Winter brings important literacy awareness campaigns that many teachers have marked on their classroom calendars, including World Read Aloud Day on Wednesday, February 7, and Read Across America Week, which kicks off on Saturday, March 2.
As you prepare your suggested reading lists or classroom libraries for these reading celebrations, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the value of having inclusive books in the mix.
First, let’s discuss the difference between representation and inclusivity. Books that boost representation have diverse characters but don’t necessarily focus on those differences or how to make everyone feel included. For example, the main character may attend a racially diverse school and their best friend may be in a wheelchair, but those details aren’t key to the plot.
Helpful in Group Settings and for One-to-One Use
Inclusive books are useful for all children for various reasons, including that they demonstrate how children may feel different in some way and because children will always have interactions with diverse groups of people. Inclusive books are especially beneficial for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and being educated in the mainstream, as they may be the only child with hearing loss in their school. Inclusive books can serve as a pathway for other students to learn about the child’s hearing loss and assistive technology, and can help the child who is deaf or hard of hearing develop the vocabulary and self-advocacy skills to discuss their needs and desires.
“Children who are deaf or hard of hearing need inclusive stories as part of their curriculum to see their importance in the world,” says Jessica Jordan-Hogan, MS, teacher of the deaf and author of the Billie BAHA children’s book series. “Oftentimes, especially in a hearing world, the obstacles people [who] are deaf or hard of hearing face are due to lack of patience from those with typical hearing. When there are books that show their community having access to education, socialization, or just the world in general, they can understand their worth and value and that they belong the same as anyone else.”
Emily adds that she often helps her students who are deaf or hard of hearing create their own inclusive books — a process that builds myriad vital skills across literacy, language and self-advocacy. And it’s especially effective for younger students.
“They’re really ripe for this kind of work—reading and creating books to build their sense of self, to help other children understand them, and make it feel it’s easy to talk about,” she notes. Creating the book also helps students build their hearing-related vocabulary and helps them articulate various issues. “It’s great because you can tie in just about any goal or objective in their IEP.”
Emily will often have students share the book with their class and then take questions about it. It helps the rest of the class understand that it’s okay to ask questions and demonstrates how to do so respectfully.
“That’s the most important part,” she says. “That’s where [the other] children start making connections. ‘My grandpa has hearing aids,’ or ‘I like the glitter in your ear mold.’ It can set the child with hearing loss apart in a way that is special and even desirable. And that sets the tone for the rest of the year: We’re all in this together.” Essentially, it helps the rest of the class learn how to be advocates for their classmate.
Emily notes that special education teachers or guidance counselors will often use inclusive books on a one-to-one basis with a student, but she recommends that classroom teachers incorporate them as well so that all students can benefit.
“With ample access to inclusive stories, all students can learn how to be inclusive,” says Jessica. “For example, when one of my Billie BAHA books is seen in a class of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, they get excited to see themselves. They may learn new things too. However, when the book is used in a general education class as a learning tool, now socialization opportunities open up for those students who are deaf or hard of hearing. It also teaches the teacher more about [students’] hearing loss and may spark an interest for even more education and learning to make sure they’re being inclusive and providing access.”
Building an Inclusive Library in a Mainstream Classroom
The biggest hurdle in building an inclusive library tends to be finding high-quality publications, especially for older grade levels. There are many well-intentioned books that fall a little short. For example, Emily notes that books that use an animal as the protagonist can work for one-to-one use to explore hearing-related topics with a child who has cochlear implants, but they tend not to work as well as a classroom book. The content is too disconnected from reality for them to make the kinds of connections they should. (In fact, a 2017 study from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education found that stories featuring human characters had a greater impact on readers’ sense of generosity than those featuring anthropomorphized animals.)
That said, there are some great books out there specifically for children with hearing loss. Emily recommends finding stories that show diverse representations of hearing loss. Some great options include the following:
- Gracie’s Ears by Debbie Blackington
- Some Fairies Wear Hearing Aids by Penny Gill (formerly a teacher of the deaf at Clarke)
- Billie BAHA series by Jessica Jordan-Hogan
- Mila Gets Her Super Ears by Ashley Machovec
- Super Hearing by Jennifer Whitehead
And don’t forget those self-created inclusive books. Teachers can inexpensively make color copies, laminate them or put them in a binder and feature the book as part of the classroom library. “I’ve found that if you do something like put those books in your ‘books of the month display,’ children are really interested and it encourages them to see that those books are okay for everyone to read and enjoy,” she says.
“Inclusive books tie in really well with social-emotional learning, which is such a hot topic in education right now,” Emily adds. “They can help students talk about feeling excluded and how to make sure that doesn’t happen to someone, or even what to do if you become aware of it.”
She adds that in older grades, inclusive books on topics like hearing loss or neurodiversity can be incorporated into science modules. Similarly, inclusive books that celebrate different skin colors and cultures can be incorporated throughout the school day and in multiple courses of study.
While diverse representation in children’s literature is crucial, inclusive books go beyond depicting diversity to help foster awareness, understanding and acceptance among young readers. These books are invaluable tools for all children and can promote empathy, communication and self-advocacy. By integrating inclusive books into their lesson plans, educators create learning experiences that foster cultural understanding and social-emotional growth.
To learn more about Jessica Jordan-Hogan and the Billie BAHA series, read “Jessica Jordan-Hogan: Author Develops Relatable Superhero for Children with Hearing Loss” on Clarke Speaks Up.
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