it happened.


80% of my students are not white. I could do better with the books I was reading. So I educated myself and diversified over the summer.  I read Towers Falling, Ninth Ward, Mexican White Boy, Last Stop On Market Street, Booked, The Crossover, and so many more.
Then over the past two weeks something special happened. Several things really, because of a few very different books.


In my effort to diversify my reading selections, I also worked hard at choosing more diverse picture books. As a campus leader I feel like it’s my responsibility to make it into every classroom on my campus, every month, to read a book to our students. A book that has touched my heart or impacted me. PreK-5th Grade, it’s one of my favorite things to do as principal.


The first book I chose this year was Louise Loves Art by Kelly Light. It’s a heartwarming story about a little girl who is quite the artist and her little brother who only wants to be just like her. The students loved the book.  It spurred some really good conversation, and it had a female lead, but yet again all the characters were light complected.


Then I decided to push myself outside my comfort zone a little and do exactly what I tell my students every day, “be brave”. Over 50% of my students speak Spanish. We have bilingual classes in Prek-3rd grade. I had found the book How Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends by Jane Yolen and loved it. Then, I saw the Spanish version Como son buenos amigos los dinosarios and knew what I wanted to do.  


So I practiced reading the book with a friend who speaks Spanish.  Then I surprised each bilingual classroom, and instead of going into the room to read a book completely in English, I instead read to them in their native language.  


You could see the looks of shock on their faces. The PreK and Kinder kiddos giggled quite often at my pronunciation. But the older students were proud to help me on a few words. It was such a fun experience and one where I could see the students truly beaming at their principal reading to them in a language they understood, but was not my first language.


That’s when I took my next step. I love the picture books by Andrea Beaty (Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect) and Andrea just released her brand new one Ada Twist, Scientist.  It’s an amazing story, written in poetry, about a little African American girl and the many “scientific” questions she asks to learn more and more.


About 30% of our students are African American, so I wanted to go into classrooms and read another book that reflected their experiences instead of mine.  And that’s when something truly special happened.  


I read Ada Twist, Scientist with class after class. They laughed, they clapped, and we had great talks about the book.  But it was what happened the next day with one little girl, that forever changed the way I view what books I will choose to read to classrooms.


The next day in the hallway, a fourth grader stopped me.  She said, “Thank you, Mr. Nesloney for reading that book to our class yesterday” and of course I told her that it was my pleasure and that I loved reading to all the classes.  Then she said, “No, thank you for reading a story where she looked like me. Someone who was my color and who did something great”.


And that’s when I almost broke down in tears on the spot. I just gave the girl a hug and let her continue on her way, but those words will forever stick with me.


What had I done all those years of reading to my students? Why had my eyes not been opened sooner?


The words of one student validated everything I had learned this past summer. We must be offering up, reading, and celebrating books that have characters who look like our students. Books that have characters that act like our students.  Books that have characters who talk like our students. And yes, books that have characters that look nothing like, talk nothing like, and act nothing like our students.


As educators, it is our responsibility to shine a light and celebrate the diversity that exists within our schools, countries, and world.


It’s time we read more books with our kids with characters they could relate to and characters they could learn from.


This summer I had my eyes opened to the power that lies within reading books with kids that celebrate all kinds of characters, and I now truly understand it is my responsibility to bring those stories to my students.  So today I challenge you to do just that, because #KidsDeserveIt.

About Todd:

Todd Nesloney is the Principal/Lead Learner at Webb Elementary in Navasota, Texas.  In addition to being named a White House Champion of Change and a 20 to Watch in Education, Todd has also co-authored the book "Kids Deserve It!".

Twitter: @techninjatodd