We Need Diverse Books

This post originally appeared on Klingspace, a new pilot from the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership. Join the conversation there!

I grew up as an avid reader. I also grew up in a town that, according to 2000 Census numbers, has a population of 1,704 people and is 97.6% white. While there were definite benefits to growing up in a small town and going to a small school, the homogeneity of the population left a lot to be desired.  PictureFrom http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/

The books I read gave me glimpses of a world that was much different than the one I lived in–they allowed me to see different lives and different possibilities. It’s not close to the same as having actual population diversity, but it prepared me for a world that looked much different than the one I was growing up in–and a world in which I would work with students and colleagues who came from very different backgrounds.

As a believer in the power of reading to broaden your perspective on the world, I love the research on how reading helps develop empathy. The theory is that “when we read, we psychologically become part of the community described in the narrative.” Reading fiction allows us to learn, from a distance, how different people think and interact in social situations. We can see inside the minds of characters who are exactly like us and who are nothing like us. It can help us develop the ability to imagine others complexly.

Many schools have come to recognize the importance and value of diversity, and have taken steps to have a more diverse student and faculty population; but just as having a reading list with multiple perspectives is not enough, having a diverse population is not enough in and of itself. If a school is serious about diversity, it has to have both. All students need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and see multiple representations (not just token representations) of the lives of people unlike themselves. The perspectives of people of color, women, LGBT individuals should not be treated as an add-on–they need to be part of the core. And we need to include stories from the full range of human experience–struggle and adversity as well as triumph and joy. Our curriculum needs to provide both windows and mirrors for ALL of our students.

PictureFrom http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ If you’re looking for more resources about why diversity in literature is important, check out the We Need Diverse Books project on Tumblr; you can also check out the recommendations and awards lists here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for how to diversify your own and your students’ reading lists.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not include Chimamanda Adiche’s incredible TED talk with this post, The Danger of a Single Story, since it has been so important to my understanding that stories are not only about how we see other people; they’re about how we see ourselves.


The neighborhoods in our schools

Yesterday, I walked from one end of Manhattan to the other, starting at 225th street just north of the Broadway Bridge

225th Street

and going all the way down to Battery Park.


It was fascinating to watch how the city changed as I walked south. I walked about 100 blocks before hitting anything that looked like the image that comes to mind when you say “Manhattan.” And the Manhattan of Harlem has a very different feel from the Manhattan of Museum Mile, and both have a different feel from the Manhattan of SoHo.

I wonder how different the “neighborhoods” of our schools are. How is the neighborhood of a science classroom different from the neighborhood of an English classroom? How is the library different? The cafeteria? The art room? A math classroom? What purpose do the different neighborhoods in our school serve? What do students learn in the different neighborhoods of our schools?

Are there places with a sense of history?

Alexander Hamilton

Are there places to create?


Are there places where we can make the best of what might not be perfect?


Are there places where we look beyond the lines of where we are?


I believe all the different neighborhoods in our schools serve a purpose. The challenge is to make it so students feel at home in every neighborhood in the school.

Sisyphean literacy

This post about the difficulty of uncovering the source of a “fact” (scare quotes intentional) has been rattling around in my brain since I read it.

The “fact” in question:

Research at 3M Corporation concluded that we process visuals 60000 times faster than text.

is never definitively sourced, but due to repetition it achieves the ring of truthiness (I’m aware that by including it here I may be part of the problem, but my readership is small enough that I feel okay about it).

As I read the post I couldn’t help but wonder what other oft-repeated “facts” we accept without questioning–“facts” about “digital natives” with an intuitive understanding of technology, “facts” about the Internet rewiring our brains, “facts” about students being more distracted/shallow/self-absorbed.

What “facts” do we accept about our students without questioning? What “facts” do we let students accept about themselves without questioning? How often do we investigate these claims? How often do we even question them? Do we question what these claims even mean?

The ironic thing is that it is actually a rather ludicrous claim in the first place. What do we mean by “information being processed” be it visual or text? Does it mean recognizing visual patterns, facial recognition which studies do show the brain can do very fast. Is that information? What does it mean to be “processed”? Recognized or understood” Is it conceptual? Do we see knowledge visually?

I also couldn’t help but think about how difficult it is to teach information literacy and research skills to students when there are so many examples of this kind of “truthiness” out there–and that people in positions of authority are able to cite them without consequences. Sure, this “fact” got called out in this instance, but there are thousands of examples of “facts” that go uncorrected and unchallenged, and so become “true”–or at least truthy.

One could make a full-time job out of correcting factually-dubious posts on Facebook.

