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Teachers and Families: How Do Your Books Stack Up?

5 min read
Leighton reading
Clarke alum Leighton reads at home.

National Literacy Month is here!

We cultivate literacy skills all year long at Clarke,* and are eager to join in the efforts each September to help increase awareness of the importance of developing literacy skills from a young age. We know the need persists; according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than one in three children in the US go to kindergarten lacking the language skills they’ll need to learn how to read.

What is Literacy?

While many think of literacy as the abilities to read and write, the definition of literacy has evolved significantly to now encompass a complex and dynamic set of skills. UNESCO, The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, writes that literacy “is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.”

Strong literacy skills are essential to becoming an active member of society. For all students, learning to communicate effectively across various digital media and changing cultural norms is a complicated process. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing face additional challenges in establishing a strong foundation in literacy, since, for example, their hearing loss can impede phonological awareness (the ability to understand different sounds in words) and they may miss out on incidental learning (information and knowledge gained from overhearing).

One tip we consistently share with families is to read with your child daily.

“Reading aloud to children is a critical component in the development of language comprehension (in addition to word recognition); which, in turn, is essential to skilled reading,” says Dr. Stephanie G., EdD, of education at Westfield State University in Westfield, MA, and Clarke’s professional partner in our multi-year literacy initiative.*

All forms of reading material count! Graphic novels, recipes, maps, board books, nonfiction, ghost stories, pamphlets at the doctor’s office — whatever interests your child is worth checking out.

However, consider the content. “Children should be immersed in a wide range of texts that both reflect the broader world and mirror their world,” says Stephanie. “Points of connection and disconnection, new and expanding knowledge and aesthetic responses should be discussed and explored throughout the read aloud.”

"Reading aloud to children is a critical component in the development of language comprehension (in addition to word recognition); which, in turn, is essential to skilled reading... Children should be immersed in a wide range of texts that both reflect the broader world and mirror their world."

-Dr. Stephanie G., EdD, professor of education at Westfield State University and Clarke’s professional partner in our multi-year literacy initiative.
How Do Your Books Stack Up?

“Children should be immersed in a wide range of texts that both reflect the broader world and mirror their world,” says Dr. Stephanie G., EdD, professor of education at Westfield State University. 

Try this sample exercise at home or in your classroom and see what you discover:

1) How many books focus on non-human characters?

2) How many books focus on human characters?

3) Among these stories about human characters, divide them by the various identities represented. Suggestions include:

 Create a list of topics that would help expand your library’s diversity. Remember that the staff at your local public library is eager to help research and request books on various subjects. Clarke educators have also compiled diverse book recommendations for teachers and families here.

And consider this an ongoing project; you don’t need to address all the gaps overnight. 

Representation in Students’ Reading Materials

While reading on a regular basis is paramount, we encourage caregivers and educators to take a closer look at the substance of these reading materials. To learn more about this, we connected with Geeta, Clarke teacher of the deaf, and member of Clarke’s AID (Anti-racism, Inclusion & Diversity) Committee, who recently conducted a “bookshelf audit.”

Geeta (center), Clarke teacher of the deaf, and member of Clarke’s AID (Anti-racism, Inclusion & Diversity) Committee, has worked at Clarke since 2013. Geeta co-presented “Many Voices One Clarke: Journey Toward Equity,” with colleagues Marian Hartblay, Clarke’s national director of early intervention and preschool and director of early childhood services at Clarke Northampton, and Judy Sexton, Clarke’s chief program officer, at AG Bell’s Global Listening and Spoken Language (LSL) Virtual Symposium in 2022.

Clarke Speaks Up: What prompted you to look more closely at the books you’d been reading with students?

Geeta: As an immigrant and a non-white person, my perspective of education in the United States is different from the norm. I try to use books depicting different kinds of people and places that are spread all over the globe.

I also thought back to an article by Rudine Sims Bishop titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass doors.” I was amazed at the simplicity with which she had captured the importance of diversity in children’s literature and lives. It prompted me to think about my own literary choices and practices in the classroom.

At that time, I was researching books to use for a Valentine’s Day theme, and over 80% of the books that I found were about different animals. Very few had human characters. I realized that this was true of most of the themes I had used in the classroom in all my years of teaching. That had me dig for research on whether using books featuring talking animals and objects versus books featuring people achieved the same learning objectives. I was not surprised to find research showing that children learn more effectively from books with human characters than from books with non-human characters.

