Representative Texts for Young Learners

Even the youngest learners can grasp concepts of diversity and representation.

Topics: Literacy, Curriculum and Instruction, Equity and Diversity

When Dedham (Massachusetts) Public Schools launched Equity Action Teams to focus on representation in texts and classroom libraries, I thought that the concept might be a bit out of range for our littlest learners’ development. But I also knew that if there was a way to meet the challenge, the staff at our Early Childhood Education Center would find it—and they did.

A callout for staff interested in participating yielded an amazing group of educators ranging from classroom teachers and arts providers to a central office staffer and a parent. Motivated and enthusiastic, they jumped in to look at texts from classroom bookshelves, curriculum units, and the school library.

Training and Tasting

Using an equity audit rubric from Seed the Way, everyone worked together to review selected children’s literature for representations of race, disability, gender, and family structure, as well as stereotypes. We learned from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison how to confront misrepresentation and underrepresentation of identities in children’s texts.

Alongside adult learning sessions, staff had the opportunity to attend a school-based diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) “Book Tasting” event. There, they socialized with colleagues and browsed tables of texts from our library, grouped by themes such as Strong Girls, Family Structures, Asian American, Black Joy, Native Americans, Differently Abled, and Latinx.

The Book Tasting “chefs”—the principal, instructional coach, and library media specialist—greeted the team with a menu and selection sheet to help identify new texts for classrooms and learning space libraries. It proved to be an engaging, interactive, and enjoyable way for staff to explore DEIJ texts in children’s literature.

Taking Texts to the Kids

The adults were well on their way to learning and collaborating on diverse texts. But how would we bring this work to the students? Would it be possible to explain the effort to our youngest learners? We needed to present the information in a developmentally appropriate manner, so students would understand the importance of what we had learned as adults.

The group grabbed this challenge and ran with it. We:

  • Wrote specific lesson plans;
  • Created new rubrics;
  • Added developmentally appropriate visuals and vocabulary; and
  • Exposed students to “mirror” and “window” texts to explore these concepts with their peers.

Students stood in front of mirrors and shared what they saw; they looked through windows and discussed what was alike and what was different about their peers. They looked at book covers and identified whether they were more likely to be a mirror or a window for them individually.

One 5-year-old made us all stop and listen when she proclaimed it “unexpected that there were no characters that looked like her on any of the book covers” and how that made her and some others feel. We marveled when one student remarked, “It’s not equitable!” when reviewing a chart they had made after answering questions about race, family makeup, and characters in a group lesson on representation in texts. “That character looks like me!” was another comment heard in a classroom conversation.

Comments such as these were powerful to hear from the mouths of babes. After the adults picked their chins up off the floor, we exchanged reassuring glances that we had done the right thing in launching such lessons. We asked students to expand upon their realizations and share them loudly and proudly with their peers.

What did our team learn from these experiences? Never underestimate the capabilities of your youngest learners, regardless of the topic. Never assume that you shouldn’t expose students to activities that allow them to think, share ideas, and learn from one another. And always take risks, step out of your comfort zone, rely on your team to lead learning, and—as principal—get out of the way so amazing things can happen.

Kim Taylor is principal of the Curran Early Childhood Center in Dedham, Massachusetts.