Why Are Children's Books So White? 3 Ways to Better Serve Black Students in the Classroom

Feb 23, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Kayla Patrick

One of the most memorable books I read as a child was Velma Maia Thomas’s “Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation.” I asked my mom, “Why did you have me read this book?” To which she responded,“If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you may let other people define you by the color of your skin and not who you are.” The many attempts to alter and delete the history of people of color in this country are damaging. I spent most of my life as the only Black student in my classes and I rarely saw myself reflected in the curriculum. Everything I learned about the history of Black people in this country came from the books collected by my mom. Children’s books with people who looked like me served as a reminder that there is a place for little Black girls in America, even if our faces were missing in the assigned reading in school. As a student-teacher in college, I took this lesson with me. I had a third-grade student who more often than not was disengaged in the classroom and known as a troublemaker, but during independent reading hours, you could find him furiously reading the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Connecting to the curriculum is important to spark interest, take ownership as well as to validate that Black children have a place in the classroom and the world. Because it is critical for students at that age to read books appropriate to their reading level, I started to review the books in the school library and found very few books with or about Black people. If students do not see themselves in curricula, a silent but strong message is being sent that they are undervalued in the classroom and invisible in America. Despite increasing diversity among our students, the books in classrooms are becoming whiter and whiter. Books about “ white boys and their dogs” are no longer acceptable. It is imperative that we include and educate young people about a growing diverse population by shaping a curriculum that embraces the world we live in. Here are 3 ways we can better serve Black students in the classroom:
  1. Administrators should give teachers the support, time and space to develop content, instructional material and evaluation instruments to reflect and respond to the rich and complex diversity of the students they teach.
  2. Every child should be able to see themselves in required readings in order to begin the process of inclusion and acceptance. To accomplish this, teachers must acknowledge how we talk about Black people in school and out of school. This is especially important as a growing number of white teachers enter increasingly diverse classrooms.
  3. Teachers must construct practices that are culturally recognizable and socially meaningful—expanding beyond literature and history to math and science will help spark students’ interest in STEM fields.
Teaching students about the importance of their history in this country is critical to their growth and how they relate to the world. When the curriculum does not include the experience of people of color, it adds to their marginalization in the academic arena.

Kayla Patrick

Kayla Patrick is a senior education policy analyst with a deep interest in using data-based analysis to inform U.S. education policy and practices, especially to improve the lives of underserved children of color. Her expertise includes school discipline policies and college and career readiness. Kayla worked at the National Women’s Law Center, where she conducted research and data analysis on critical issues that impact women and girls. While there, she led a team to produce a well-publicized report, Let Her Learn: Stopping School Pushout for Girls. She also co-authored a report with 20 Black girls in Washington D.C. titled “Dress Coded,” which highlighted the harmful effects of dress codes on girls’ education. This work was recently cited in the education platform of 2020 presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren and will soon be featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's exhibit on girlhood. Kayla received her bachelor's degree in political science from Wellesley College and her master's in education policy from Teachers College at Columbia University.

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