Then I found several diversity bookshelf audits on the internet. So, I created a simple questionnaire to help me understand my classroom literary resources. The audit showed me proof of what I already knew – most of the books on my shelf were about non-human characters. And of the books featuring human characters, more than two-thirds featured white characters. That led to the realization that my classroom library was not a good collection of mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors! I needed to act urgently to provide my students with books that meet their needs to see themselves and others. And if my library is a good representation of the other classrooms and schools, then imagine how much work needs to be done by all of us!

So, in response, and with Clarke’s support, I’ve been adding books to my classroom library which help to amplify a diverse group of authors, illustrators, and characters—including those discussed by our AID Committee and recommended by Clarke educators and Clarke support team members.

CSU: What are your top five resources for supporting the anti-racism, inclusion and diversity work of educators?

Geeta: Some of the resources I like to use in the classroom are:

*In fact, Clarke has embarked on a three-year literacy initiative benefitting students from preschool through high school. In fall 2022, we roll out the evidence-based Hochman Method to help students build the skills to be competent writers, readers, communicators and thinkers. We are also introducing the Heggerty curriculum for phonemic awareness to complement our reading series. Phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds, or phonemes) is one of the best early predictors for reading success. Our preschool and early education programs will embrace the use of the Pearson’s Work Sampling System which is a curriculum-embedded performance assessment for teachers to use in evaluating young students’ development in multiple domains. Training is underway. 

3 Comments
Elizabeth Tsarfati

Hello!

What is the review process for screening and selecting books for usage at Clarke Schools? Are they approved by childhood development experts beforehand?

Many families hold non-secular worldviews that prescribe a specific sets of beliefs regarding the listed types of identities described in #3. How is Clarke practicing cultural responsiveness with these families when it comes to using this new framework AID is incorporating into teaching curriculum/supplemental learning?

Where can Parents and Guardians access a list of books that is approved for usage in classrooms?

Thank you kindly,

Clarke

Hi Elizabeth,
Thank you for your comments and questions.

Books and materials used at Clarke are guided by evidence-based and practice-based resources and selected by Program Team members including professionals specializing in childhood development, with topics including behavioral health, academic milestones and social-emotional learning. Materials are reviewed by the Program Director and/or Chief Program Officer and vary by location. Regardless of location, materials are age appropriate. We leverage proven practices and resources including Learning for Justice’s Framework for Anti-Bias Education/Social Justice Standards and Critical Practices, as well as NAEYC’s Anti-Bias Resources.

Our services are for children and families. We want to know how the families we serve are constructed and how we can best reflect this in our services. Clarke’s program enrollment process includes prompts for families to optionally share information about themselves, including languages used at home, their cultural practices, background, religious traditions and holidays. Clarke’s program leaders work closely with families and local teams to make lessons and activities responsive to the needs, identities and structures of the families we serve.

As noted in our blog post, children deserve to engage with books in which they can see themselves and their families. A bookshelf audit is a quantifiable way to present multicultural experiences which are also fun and engaging for young learners.

Clarke is committed to equitable practices and focuses on teaching kindness and unity. As stated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “… all early childhood educators have a professional obligation to advance equity.”

Clarke’s diversity, equity and inclusion work is ongoing. We appreciate the engagement of the Clarke community.

Clarke

A Message from Clarke

Following careful review, we made an editorial decision to omit comments shared in response to this blog post that detracted from our whole-child approach to creating safe spaces for children of all abilities, backgrounds, family structures and identities who have come to Clarke to learn the skills to listen and speak.

Our services are for children and families. We want to know how the families we serve are constructed and how we can best reflect this in our services. Clarke’s program enrollment process includes prompts for families to optionally share information about themselves, including languages used at home, their cultural practices, background, religious traditions and holidays. Clarke’s program leaders work closely with families and local teams to make lessons and activities responsive to the needs, identities and structures of the families we serve.

As noted in our non-discrimination policy, no student is denied access to any educational program or other activity of Clarke on the basis of race, color, ethnic background, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation or handicapping condition that does not preclude learning in a listening and spoken language environment.

We enhanced our commitment (https://www.clarkeschools.org/antiracism) to this policy in 2020 to stand with disenfranchised communities, recognize our biases and privilege and amplify the voices of marginalized groups.

This commitment extends to our curricula, classrooms and bookshelves as we support children in seeing themselves in the world around them and teaching skills to reach their full potential in school and life.

Clarke is dedicated to equitable practices and focuses on teaching kindness and unity. As stated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “… all early childhood educators have a professional obligation to advance equity.” (https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/equity)

While we are grateful for feedback from our community, we invite comments that further our organizational efforts to provide support, resources and training in diversity, anti-racism, equity and inclusion. Please view our posting policy here: https://www.clarkeschools.org/resources-publications/comment-posting-policy.

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