I’ve been thinking a lot about mirrors and windows recently. To be more specific, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the books in our classrooms should serve as both mirrors and windows for our students. I’m not sure who coined these terms or when their use originated and I suspect I’m late to the discussion. Regardless, I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the role of diverse books in my library and to the reasons why deliberate cultivation of a diverse library is important. I’m sharing my evolving thoughts here, hoping for feedback from others who may have insight I am lacking, or alternative viewpoints I may not have considered.
When we select books and put them into the hands of children, we are doing more than teaching them to read. We are, intended or not, sending messages about the world. It is crucial that we offer books that are both windows and mirrors to our students and that we experience these books with them. When books act as mirrors, they offer children the chance to see themselves in a story, in a world they readily understand. These books are a scaffolded step into literacy. Children can relate to protagonists, understand settings and problems and have their worlds validated. Members of majority populations have many, many books that serve as mirrors. Minority students? Not so many. They have far more window books. When books act as windows, they share a view into a different world for students. Within the pages of that book, children can experience a foreign culture and/or setting with protagonists who may look different from them and who inhabit different landscapes. When we hand majority students mirror books over and over, we are limiting them, doing them and society a disservice and missing an opportunity to broaden their horizons. Is there also an unintended subliminal message– That your world is the only one of value, the only one worthy of portraying in the pages of a book? When minority students don’t see their world in a book, they may not readily identify with what they are reading and their world is not validated. Their scaffolded step into literacy is missing. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke eloquently about this in her TED Talk and identified another danger as well.
In her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her childhood in Nigeria with her literary experiences centered around British and American literature. She talks about writing her first stories about white children with blue eyes who drank ginger beer, ate apples and played in the snow.“What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.” Our book selection in the classroom sends many messages to our students and we need to be keenly aware of them. Later in her speech Ms. Adichie acknowledges another risk, that of providing only one vision or story within a mirror or a window book. “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, not only do we need to provide stories rich in diversity, we must ensure that they offer multiple views into different cultures and ways of life. Offering the same window or mirror into the world perpetuates stereotypes–like all those white blue-eyed children drinking ginger beer and playing in the snow. Considering some of my favorite multicultural books (Those Shoes , The Day of Ahmed’s Secret, Ezra Jack Keat’s books, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin ), I realize, with a start, that though they are wonderful, rich books, they offer a limited view of minorities and foreign cultures, one rooted primarily in urban and poor settings. I also realize that within my library, there are few books that offer windows into differences based in religion, ability, sexuality. Clearly I have some work to do to ensure that my classroom library represents many differences and does not perpetuate any one stereotypical story for my insulated students.
I live and work in rural Maine. Until recently, multicultural issues have felt remote. The student population at our K-8 school is 98-99% Caucasian. In my classroom I teach my students to empathize with each other, to speak and act respectfully, to persevere, to be friendly even if you can’t be friends. But they are a highly homogenous group. I now recognize that I have missed literacy-based opportunities to help them understand that respect, courtesy and empathy need to stretch across lines of culture, race, religion, etc. I’ve done some work to introduce diverse books to my students, but to be honest, I’m ashamed to say this hasn’t been a priority. In my ignorance I thought these aren’t issues that are relevant to my students right now. They aren’t issues that are in their daily lives. So, I’ve paid lip service to this need and I’m not proud of this. Given recent world events and my growing understanding, I now know that my rural Maine students need these experiences more than others, not less.
At ILA16 Pernille Ripp shared data from a PEW Research Center survey that found that 28% of adults had not read a book in the past 12 months. She went on to say, “When we talk about creating empathetic human beings and wonder why our world is broken…I think it has something to do with that 28%.” Then she added the zinger. “Our literacy decisions create those adults.” The responsibilities of being a teacher have never felt weightier. Yet with that responsibility comes a glimmer of hope. Maybe there is something I can do to light up the dark corners of this world. Perhaps my battlefield is in the classroom and my weapons are books.
So, I look into my own mirror and ask myself, if not now, when? And if not me, who? As a teacher, I can and should provide students with windows to the world around them. (In general, mirror books are readily available for my students.) I have a heightened obligation to put diverse books into my students’ hands–to show them other perspectives, other cultures, and to teach them to value all human life and experience–and to ensure that these window books show multiple views and don’t tell a single story. Because for the most part my students aren’t going to encounter these differences in their daily lives. It’s easy to fear that which is unknown and too often these days we see and hear people using violent and frightening language and suggesting closing the doors (and our hearts and minds) against those who are “other.”
I want to arm my students with the tools they need to thrive in this world and to spread seeds of kindness, not hatred. To seek empathy even when the distance and differences seem overwhelming. To use the tools of literacy to stretch their minds and learn about others. To embrace differences and to recognize that if we focus only on the differences, we miss the opportunities to connect at a more fundamental level. For underneath it all, isn’t a critical outcome of celebrating and exploring multiple worlds and world views the recognition of how similar we all really are?