Teacher Doaa Al-Soraimi shares her top tips for teachers.
Many of us now acknowledge the importance of representation in reading for a healthy reading diet. As a child from an ethnic background, I feel that this is my driving passion. I want to ensure that I represent special needs, ethnicity, sexuality, poverty, and neurodiversity in my choice of extracts for whole-class reading lessons or when choosing class novels.
The answer is simple: children deserve to see themselves and their culture reflected in the books they read. This can be experienced first-hand, especially when working with these groups of children. Seeing the positive impact of self-confidence and engagement is visible when choosing the right book. When children see themselves in stories and books they develop a strong sense of belonging to the community around them. It can also play as a hook for them as they relate to the characters they engage with and the scenarios they read about.
As a child, I was an avid reader and never saw myself in any of the books I chose to read. Not only that, I hardly saw myself represented in advertisements, popular culture, or positions of power which can form a subconscious negative view of oneself. Sadly, I'm not alone in this experience. In 2020, the National Literacy Trust surveyed 60,000 children in England aged 9 to 18. Almost 33% of those children and teens said they don't see themselves in the books they are reading.
Being well represented when you read books sends the vital message that you matter, you are valued, you are worthy of success and you are accepted. Alternatively, what must you feel like when you are not represented?
Representation does not only allow children to see themselves – it goes beyond that. Books act as a portal into the 'unknown' for young readers. I am a strong believer that when people don’t understand something it provokes a fight or flight reaction and when this is towards a human it can be catastrophic in some situations. Another reaction can be ignoring individuals, which can be just as harmful and distressing as the more aggressive and abusive reactions.
No child in a school should feel that they must hide their true identity to avoid any of the above. However, if children are subjected to different diverse characters, it allows them to understand this group, acknowledge them and realise they are not a threat.
Children's publishing is beginning to feature a wider range of representations. A recent report from CLPE showed a positive increase in minority ethnic characters in children's books from 4% in 2017, to 15% in 2020. This progress is a clear indicator of the changes occurring in the publishing industry.
When you have a full understanding of the depth of representation, it will then be the driving passion for any professional. The worst thing you can do is bury your head in the sand and not do anything about it because you ‘don’t want to offend’ or ‘say the wrong thing’.
I urge colleagues who are not sure about a given issue to ask. Simply, find a person you know or dive into the educational world of social media sites and there you will find someone who can suggest ideas or point you in the right direction. Be polite and your intentions will defend you if you are ever afraid of offending anyone.
If you want to ensure that you have a diverse reading pallet, start by looking at your library and the choices of extracts you have made earlier. Do these choices need to be tweaked? Do they need a fresh look?
Also, have an understanding of the demographics of your cohort and look for gaps in their experiences. This will help you sway away from your unconscious biases that inform your choices based on your interests or what you are drawn to. Aim to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes which include religion, culture or ethnicity so that children can see the world through a more informed lens than the one we were subjected to.
While some of their views may stem from the media or from home, it is our role to provide ample opportunities for children to foster respect for people who are in some way different from them. You may also be able to spot the negative impacts of a non-diverse society when certain words and language are used to express ideas and feelings. Take this opportunity to identify what is missing and which books you will choose to tackle this.
You will also see through the positive impacts when you hear a child confidently talk about their own identity with confidence and a sense of safety when doing so. When children feel safe sharing their experiences and culture with their teachers and peers, it will help them illuminate their backgrounds and bring them to the forefront of their identities. This confidence comes from knowing that this will be fine and that the people around them will accept them.
After assessing your classroom library, can you seek support from school SLT to refresh the book corner so that it does a better job in this regard?
Take the opportunity to celebrate role models from a diverse range of backgrounds. Read children's books that develop students understanding of diversity. Facilitate meaningful personal reading experiences for students through access to stories, articles and teaching that has a focus on diversity.
Research the lives of those who have been successful in fields where they haven’t fitted a stereotypical mould. Link this to RE and PSHE lessons and celebrate individuals from your class who want to talk about their differences, family or past. Use it as a learning opportunity to open discussion and pique interest. Allow children to research history and think deeply about those who have a diverse viewpoint from theirs.
My final suggestion is to have a look at this humble list I made below of books which may offer help.
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