A Teacher’s Guide to Literary Activism in the Classroom

Book Riot is featuring ways to be a literary activist this week. See all the posts here.


As a teacher of mostly children of color who come from various parts of the world, diversity in the classroom is super important to me. But whether you have kids from Central America, India, the Philippines, and various Caribbean islands like me, or a generally white classroom, exposing children to new (to them) and different cultures, languages, situations, and people is super important. It not only expands their knowledge of the world around them, but pumps up their empathy and wires them into kind (little) people.

Whenever I browse teacher-facing supply stores, I see a lot of awesome posters and aides that I would use in my classroom if the kids in the pictures actually looked like my students. It’s difficult to find the right materials in the more accessible ways, but not impossible. One of the ways I celebrate diversity in my room is participating in rad programs like the Scholastic Reading Club, which works with We Need Diverse Books and occasionally packs in some extra goodies with their orders like this excellent poster I’ve had laminated and intend to keep and display forever.

Something that’s easy to do with a little planning and forethought is not relegate black and women’s history to their respective months for that one themed week. Whatever topic you’re on, there’s a good chance you can step away for a few minutes and find a person to spotlight, even if it’s to play a 5-minute video about the person. It doesn’t have to be “A Thing,” because the goal is for it all to be super normal, right? We don’t have a lot of time, but in reality we can spare little 5-minute snatches for something interesting that they don’t have to worry about being tested on.

Another great idea is to have a monthly (or monthly-ish…) country spotlight. I wasn’t able to manage it this school year, but my plan for it is to teach my students (next year, anyway) about that country’s customs and traditions, what they wear and eat, and a few basic phrases. By the end of the school year, they’ll be able to say “Good morning!” and maybe even “How are you?” in several languages, which is something I’ve seen many teachers do – the kids get a kick out of it. By the time Hispanic Heritage week comes up, they’ll be rock stars. I’ve done this with second grade, and those kids always greet me in Japanese in the hallways. It’s fun.

wonder-170x250The classroom library is something I’m pretty passionate about. I’m a teacher of fourth grade math, science, and social studies, and not reading or language arts, but I’m still amassing a collection of books that has something for everyone. I do think it’s good to have the “classic” kid’s books there, but I’m super deliberate about other books I include, and I definitely add comics to the mix. I also read to my students, and I think that’s important. This year, the big book my students listened to is Wonder, which is a great story told in various perspectives, and they were super into it. I recently ordered a companion book called 365 Days of Wonder, which has daily precepts and prompts for fans of the book, and I plan on using them as a sort of morning routine – just displaying a new precept on the board each morning, getting them to journal about it in that quiet time before classes begin, and then having a little conversation about it is a wonderful way to start the day.

Talking regularly about empathy and kindness, and other themes that are big in Wonder, has been great for my students this year. And it’s a great way to make other classwork more exciting – tie it in to the book you’re reading! This week, I read aloud to my students a story about a little girl who was confident around horses, but nervous about an upcoming recital. They had to complete an assignment then identifying moments in the story where the little girl was confident or not, and I got them to draw comparisons between her and Auggie, the main character of Wonder. Bringing the things they like into assignments makes the work less of a chore for them.

There are a million different little ways we can be activists in the classroom, and a lot of it is going to happen behind the scenes, or will be cleverly designed to eke into the lives of our students without them even knowing it was super on purpose. I frequently ask my students to describe characters in books they read, especially if the book doesn’t specify an ethnicity, skin color, or anything like that. Sometimes we talk about how many of us kind of imagine the “default” character to be white, probably straight, and whatever else in our brains when we read, but I’m delighted to observe that my students don’t think that way, and I never want them to. When I ask them what a character looks like, I want them to keep telling me they look like them. It isn’t the reason I became a teacher, but it’s one of the things that keeps me in the profession.

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