Guest Post: Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors in the Early Years Classroom
Matthew Courtney, teacher and blogger, explores the importance of diverse literature in the early years classroom.
*The following guest post represents the author’s personal view and does not necessarily represent the view of EECERA as a whole. Any issues or questions arising from the content of this post should, therefore, be directed to the author and not EECERA.
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In 1965 Nancy Larrick’s seminal article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books” appeared in the Saturday Review. Within her hard-hitting think-piece, Larrick condemns the lack of diversity in children’s literature. Over fifty years later, the points she raised remain pertinent. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has been tracking the diversity in children’s books since 1968. In 2017, only 9% of the books received by the CCBC featured black characters in a significant role (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 2018).
Why is it important to have diverse literature in the classroom? The scholar Rudine Sims Bishop writes that all children deserve books which act as mirrors, so they can see their lives reflected in the text, windows into other cultures outside their own and sliding glass doors so that they can walk between and explore these different worlds through literature.
It is important that practitioners select texts which include representations of the different children in our settings. If a child is unable to see a character that looks like themselves in a book but the other children can, what effect will this have on their wellbeing? What message does this send about how they are valued in the classroom and the wider world? We need to ensure that all children in our settings have mirrors that reflect themselves and their experiences. Additionally, by allowing a child to see themselves in a book we can ensure high levels of engagement.
As well as including books that reflect our cohorts, children’s literature can also be used to expand horizons through books that act as windows. A longitudinal study, conducted in 1997, found that children are able to nonverbally categorise individuals by race from 6 months of age (Katz and Kofkin, 1997). Therefore, early years educators need to be mindful of representations and issues around race and cultures within their provision.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Children’s literature can be an excellent starting point for discussion celebrating the differences (and similarities) of different groups of people. By using texts that feature diverse characters and settings we can hope to engender the values of tolerance and mutual respect that are needed to function in modern society.
It is important that early years practitioners consider a wide as possible definition of diversity when reviewing the texts they make available in their classrooms. The power of literature to develop tolerance can be used to develop children’s understanding of and exposure to a range of different groups. A study in 2006 found that reading stories that showed characters with disabilities developed improved attitudes and acceptance towards others with disabilities among its participants (Cameron and Rutland, 2006).
Research has shown that, within bestselling picture books, male characters are twice as likely to speak than their female counterparts (Ferguson, 2018). Early years educators who are mindful of the nuanced message this may convey to children can provide a counter-narrative by providing books with prominent female characters and those that challenge stereotypes such as women in STEM roles.
Photo by Robyn Budlender on Unsplash
Children are read and explore picture books repeatedly (Burke, 2013) therefore the messages, including those that are implicit, are repeated. This further emphasises the need for quality diverse literature. Furthermore, educators must ensure that the diverse literature they select does not perpetuate negative stereotypes of already marginalised groups (Monoyiou and Seonido, 2016).
For some of our most disadvantaged learners, early years settings can be their first exposure to books. We, therefore, need to ensure these texts are diverse to enable these children to experience and access a wide range of quality literature,
By ensuring books feature diverse characters we can begin to foster values of tolerance, understanding and respect. This is particularly important in a time where we live in a world that is evermore multicultural and diverse.
Burke, A. (2013). Connecting Visual Literacy and Cultural Awareness through Picture Book Illustrations. In: Johnson, I. and Bainbridge, J. Reading Diversity Through Canadian Picture Books: Preservice Teachers Explore Issues of Identity, Ideology and Pedagogy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. P135-154.
Cameron, L. and Rutland, A. (2006). Extended Contact through Story Reading in School: Reducing Children’s Prejudice Toward the Disabled. Journal of Social Issues. 62 (3), p469-488.
Cooperative Children’s Book Center. (2018). Publishing Statistics on Children’s Books about People of Color and First/Native Nations and by People of Color and First/Native Nations Authors and Illustrators. Documented by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ferguson, D. (2018). Must monsters always be male? Huge gender bias revealed in children’s books. The Observer, Childrens books: 7 and under
Katz, P.A. and Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, gender, and young children. In: Luthar, S.S., Burack, J. A. and Weisz, J. R. Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder. New York: Cambridge University Press. P51-74.
Monoyiou, E. and Senonidou, S. (2016). The wonderful world of children’s books? Negotiating diversity through children’s literature. International Journal of Inclusive Education. 20 (6), p588-603.
About the Author
Matthew Courtney is a primary school teacher and blogger from London with an interest in research into classroom practice, literature and diversity. He is currently travelling and working in schools across Australia, allowing him to develop an international perspective to his practice.