Windows and Mirrors: Why We Need Diverse Books

By Chad Everett, guest blogger

I was an undergraduate student the first time it happened. One of my professors shared the following line from W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk: “One ever feels his twoness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” I was rocked. As I read and re-read the quote, I felt as though layers of myself were being peeled away. This was the first time in all my years of education that an instructor presented me with a piece of text that showed me myself, a mirror. Not a mirror that provides surface level reflection, but a mirror that revealed the innermost thoughts that not even I could fully comprehend. By mirror, I mean a text in which I saw a reflection of my identity and experiences. Sure, I sat in classrooms where we engaged in the obligatory Black History Month readings of African American authors, but never before had an instructor presented one of those texts in a manner that was meant to empower and enlighten.
 
As I collaborated with classmates and each shared his or her thoughts on the quote, it was as though the fog on that metaphorical mirror I had always been acutely aware of, but had never been able to see clearly in, was being slowly wiped away. Bishop (2009) highlights the importance of providing students access to mirror texts: “when children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” In addition to serving as a mirror for me, the text served as a window for many of my classmates who had only experienced reflections of themselves in books, never experiencing the power of a window text. Books are sometimes the only place where readers may meet people who are not like themselves, who offer alternative worldviews (Tschida, Ryan, & Ticknor, 2014).
 
Take a moment to think about the texts students have access to in your classroom and the texts they have access to in your school’s library. Think about the stories being told, who is telling them, and who is being left out. If I were a student in your school, would I be able to find multiple texts with reflections of myself and multiple texts that serve as windows into the worlds of others?
 
Viewing literature through a lens of windows and mirrors helps us understand that, in addition to texts being stories to be enjoyed, they are powerful tools of social justice. In the primary and intermediate grades as we are devoting copious amounts of time to helping students become proficient readers, we must remember that students are discovering their place in school and world, and the texts we provide access to inform this discovery. With access to mirror texts, students are able to see that their narrative matters, and with access to window texts, students learn to understand and appreciate the narratives of others. The power of literacy to transform lives does not exist in skill and strategy instruction alone; it also resides within the stories students read. What message do we send students when they do not see themselves reflected in the texts we use in our classrooms? What message do we send to students from non-marginalized groups when we only use texts that reflect their culture and experiences?
 
The diversity provided through window and mirror texts extends beyond ethnicity. Diversity includes how a piece of literature addresses family structures, dialects; cultural traditions and values. Presenting diverse, enabling texts is especially important for African American males, a group that often feels disconnected from school at an early age. The reading achievement gap that persists between African American males and their peers could be attributed to a lack of literacy engagement, rather than a lack of ability. Alfred Tatum phrases it this way, “Neither effective reading strategies nor literacy reform will close the reading achievement gap unless meaningful texts are at the core of the curriculum and educators know how to mediate such texts.”
 
The need for diverse books extends beyond the English classroom. In social studies, students need access to multiple texts so they have more than a single story about an event. According to Adichie (2009), “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
 
So, as you are out placing orders on Amazon and searching the shelves of your local bookstore, think about the variety of narratives each of your students bring into your classroom. And if your students are unable to find a mirror text in which they can see themselves, encourage them to pick up a pen or keyboard and create their own.
 


About Chad:
 
Chad Everett is a self-proclaimed literacy and technology geek. A strong believer in the power of collaboration and the power of technology to expand learning communities, Chad co-founded #MSedchat, Mississippi’s education Twitter chat. He is also deeply involved with community adult literacy, believing the change needed to transform education extends beyond the school’s walls. Chad serves on the volunteer council and tutors with Literacy Mid-South. He is also a consultant with The Educator Collaborative. A frequent professional development leader and conference presenter, Chad spreads a love and enthusiasm for learning and the role technology plays in literacy instruction.