Stories help us understand the world we live in, and they help us understand a bit more about ourselves. When we interact with stories that affirm our beliefs, we feel validation; when we hear differing stories, we develop empathy. But what happens when the stories we read don’t lineup with our students’ worldview? And what if the problem is as basic as the characters in the story don’t look like our students? Is that important?
Teachers who want to instill pride in their students, so they internalize their daily work, would say yes.
I know what you’re thinking,
“I’ve got (fill in the blank) kids in my class! Between decoding a new district policy, finishing up running records, and finally getting all the kids to make it to circle time, I’m TIRED.”
Rightfully so, and you’re in luck. The magic of validation and affirmation is embedded in your classroom already. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you’re aware of it or not, it happens everyday. For example, take a look at your classroom library. Do the characters in the stories reflect your classroom diversity? Do the characters look like your students? Do they have the same problems? You don’t have to share your answer with the class, but you can see how these questions illustrate (hehe, book pun) both the problems and the solutions.
If you don’t know where to start, here’s three strategies to keep in mind to help students feel validated, affirm their self-worth, and strengthen their classroom story*.
*Classroom story is a student’s sum of experiences in an educational setting, including their attitudes towards learning.
1. Listen to stories: Choose books with diverse cultures, races, and locations.
When students interact with characters that come from similar viewpoints they’re better able to transfer that knowledge into a different context. Having a classroom library featuring a diverse range of characters ensures all students have anchors for understanding themselves and others, anchors that will later help develop empathy. Furthermore, make sure you have quality titles with real humans as the characters; A recent study found that students who read stories featuring human characters (as opposed to animal characters), were more likely to internalize the story and remember the content.
2. Write stories: Interact authentically with every student, everyday.
It’s overwhelmingly easy for students to become a checklist of objectives (below basic/advanced, meets objectives…sounds pretty clinical). If you ask authentic questions (How’s your dog, Peanut?) you allow students to share an important part of their identity and show students that you’re invested in their lives. It’s also a casual test to see if there’s any underlying needs not being met. Your student-teacher check-in can be as small as you like; ask them about their favorite show or let them pick the music for a clean-up party right before dismissal…maybe it’s even a personalized handshake. These small interactions create a framework for their classroom story. How does school make them feel? What do they think about learning? How to they respond to a simple “Good Morning?”. These questions are data points that can help educators understand a bigger story and look at trends.
3. Share stories: Allow students to share their unique perspectives.
If you have been blessed with a diverse classroom, celebrate, because your classroom is brimming with stories, each of which is a component for creating a culturally-inclusive classroom. As a first grade teacher, I once had a student, we’ll call Dante, whose job the first week of school was to greet any visitors in our classroom (i.e., the principal and parents). Dante very sincerely asked if he could greet them in English and his mother tongue of Akan, a language of Ghana. Of course I obliged, excited that he wanted to share something special, and perhaps more excited that he was internalizing his classroom responsibilities! Dante got to bring his unique perspective to our classroom and in turn we all got to celebrate something new.
Try helping students incorporate cultural sharing in writing exercises, art projects, or family night events.
One of my goals at StoryBots is to connect students to stories that are silly, smart, and scary. The most unique feature of the StoryBots Classroom website is the Starring You Books; a series of rhyming readers that feature faces from your classroom. Teachers upload student selfies into a library of animated stories. Students can instantly transform into engineers, wizards, or mad scientists. To us, it’s a fun way to manage a whole group read-aloud; to kids this is a visualization exercise. It encourages students to visualize themselves in new and exciting scenarios. It supports a growth mindset, the idea that your brain can always grow, which leads to increased motivation and achievement. Additionally for teachers, this type of visual feedback is a way to meaningfully connect with students.
The ultimate goal for teachers is to help all students identify and craft their own classroom story (one that includes letter sounds, sharing, snack time, collaboration, and eventually some basic trigonometry). Creating a culture of mutual respect starts by listening to diverse stories, writing personal stories, and sharing stories within our classroom communities.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Children Recognize Pride in Others Before Themselves
- 4 Tips for a Diverse School Library
- Children’s books with humans have greater moral impact than animals, study finds
- Research Proves That Mindsets Can Be Changed (Mindset Works)
- This N.C. Teacher has a Personalized Handshake for Every One of His Students
- Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain
- Equity vs. Equality: 6 Steps Toward Equity