Part 2 – Literature
As activist Leslie Mac said, “Being anti-racist is a verb—and it requires consistent action.” This story is part two of a five-part series exploring the ways in which Nueva is striving to be anti-racist in the classroom. To read Part 1–Identity, click here.
A few years ago, third-grade teacher Erin Longo noticed that the year-end lists of the best books for young readers contained stories and authors that were far more diverse than the books she remembered seeing when she was growing up.
“It’s really remarkable to see how many new children’s books feature more diverse characters now,” Erin said. “I’ve noticed, too, that—with Alegria’s help over the last two years—the Nueva Book Fair selections have also grown to include more titles with broader representation.”
Books are oftentimes one of the best ways to introduce students to the themes of identity, social justice, and antiracism. They also help facilitate conversations, build empathy, and provide a launching point for important and difficult conversations. Erin and the third-grade team use books as a starting point in building their curriculum.
“Over the summer, Priscilla [Jih, third-grade teacher] and I did a lot of thinking about what books we are reading in the classroom,” Erin said. “We worked with Alegria to thoughtfully select our class read-alouds. This year, we are reading Front Desk by Kelly Yang, which tells the story of a Chinese-American immigrant and the issues around race that she faces.”
The third-grade team also more broadly looked at the picture books it offers students and the images as well.
“I think the biggest piece is representation,” Erin added. “This is really what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years. We want to provide students with mirrors and windows: stories that offer all of our students, especially our students of color, a chance to see their own cultures and identities reflected, as well as stories that allow students a view into someone else’s experience.”
We want to provide students with mirrors and windows: stories that offer all of our students, especially our students of color, a chance to see their own cultures and identities reflected, as well as stories that allow students a view into someone else’s experience.”
— Erin Longo, third-grade teacher
Books can provide students not only with an opportunity to see themselves represented, but they also help students gain a more complex understanding of how history informs the present and the future. In Alegria Barclay’s senior seminar, Afrofuturism: Black Histories, Black Futures, students read and engage with Afrofuturist short stories and novels to gain a better understanding of the history of racial injustice, the legacies of colonialism, Black liberation movements, pan-Africanism, science fiction, and futurism. The course also delves into the ways race intersects with ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and ability. Students read texts, watch films, look at artwork, and listen to music, including substantive works by Janelle Monae, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Jordan Peele.
“Literature in this genre asks us to consider in powerful terms how our collective racial past continues to live, at times, side by side with our present moment,” Alegria said. “It also opens up imaginative pathways on how we can not only envision but make real different futures that are committed to liberation and innovation.”
The course challenges students to use these texts to answer essential questions, including, “Who is the future for?” “How, when, and why do the past intersect?” and “What are other perspectives/lenses that might broaden or challenge what we understand about a text?”
Meanwhile in middle school, Lit Clubs have provided the perfect space for students to dive into the complexities of antiracism and social justice. Whereas in past years, themes for Lit Clubs have varied across groups—from space to Chinese fantasy to utopias and dystopias—this year all groups are centered on the theme of antiracism.
“This year, we decided to dedicate Lit Club in the middle school as a venue for supporting Nueva’s articulated commitment to making our school more socially just and equitable,” said Marilyn Kimura, Hillsborough campus librarian. “To this end, we are focusing on stories and texts that allow us to walk in others’ shoes familiarize ourselves with diverse authors, engage in the lived experiences of others whose stories might differ from our own culturally, racially, ethnically, and socio-economically, and create a common vocabulary for discussing social justice, equity, and intersectionality.”
To begin the year, all fifth- and sixth-graders read and discussed Black Brother Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes, and all seventh- and eighth-graders dived into the young-adult version of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Now, students in individual Lit Club groups are selecting from a long list of social justice-themed middle grade and young adult books. The list includes books such as Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds; The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden; and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. Fifth- and sixth-graders even had the opportunity to hear from and ask questions of Rhodes, whose book they had read as the introduction to Lit Club.
“The fact that we have committed to having all of the Lit Club books be related to anti-racism, social justice, and building tolerance is huge,” said Sam Modest, Lit Club facilitator and sixth-grade humanities teacher. “This is a very tangible way I see the school committed to anti-racism in our practices and in our teaching.”
In Part 3, we explore how science and math teachers are using data and empirical evidence to create a tangible way for students to understand the underpinnings of racism.