March 2017, Vol. 24, No. 3: Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Middle Grades

YA author Olugbemi Rhuday-Perkovich provides some advice for moving past basic diversity conversations to some literacy actions you can take to bring real diversity into your community in this addendum to her article "Say That to My Face: On Teaching and Learning Diverse Literature for Empowerment and Transformation (Or, On Feeling Itchy)". You can also hear an interview with her in the Voices from the Middle Podcast, Episode 12.

Beyond Diversity 101: A Few Ideas

Recognize and acknowledge inequities. Yes, all lives matter, but not all lives are at-risk, marginalized, disenfranchised, and operating in a system designed to work against them. One helpful, simplified illustration of this is Kris Straub's “burning house” metaphor.

Reject deficit/pathologizing models of students, particularly students of color. Avoid seeing our young people as buckets to be filled, or blank pages that need us to write furiously and frantically upon them. Remember that they have something to offer, to teach, and help them see that you do, not simply because of your position in authority, but because of your walk, your work, your story.

Make room for reading. Independent reading, and time to discuss—either out loud or in writing, perhaps through tools like the dialogue journals that Nancie Atwell describes in In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning about Writing, Reading, and Adolescents. Offer “choice and challenge.” 

Connect literature to daily life and culture. My own middle schooler was also not pleased with To Kill a Mockingbird (I tried, I tried, not to say too much about my feelings about that book! I was mostly successful.) But she goes to a school that encourages and works hard to create space for those candid and uncomfortable conversations, and they had them. And those often made her unhappy and me uncomfortable. And she took her discomfort and hurt and turned it into a final project that connected TKAM to Donald Drumpf’s presidential campaign and the O.J. Simpson trial. These were all things that were hard to discuss with an 11-, then 12-year-old, but they were real. She learned, through her reading and writing, to assert that sometimes it’s not OK to just “agree to disagree,” that sometimes doing that can ignore profound differences, prevent self-examination, and perhaps prevent a more authentic and lasting connection that comes from real engagement.

Make it special. We as literacy leaders must reach out to diverse audiences and communities through nontraditional means, especially in the context of our changing world. Moving out of comfort zones and not only inviting others into your world but venturing out to join their communities. There may be literacy activities, traditions, and events and efforts that involve community institutions, affinity groups, organizations that might provide a wonderful opportunity for book sharing and new literary discoveries. At a Brooklyn school last spring, I participated in something called "Reading in the Round,” an evening literacy event for families. There was dinner, some drama and music performances by the kids, and we talked books. The intergenerational component was fantastic, and parents spent time browsing, reading aloud, and otherwise socializing via literacy. Parents and caregivers shared reading memories and made new ones right there, over chicken and chocolate chip cookies. At another event, I spoke at a literacy “party” on a school playground. At first, it seemed a little sketchy—were we really going to have this book event on a gorgeous June day, on the playground? But it worked because reading was presented as producing just as much joy as the twisty slide. Authors were invited to read excerpts and share their personal stories. Students performed their own writing and were surrounded by shiny new books and by creators who were invited to read excerpts and share the stories of their reading lives.

Know kids’ culture. And show respect for it, don’t be dismissive. But don’t be overbearing and intrusive either. Don’t be the adult trying to be cool. I don’t have to explain why, right? Just don’t.

Give readers a mission.  I’ve run a “5th Grade Review” club where students spent their lunch period in the school library twice a month, and I had a large selection of “under the radar” books available to them. I explained that they were being asked to review and share these titles as a service to their community. They were on a mission. They were not all friends but connected with each other during that time over books and with other readers through authentic and meaningful publishing experiences (the library blog, posters around the building). Sometimes, the reviewers didn’t agree with the school librarians and me, and that was wonderful. They honed critical thinking and writing skills, they opened themselves up to new possibilities, and they invited their peers to do the same.

Sometimes we talked about literature in a broader way: were we seeing characters with disabilities always portrayed as inspirational? Were marginalized people only there to provide life lessons for main characters? Were members of underrepresented groups solving their own problems? Sometimes I just watched them eat brownies or pizza and talk about their lives as they shared their thoughts about books or just talked about reading the world, perhaps not realizing or acknowledging how a life between the pages changed their walk in the world. Sometimes the conversation got a little wild, and I wondered if I was just offering a glorified lunch period that left a lot of crumbs in the school library.

Invite #ownvoices into your school or classroom. A visit from an author like Cynthia Leitich Smith or Joseph Bruchac can be an important reminder that Native Americans don’t only exist “in history.” A small child once noticed me carrying my daughter and said to his caregiver, “Is that her babysitter? She looks like a babysitter.” Inviting Kekla Magoon or Tracey Baptiste might be just the thing to demonstrate that Black women can be more than babysitters or pop stars. (But we are happy to enjoy any of the perks of being literary pop stars.)