Inclusive Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens

GROWING UP IN THE MID-1980’S

I often felt different as one of three Jewish students in my grade. I was disengaged as a reader throughout most of elementary school. I remember our school’s librarian preparing us for an author visit sometime in third or fourth grade. She introduced us to one of Barbara Cohen’s books in advance of her visit by reading one of them — The Carp in the Bathtub — during library class. I adored The Carp in the Bathtub despite the fact that my parents bought our Passover gefilte fish at the store rather than making it from scratch, with a live fish. I’ve come to realize why The Carp in the Bathtub meant so much to me as a young child and remains one of the few picture books I remember from school. That book represents one of the only times I ever heard or read about a Jewish family in a book in elementary school.

HONOR, REFLECT, AND CELEBRATE THE DIVERSITY OF YOUR CLASSROOM

Back in November, I presented with Melanie Meehan and Meg Kearney at NCTE in Houston where we gave a presentation called “Honor, Reflect, and Celebrate the Diversity of Your Classroom with Mentor Texts.” We grounded the presentation by getting everyone on the same page about mentor texts and reading like a writer. Then, we shifted into sharing book titles with teachers and took the time to highlight how these books could be used not only to build cultural awareness, but also to lift the level of the teaching of writing.

So, before I share a book list with you, let’s make sure everyone is going into this together.

A MENTOR TEXT PRIMER

Mentor texts are pieces of writing used with one or more students to lift the level of their work. When we think about books to select for writing workshop, it’s important to think about craft. Katy Wischow has a simple definition of craft, which is basically “The really cool stuff authors do!” A more advanced definition of craft is the techniques authors use to help them reach their writerly goals. (For instance, if an author’s goal is to show the character’s motivation in a narrative, then s/he might use techniques like internal thinking, revealing actions, or dialogue.)

When you’re teaching kids how to read like writers, you can mine mentor texts for craft moves. (Click here for a step-by-step way for how to do it.)

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER WHEN SELECTING BOOKS FOR WRITING WORKSHOP

During our presentation, Melanie shared some questions that were inspired by and adapted from Social Justice Books to help teachers think about cultural awareness when selecting picture books to share with kids in writing workshop.

  • How can books serve as mirrors, windows, or sliding doors into the lives of different people?
  • How many books about people of color, cultures, and lifestyles do you see? Whose stories are included, and whose stories are left out?
  • How many books by people of color, cultures, and lifestyles do you see?
  • How do these books reflect the diversity that exists not only in your school and community, but also in the world?
  • Are people of color engaged in a range of activities and in contemporary settings?
  • Do the biographies on your shelves represent many different people of various colors, cultures, and lifestyles?
  • What is the relationship of the author to the people and theme of the book?

BOOK LISTS

As I stated in Craft Moves:

All students deserve to read mirror books, in which they seem themselves, and window books, in which they learn about others (Bishop, 1990). This means teachers must have books that represent a variety of religions, races, and sexual orientations in mentor-text baskets during all months of the year, not just in those with special designations such as Black History Month or Women’s History Month (2016, 5).

For our NCTE presentation, Melanie and I spent hours on the phone trying to compile mentor texts that represented three (i.e., narrative, informational, and opinion) of the four types of writing. We found it was easier to find narrative picture books that promote cultural awareness. If we took biographies out of the mix, then it was much harder to find well-written and interesting informational and opinion picture books that represented people of different colors, cultures, and lifestyles. This limitation is worthy of noting here since it is our sincere hope to add on to the informational and opinion texts listed below with your suggestions. (Please leave a comment with your favorite informational and opinion titles that promote cultural awareness.)  

Narrative Texts — These are a handful of the many recently-published picture books we love. Our presentation was 75 minutes long, which is why we limited the list of narrative texts to just four.

Informational Texts — While some of the topics are inherently inclusive, it’s important to notice the subtle messages within the pages that exist — regardless of the topic. In the titles below, the illustrations and graphics include people of color, and reflect a diverse range of cultures, social groups, and life experiences:

Opinion Texts — Again, the inclusiveness in these texts comes mostly from the illustrations. While this may seem superficial, it matters. As I mentioned in the opening of this post, while the family in The Carp in the Bathtub was engaged in something vastly different to prepare for Passover than my family, it meant a lot to me to see Jewish kids on the pages of a book for the first time. One of the questions on Melanie’s list has to do with a variety of people engaged in every day activities, and that’s exactly what’s going on in these books.

If you search past blog posts I’ve written about picture books and mentor texts, you’ll find additional titles. (A new book, Under My Hijab by Hena Khan and Aaliya Jaleel, arrived at my house this past weekend. Therefore, I foresee myself writing another post about recently-released, inclusive mentor texts in the near future.) The titles I’ve listed represent the books we shared during our NCTE presentation.

GROWING UP IN 2019

My children are growing up in a world where they regularly see themselves on the pages of picture books. While there are niche publishers, like Kar-Ben Publishing, that publish Jewish texts, many mainstream publishing houses publish books about Jewish experiences. I am thankful my children have access to numerous texts in which they will see themselves as they grow as readers.

However, my kids read books about children from all ethnicities, family structures, and cultural backgrounds so they can imagine experiences that are different from their own. My second-grade daughter understands that some women wear hijabs, some families have two dads, and some kids use wheelchairs to get around. It is my hope that as my daughter (and my two-year-old son!) grows up, she’ll come to understand that our differences make life richer and more interesting.

Whether they’re my children or a group of children I’m working with when I consult in a school, I make deliberate efforts to share current, inclusive books. This is something all of us must do, regardless of where we teach. We can have a positive impact on children’s reading lives when we attempt to make sure every child’s life is reflected in books AND that every child can understand the experiences of other people by reading books. By doing this, we not only positively impact our students, but we improve our society as a whole.

MORE RESOURCES:

In the spirit of the idea of “if we know better, we do better,” I’m providing you with ways to make the books in your classroom more inclusive. Here are resources you can consult if you want to get started with this tomorrow.

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 3rd at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 4th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BEING THE CHANGE. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Please join us on Monday night!