Mirrors and Windows: How to Improve Representation in U.S. Classrooms (Part 2)

Mirrors and Windows: How to Improve Representation in U.S. Classrooms (Part 2)

In Part 1, we looked at why representing the whole, gorgeous tapestry of U.S. diversity was important in classrooms. The short and sweet version: it’s good pedagogy, it improves learning, and it builds important life and career skills for everyone living in an increasingly diverse country. In Part 2, we’re going to talk about how we can actually achieve better representation.

image via bethesdamagazine.com

Since research establishes the critical need for culturally responsive instruction, the logical next step is to identify how that instruction can be improved, given the somewhat dismal findings of the meta analysis we covered in Part 1.  The analysis concludes with three necessary actions that should be undertaken by districts but can also be carried out by individual teachers.  They are:

  • Create a sense of belonging by offering a fuller story of the United States, its people, and its demographic subgroups. For students to feel like they are fully included in the learning environment and community, all “demographic subgroups in the United States need to be woven into American history curricula and represented in educational materials.”
  • Develop cultural authenticity by examining educational materials not just for characters and activities but also for authentic cultural representation that is complex rather than one-dimensional.
  • Recognize nuanced identity by deliberately choosing texts that offer complex detail:  names, clothing, and variation within groups to recognize nuance, and complex interactions and relationships between characters. “Presenting character details can support students in identifying, relating, and connecting to a variety of careers, disciplines, and hobbies.”

While these are easy to say, actually carrying them out is more difficult and requires work on the part of the teacher or the curriculum director.  Specifically, it requires that someone read every book, vet every activity, and evaluate every historical depiction against the above criteria.  The above study cites a couple of interesting examples of what passes and what fails such an evaluation. The character Doc McStuffins is recognizably African American, but Dora the Explorer is a generically brown Spanish speaker with no specific Latinx heritage. While those examples are drawn from children’s animation, the point is the same: characters from subgroups need to be anchored a specific culture, but also presented with backgrounds, roles, and personality traits specific to an individual. Finding that complexity in U.S. educational resources is difficult because there is far less of that sort of representation available for many subgroups.

Another example: Native American students will be hard-pressed to see themselves represented in history texts and state standards between about 1900 and the present day.  There is so little material in U.S. textbooks that includes Native Americans that it will take real effort on the part of the teacher to find resources – not events, but resources.   Middle Eastern characters are also all but invisible in U.S. texts, both fiction and non-fiction. Efforts also need to be made to combat stereotypical representations in intersectional characters – such as Pacific Islander characters being nearly always female. To do this, people first need to find out what common stereotypes are and then work to include more representative characters and that takes significant effort. Similarly, teachers need to understand how to vet resources to ensure that they aren’t culturally insensitive or entirely inappropriate.

image via wustl.edu

A great article from Edutopia includes additional ways to help all children feel seen and included in the learning environment.    While these recommendations are for early childhood education, they are easy to employ at higher grade levels.  Strategies such as:

  • Use culturally responsive instruction across content areas and disciplines. CMSi has recommended this over and over again: use culturally responsive materials whenever and wherever possible – in math, science, social studies and ELA, in music, art, and PE. Anywhere you can shoehorn it in offers another way to help kids see themselves in the learning (mirrors).
  • Guide discussions to promote understanding for cultures and experiences that are different and connect with what students already know. In this way, students learn to empathize with those different from them and understand how we are connected by our basic humanity (windows).
  • Use students’ home language if possible. I love this one because it gives kids a chance to be experts in something.  Just the experience of having a teacher and/or other students interested in something so unique to them can be a big motivator for further learning. There’s also research demonstrating that connecting learning to a child’s home language boosts retention and understanding in the dominant language at school.
  • Connect to families. Have I talked about this before? Why yes, I have.  Twice.  Learning a little of a family’s language, even just enough to say ‘hello’, goes a long way. Even better, do the work to understand the cultures present in the classroom and how they may impact parent-teacher relations. The responsibility here is on the teacher.  Ask families what their goals are for their kids and what they see as important needs.  Always assume parents love their children and want the best for them.

And my favorite one:

  • Be a learner. Really, this is everything we’ve talked about in this post and the one prior.  Read books and articles and scholarly research.  Find out about issues facing your students’ cultural or ethnic groups.  Learn how to advocate for your students and how to meet their individual needs through differentiation and scaffolding. Understand how your own background and experiences have shaped your lens for viewing the world and your students and make an effort to control for those when examining resources and interacting with students or their families. Be aware of how funding apportionment may affect your students, sometimes generationally.  Find out about brain research and use those principles to inform how you teach.

The hard truth here is that every day we don’t use inclusive, representative materials in classrooms is a day some kids won’t learn or won’t learn as well.  Every child deserves the chance to be taught in ways that include and welcome them into the learning community; to see themselves as valuable, celebrated parts of an American whole.  We, the educators, bear the responsibility for making sure all students have the mirrors and windows necessary to make that happen.



Additional Resources:

More Mirrors in the Classroom: Using Urban Children’s Literature to Increase Literacy 

Indispensable books for Equity: What if All the Kids are White? 

Indispensable books for Equity: We Dare Say Love

Indispensable books for Equity: Mathematics for Equity 

Indispensable books for Equity:  Cultivating Genius


How Teachers See their Jobs: New Findings from a Pair of Surveys
Mirrors and Windows: The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion in Educational Materials (Part 1)

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