I grew up in a “flyover” state that is most notable for its spotlight in a 1930’s film where a young lady tries to escape the ennui of her farm life by running away to something bigger and brighter, just “over the rainbow.” The community I grew up in was composed of many people who looked like me, acted like me, and shared the same ideas and values that my family believed. And, even though my family took trips to other places, and the local elementary school enrolled one child of color when I was in fifth grade, my world was, well, small.
Many communities are similar to my hometown in this way. Even New York City still retains enclaves of ethnic communities that are more homogenized than integrated. Many communities across our nation are segregated either by choice or through other circumstances such as economics and race. Luckily for me, getting lost in books was a way to expand my knowledge of the world outside of my isolated community. Through my love of reading, I stumbled into exotic places, unknown histories, and unfamiliar characters that I never would have come across in my everyday life. I remember reading about segregation for the first time in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, learning about the isolation and loneliness of divorce when reading Hatchet, and realizing that diverse friendships can be meaningful when consuming The Babysitter Club series.
As the election results of 2016 have shown us, our country is deeply divided, sliced into various fragmented factions. And the response to the historical results that continues to repeat itself over and over again is one of surprise and confusion. Groups of people cannot believe or understand why other groups of people voted the way they did. It is as if each little community in our country has been stranded on separate little islands for years, and we are now being rescued, wondering: who are these other people with whom I share a nation? Even though we are living in a global society with unprecedented access to each other via technology, our communities remain insular.
As an educator, mother, and passionate lover of books, my answer to this national predicament we find ourselves in is for us to think more about the kinds of texts our children are being exposed to in school and our homes. Even though we may not have the capacity to travel far and wide or live in more diverse communities, I think we can make text selection choices that introduce aspects of the world to our children while giving them the freedom to create their own ideas about the distinct characters, places, and events in the texts.
My own experience as an English teacher taught me early on that students learn about and feel empathy towards different kinds of people through reading. In the novice years of my teaching career, I worked with primarily suburban, Christian, white students who were living below the poverty line. These were children who often did not come into contact with people that followed different religious beliefs from their own and who often did not travel beyond a four-state radius. And yet, I taught Night and The Chosen. Engaging the students in these two texts made me nervous at first, but their curiosity and thoughtfulness about the work showed me otherwise. Students constantly asked questions about the texts themselves as well as the historical contexts, as they wanted to know more about Judaism and the Holocaust. Because I could not always answer all their questions, I brought in an expert, a friend of mine who majored in Judaic studies. Never before had my students been more engaged than when interviewing my friend. Numerous students mentioned to my friend, “I have never met a Jewish person before—you are so cool!” This situation may sound trite or “small-town,” but I cannot help wonder if this experience is actually more typical than one might think.
Additionally, the compassion evoked in my students was not something I could teach without the literature fueling their understanding. They were often beside themselves with the genocide described in the texts and could not understand why humans would treat each other this way. A Holocaust survivor spoke to my students and they were on the edge of their seats, asking question after question, fully appreciating the survivor’s every word. At the end of the year, many students wrote that reading the two texts was the most interesting part of my course for them because they had never been introduced to the Jewish culture or the historical events of the Holocaust. Overall, our lively text-based discussions provided a space for the students to think about groups of people who were profoundly different from them and expanded their understanding of the world beyond their neighborhood.
In contrast to this experience, working next in the South Bronx, I taught a largely urban, Latino and African-American population of students and was able to create the same interest, awareness, and empathy through text. My students were so enraptured with Of Mice and Men; they would ask me every day if we were to continue reading and discussing the book. Again, I had been nervous to teach a text about 1930’s migrant, white farm workers—people and places that were unfamiliar to my students. But again, the students engrossed themselves in the predicament of the characters; they were able to make connections between their own lives and those of George and Lennie in ways that, again, I could not teach them directly. Even though George and Lennie are two white male farmers, their disenfranchisement and their vulnerability reached through to my students—the students understood the seriousness of the characters’ plight even though their ethnicity and way of life may have been foreign to them.
I believe the appeal and engagement with these texts was not my instruction. Instead, it was the content, or more importantly, the humanity in these texts. Beyond our differences, we all desire family and community, we all seek love and acceptance, we all make mistakes because of our flaws, and we all struggle with decisions. In these universal truths, shared in text, my students simply saw human beings, and they related to them. That connection is powerful. My students came away with a consciousness about “others” without even leaving their own neighborhoods. Through reading, discussing, and writing, students engaged with text that forced them to walk in the shoes of people they have never before come into contact.
I believe we can replicate this work as educators and parents by taking a look at the books we have in our homes, in our classrooms, and on our reading lists. Are all the characters similar to our families or students? Have we chosen an assortment of book choices for independent reading that take place in different parts of the world or have characters that look different from our children? Do the texts address different cultures, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual orientation? Will our children be introduced to new ideas and experiences through the text? Will they come away with empathy for a community different from their own? These are the questions we should ask ourselves constantly when we choose texts we will teach in school or when perusing the local library for books to bring home.
"Creativity follows mastery." These are the words of Benjamin Bloom, who believed that learners are capable of incredible things if they have access to powerful learning environments. This is why we’ve chosen the name “Bloom” for our knowledge-sharing initiative. Bloom is all about our stake in helping to build the capacity of practitioners and leaders who work with our most marginalized youth to reimagine, recreate, redesign our models for learning--within schools and beyond. For us, this is fundamentally a matter of social justice. Reach out if you’d like to submit a guest post, or sign up for our monthly newsletter: Bloom@reDesignu.org.
Tracy Bauer has worked in education for over thirteen years. Currently, she is an instructional coach with reDesign, working in high-needs schools across the city. She has taught English, drama, and reading and is raising two lovely children of her own. She frequents many bookstores in NYC, including her favorite, The Strand, and she loves chatting with her local librarians in Brooklyn.