There are so many more examples of things that look plausible (or confirm our instincts) that are much more difficult to confirm or disprove. It is a Sisyphean effort to push back against that onslaught of unchecked information. How do we teach students to investigate these “facts” when we don’t ask the same of ourselves or the sources we use?

There are a lot of dubious “facts” about students out there, and a lot of dubious “facts” for our students to discover about all sorts of topics. The least we can do, as educators, is investigate and question the popular-if-factually-dubious narratives about our students before we rely on them to inform our practice.

Pushing back is hard, but easier if we push together.


On interviewing

This blog has been quieter than I thought it would be this year. Turns out an accelerated Masters program is more time-consuming than I thought. And combining full-time school with a full-time job search is a very particular kind of exhausting–a kind that doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for things you don’t have to do.

It’s been a while since I’ve been through a job search as intense as this one. You are, throughout the process, asked to name and defend everything you believe about education and the work you do. To justify both your past experience and your future goals. It’s emotionally draining. It’s physically draining. It makes you feel vulnerable (especially when there’s no back-up plan) in a way we don’t often ask adult professionals to feel vulnerable.*

I have been incredibly grateful to be surrounded by other people going through this same process–people who bolstered my belief in myself in those moments when I wondered if I would ever find the right fit. They reminded me of why I was doing this, and what I had to offer a school. And the process of talking this all through with friends, and of interviewing over and over again gave me clarity about what I find most important in a job and in a school.

I definitely had interviews where I could tell that–despite it being a good job and a good school–it was not the right school or the right job for me. We tend to think of the interview as a way for a school to learn about you as a candidate, but the interview process also gives you a lot of information about the school, and whether it’s the right fit for you.

It ranges from big picture to little detail. Who do they have you meeting with? Do you have time to interact with students? With teachers from multiple departments? How are you treated throughout the day? Do you have breaks? Does anyone offer you water? What are the questions they ask you about? Do the questions feel like a checklist, or a conversation? Are they focused on philosophy, or nuts and bolts operations? What do the types of questions they ask tell you about the school’s priorities–and the priorities for the positions you’ll be in?

As much as I learned about myself and the schools I spoke with during this process, I am grateful to be at the end of it. I have loved having the luxury of immersing myself in learning and reflecting, but I miss the daily life of schools. I miss seeing students every day. And I am excited to have found a school that is such an excellent fit.


*It doesn't escape me that there are potential analogies between this process and our daily work with students; I'm still sorting out those thoughts.

Why Every Tech Company Needs An English Major

Why Every Tech Company Needs An English Major – ReadWrite.

There is, I believe, a balance to be struck between STEM and humanities education in schools. All students should, at the very least, have the opportunity to explore a wide range of topics and skills, and we need to be careful about the messages we send students about which skills are more “valuable.”

But too often, as I regularly tell my Marketing colleagues, we tell that story “too small.” We focus on features, on the “what” of our database product, and not nearly enough on the “why” behind the technology. Answering that “why” question is something English majors do very well.

This what/why balance mirrors the balance we try to strike in schools between content and skills. That balance is complicated, and we need to look at it through multiple lenses.


The Kids Need to Know

I watched Kid President’s Pep Talk every morning for at least a month after I first discovered it. It happened to be near the end of the school year, and I was finding myself in need of a pep talk on a regular basis. We all need one from time to time:

Don't Stop Believing
So when Kid President asked us to tell him what the kids need to know, I wanted to offer my own little pep talk. Life isn’t always easy, but there are some things we all can do that makes life more awesome:

Be who you are.

Like what you like.

Love who you love.

None of that is always as easy as we may want it to be, but it’s all important. Also important to remember:


Diversity, on both sides of the desk

Last weekend was the American Library Association’s Midwinter meeting. I haven’t been able to get to an ALA Conference in a while now, and even though I’m no longer working as a librarian I’m still interested in the issues being discussed, and like to follow along with the conversations via Twitter as much as possible.

One of the events I was most disappointed to miss was the #libtechgender panel (which probably had a more formal name, but I only know it by its hashtag). The demographics of librarianship are. . . not diverse. There are, I know, lots of historical reasons for that, but as someone on Twitter pointed out (I can’t find who, or I’d give credit), librarianship did not get this female and this white by accident.

School librarianship has even less gender diversity than librarianship as a whole–I’ve been to school library conferences where several of the men’s bathrooms have been converted to women’s rooms. I don’t have statistics, but I feel confident in asserting that we’re not doing much better in any other realm of diversity either.

