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Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environment Part Six

Part V concluded that “words matter”. Since words comprise the literary and informational texts used for instruction, it is essential to follow up Part V with tips for decolonizing the English language arts classroom library, whether those libraries are in physical classrooms, online, or a combination of both.

  1. How do we ensure students’ exposure to culturally diverse texts that does no perpetuate dominant narratives of people of color or immigrant families?
  2. How do we select reading material that promotes equity by design, enabling all students to see themselves and others as equal and their stories as relevant and meaningful? 

First and foremost, this needs to be stated. The focus and subsequent questions posed above are not an implication that any Colorado ELA/literacy educator and/or leader is intentionally choosing overt racist or deficit minded reading material for their students to engage with inside and outside the classroom. Neither are they suggestive that the current reading lists irrelevant and complete with narratives, messages, themes, etc., not worthy of analysis simply because the author, journalist, poet, playwright, biographer, editor, or writer is a member of dominant culture. The purpose and goal is for ELA/Literacy educators at all levels of our education system to become more cognizant of the subtle messages that reinforce deficit views of people of color and immigrants. All Colorado students must feel and know they are valued as citizens of their local and global communities. While the historical experiences as experienced by BIPOC communities cannot be changed, they can however, be used to inform current practices in order to not only shape the pedagogical practices and policies governing schools and districts into inclusive communities that honors and values each cultural representation and contribution, but also local communities and global societies.


Look at the following infographic below.  What narrative is being enforced or reinforced to BIPOC students through the diversity depicted in children's books?

The question then becomes, how do we decolonize classroom libraries?

Inquiry Questions

Here are four inquiry questions all LA/literacy educators and leaders must ask before determining a book is worthy to be added to their classroom or school library, or as part of their curriculum materials for students to read. The questions below are suggestions are based upon the work of Dr. Alfred Tatum, author of Reading for Their Lives: (Re)Building the Textual Lineages of African American Males Students.

  1. Does the book go beyond typical themes about characters of color? Avoid caricatures and the reinforcement of stereotypes like “the hoopster” or “fatherless son.” Dr. Tatum says we should ensure that texts offer counter narratives that shows students of color, especially males as problem-solvers, which challenges the “victim mentality” story lines.

The problem, according to Dr. Tatum and Zaretta Hammond, is that while there are more diverse books out there, typically there’s a theme. For example, books with African Americans typically revolve around sports (i.e., basketball), civil rights-era activities, or African American historical heroes. There’s an overrepresentation of low-income, urban communities. It’s even more limited for Latinx students. And, let’s not even talk about authentic books at Indigenous/First Nation children or Pacific Islanders students.

  1. Are there non-fiction books that have children, adolescents, and/or young adults of color doing everyday things? Too often dominant racial narratives about who’s the smart kid in the book does not include children of color. You also want to check to see if the non-verbal visuals are reinforcing dominant narratives. Remember the definition for text—any media, print or non-print, used to communicate an idea, emotion, or information—can be a speech, a video, a chart or a graph, an infographic, a photograph, a painting. It refers to any communication that ask students to “make meaning” or comprehend a message.  
  2. Do the children of color look “authentic”? Meaning, do they have varied shades of brown skin and textured hair, or are do they have White/Caucasian features, but with brown skin? The ideal is for students to see authentic representations of themselves and their cultural identities.
  3. Are the texts, especially fictional stories “enabling”? Dr. Tatum talks about ensuring texts are “enabling” rather than disabling students. This is a way of going deeper with the idea of “mirrors” in the popular “mirrors and windows” frame. So, the text should serve as a road map for being, doing, thinking, and acting in ways that congruent with cultural ways of being and doing

An enabling narrative recognizes, honors, and nurtures students’ multiple identities, academic/intellectual, cultural/racial, and personal/social. It shows these identities as integrated in a matter of fact way and common rather than having the high achieving child of color be the exception or characterized as a “nerd” or oddball.

The aforementioned are just a few important criteria to use to review books. A HUGE SHOUT OUT to LIBRARIANS! Librarians are essential, integral, and important contributors to our effort for educational equity in the area of English language arts/literacy.


Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors Video by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop

Windows and Mirrors: Learning about Difference and Belonging through Books Video Edutopia

The Windows and Mirrors of my Child's Bookshelf TEDTalk by Author Grace Lin

Next Module: Accelerated Learning in English Language Arts