How seeing themselves in books can help students read better
Hamilton was released on Disney+ just in time for Independence Day. In light of recent events, I know alot of people did not think year was a good year to celebrate Independence Day. I disagreed.
In fact, events like Hamilton are THE reason why Independence Day should still be celebrated during tumultuous times in our country. Alexander Hamilton was an orphan from the Caribbean who became one of the founding fathers of the U.S. Hundreds of years later, my White dad and Asian mom brought me to this country. Mixed couples like my parents who tried to get married a few decades earlier were thrown in jail. That is why I celebrated Independence Day this year.
After Hamilton was released for streaming, a video of a young girl seeing Phillipa Soo portray Eliza Hamilton went viral. “It’s me!” the girl exclaimed. The little girl was Asian and excitedly recognized her face in Soo’s face, just as I, a 39-year-old-woman, did.
Little Jenna here is exactly why #representationmatters . I am so grateful for this show, that so many young people can watch this show and say “It’s me” . Thank you @britbrit1432 for sharing this video ❤️💕❤️💕 @HamiltonMusical #hamilfilm pic.twitter.com/iDbb4orVIs— Phillipa Soo (@Phillipasoo) July 6, 2020
Growing up, seeing someone like me on tv or in books usually just meant looking for the character who was good in school or, if I was lucky, the girl with brown hair. Thinking on it now, it’s interesting because my school was about 50% White and 50% Hispanic and Black (I was one of two Asian kids in the school). Fourth through sixth grades switched to primarily hispanic because we bussed in kids from a smaller and poorer school who were all hispanic. So, even though I went to school with mixed cultures, most of the kids still flocked to the books entrenched in White culture. There were only two books in the library that featured Asian culture at all, but I still identified more with the Black faces on books than I did with all the White faces.
As I got older, I loved fantasy books and mystery, but they usually featured White boys (Chronicles of Prydain, My Father’s Dragon, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher among my favorites). I loved my Baby-Sitters Club books because there was an actual Asian girl in there. Later, the books featured a Black baby-sitter too. Two characters of color out of eight total doesn’t seem like much, but it was in the 1980s. It always seemed like the girls in school were divided by the Sweet Valley High fans and the Baby-Sitters Club fans. There was no way that I could identify with the pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, much less twins at a well-off school.
Last year, I taught first grade at a school with primarily low-income Hispanic students. My class mostly picked picture books that were related to popular characters – Pokemon, Disney Princesses, etc. My higher kids really liked series books like Dog Man and Pete the Cat. The most popular pop culture characters in my class were Sonic, Mario, and Pennywise (!) among the boys and Elsa, JoJo Siwa, and any fuzzy animal among the girls. Because their own picks did not seem to reflect their own heritage, my teacher team made sure to provide classroom reading books with diverse characters. We actively added topics and images of students in our lessons who looked like our students. One of the reading objectives was for students to find how they could relate to characters and events in stories. Truly, how could a student of color living in Section 8 housing identify with a story where a White kid’s White parents have two cars and live in a two-story house with more rooms and bathrooms than people?
As a book lover and teacher, maybe I am biased about the power of books. Even so, I honestly believe that one of the best things you can do for your children is surround them with books about a variety of subjects and characters. This year, I will be teaching third grade. The diverse library of books I have for first graders needs to be updated so that my new third grade class can see themselves in the books. If they can see themselves in the characters and relate to the stories, then they are more likely to be interested in the books and want to read more.
With that in mind, I created a Donors Choose project because I cannot afford to buy all of the books for a new class library. Texas schools will be opening in person in August and my students will already be stressed about our new rules and having to come back to school after five months at home. While we try to deal with the ever-changing landscape that the Coronavirus forces us into, I want my students to be comforted by familiar things like books. When the virus gets bad enough and we all have to return to remote learning, I want to be able to send books home to any student who does not have internet access or limited access to technology and/or parental help. These students and parents are struggling and trying their best in a difficult situation. For many of my students last year, the couple of books they took with them were the only books they had to read at home.
If you are able to, please donate to my Donors Choose project and spread the word! If you add the code LIFTOFF, donations up to $50 will be matched for the next seven days! If you have any other suggestions about what I can do in my classroom to encourage an environment of inclusion or to help my students when we switch to distance learning, please let me know. I am open to anything that will help my students learn or ease the stress that they and their families face during these confusing times.