Elementary Students are Inspired by Diversity Thanks to Multicultural Libraries

     Published on 9/28/21   Tagged under:    District News    Bellevue Elementary School    Dr King Elementary School    Dr Weeks Elementary School   

This is a photo of two young boys kneeling in front of a bookcase, picking out books from a diverse new selection.“Look, Ms. Shaw… it’s me!”

A Dr. Weeks student, grinning in her blue Hijab, held up The Proudest Blue – a book written by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K Ali and illustrated by Hatem Aly. The cover showed a striking resemblance: a young Somali girl wearing a blue Hijab.
“Students are begging to take the books home to show their siblings,” Dr. Weeks English as a New Language (ENL) teacher Madison Shaw shared. “This particular student was so excited to show her sisters that the main character was a Somali girl wearing a Hijab. I let her take the book home over the weekend and she said her siblings asked her to read it a million times.”
Elementary students across the SCSD have an exciting new resource this year: multicultural libraries. ENL teachers came together over the summer to review, select, and purchase a selection of about 30 multicultural books, which have been distributed to all SCSD K-5 schools. The books are intended to represent the diversity in our district while aligning with curriculum.
“[It was important to me that] I build a multicultural library that each one of my students could see themselves in,” Ms. Shaw added. “I am passionate about this work because I am biracial with a white mom and Black dad and when I was in elementary school, I rarely read a book with a main character who looked like me or my family structure. I often resented my teachers because I felt like they didn't see me, or they didn't want to see me. I ensure that in my classroom everyone feels seen, loved, and appreciated just for being themselves.”
STEAM at Dr. King ENL teacher Julia Schooler said through reading these new books, her students have learned more about each other – and their own families.
“After reading one book, students looked up the meanings of their own names and talked about naming in different cultures,” she explained. “They enjoyed sharing their own traditions. One of my students asked to borrow the book When the Stars Are Scattered. He read it with his family and said it opened up conversations with his mother, auntie, grandma and siblings about what life was like in the camps in Kenya and in Somalia. The drawings also really helped him understand his family's experience.”
Ms. Schooler said that the majority of ENL students at Dr. King are Somali and Somali Bantu; however, she had previously struggled to find reading materials representative of their backgrounds.
“What I really wanted for my 4th and 5th grade students were books with characters with similar backgrounds as them, but also that they could read themselves,” she shared. “In 2016, I received a grant from the SCSD Educational Foundation for books for an ENL Lending Library. At that time, I could not find any books with east-African characters for my students to read independently! I was elated when, for this project, I found the Sadiq series and When Stars are Scattered. Both feature Somali males as the lead characters, and already I've witnessed how that representation can encourage reluctant readers to pick up books. I am sure that this is just the beginning for Somali-American books for kids!”
Bellevue English as a New Language teacher Valerie Crowell agreed that the representation students see of themselves in the new library books has been a highlight.
“Our ENL students especially love recognizing aspects of their culture and language in these books,” she noted. “They get so excited when they hear a word from their language or name they recognize. It's a great opportunity for them to share about their culture and broaden their classmates' perspectives. Picture books and read alouds are such a great teaching tool, especially for our elementary learners. They are a great way to build vocabulary, comprehension skills, and foster a love of reading. In the past, many of the picture books in our curriculum were very one dimensional with lots of animal characters and very little culture or diversity. Now, teachers have several options to choose from that showcase a wide variety of cultures and people. We tried to have as many of our students, cultures, and languages represented in these books as possible. We now have books to celebrate Hispanic heritage, African heritage, Asian heritage, refugees, immigrants, second generation Americans and more… and it’s only continuing to grow as we find more books and authors to add!”
In addition to providing the books for students, the ENL teachers also worked to develop language development lessons that accompany each of the titles. Lessons each focus on social justice and social-emotional learning.
“We aim to connect language lessons across content areas as well as connecting to community activism and global citizenship,” Ms. Shaw said. “Students think critically about the context of each book and why it's important to not only see yourself in a text, but also to learn about people who are different from you. The language lessons give tools for EL students to communicate about injustices and representation.”
What a wonderful way to help encourage students to feel confident in themselves and their skills while celebrating #SCSDDiversity!