This lack of diversity is self-perpetuating; if librarians in general–or school librarians in particular–only look a certain way, and it’s not how you look, why is that a profession you’d pursue? This is only tangentially related, but this is a big part of why I almost never use pictures of people in my presentations (unless they’re pictures I’ve taken of people participating in an event I organized). I want the people I’m talking to to be able to imagine themselves doing the things I’m describing, and it’s hard to do that if the people in the pictures don’t represent you in meaningful ways; in some ways, it’s easier to project yourself onto a blank slate.

This, of course, has larger implications for the profession; if the world of libraries doesn’t look like the one you live in, you’re probably not that invested in preserving it. There are LOTS of good reasons for making librarianship more diverse, but if nothing else convinces you, self-preservation should.

There are parallels here to the world of education more broadly. The way in which educators are thought of in this country is very much intertwined with how women are thought of. A racially diverse student body that doesn’t see themselves reflected in their teachers or in the curriculum is going to experience some serious psychic disequilibrium.

This tweet really resonated with me as I think about the impact having a more diverse (gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, etc.) workforce in libraries and schools:

If we say that education is the great equalizer, if we say that libraries are for everyone, that has to be true on both sides of the desk.

So how do we fix this? There are lots of ideas, and lots of solutions, and lots of work to be done. But sometimes it’s the simple solution:


Creativity and collaboration are messy

I read this wonderful post about a mother collaborating on art projects with her 4-year-old daughter several months ago, and loved it. It’s worth a read (and worth seeing the art they come up with together), and I loved Hendricks’ reflections on what a messy, uncomfortable process collaboration can be. Because, of course, collaboration means giving up control–it means letting someone else’s ideas in to your process. And sometimes other people don’t want to collaborate in the “right” way. They want their own ideas to take share the stage–or even take precedence. The nerve!

I was reminded of that post when I saw this article in Slate about how we don’t really like creativity (even though we say we do). We like people who have been creative–that is, we like the after-effect of creativity, but not the messy process itself. It’s risky and uncomfortable and can force us to change.

We resist creativity for the same reasons we resist collaboration–it’s not safe. What we often mean is “everyone collaborate with me to do what I want.” Or “be creative the way I would.”

This is what makes collaboration and creativity so hard in schools–for teachers and for students. It means making yourself vulnerable. It means moving outside your comfort zone. It means taking risks and engaging in a process where the outcome is, by definition, unknown.

Embracing collaboration and encouraging creativity means giving up control–and that can be scary. As teachers, we have a trust placed in us by administrators, parents, and students; we are responsible for creating environments in which students learn both knowledge and skills. As students, we have learned that the way to “get by” is to figure out what the teacher wants–and then provide it. Stepping outside these defined roles–for teacher or student–carries significant risk. As much as creativity and collaboration are popular terms in education these days, much of the history and current structures of schools do not actually support them.

If we believe that these skills and dispositions are valuable, we need to embrace the messy, scary, disequilibriating process–and not just the products of–collaboration and creativity.

Mangled slinky
Slinky + Creativity




There’s a photo that’s been making the rounds; in it, a teacher holds up a sign that says:

“I’m talking to my 5th grade students about internet safety and how quickly a photo can be seen by lots of people. If you are reading this, please click “LIKE.” Thanks!

I’ve now seen a couple other variations as well–different teachers working with students in different grades, but the general message is the same.

And it really, really bothers me every time I see it. To be fair, I don’t know how it fits within a larger lesson or unit, but it has the same tone of so many fear-based “internet safety” lesson that I see.

I get that we need to talk to students about privacy and safety and the image they present online. And I do have those conversations with students–but the conversation can’t end there. We can’t just frame it as a “don’t do this, it’s bad.” Because our students are online, and will be living highly-connected lives. And you know what–having something you created seen and shared by thousands of people online is AWESOME.

There is a post I wrote several years ago about teaching citation. It is one of the most popular posts from my old blog, and I still get hits and comments on it on a regular basis. And I LOVE that. It’s why being connected to other educators and sharing my work online has been so powerful–it allows me to be a part of a much bigger conversation and to learn from people all over.

So why can’t the conversation be about creating awesome things to share? A lot of students want that audience–why can’t we talk to them about what they’re creating and how to share it? We can start from the assumption that they’re going to be sharing  things online, and focus the conversation to what those things should be.

I have a unique name and I am highly Google-able. I am very aware of my online presence. But that doesn’t stop me from having one–it means that I focus on creating a positive digital footprint for myself. Does that mean I like everything about myself that’s online? No. There are pictures in which I look weird, abandoned online accounts, and writings I’ve done that make me cringe a little. Knowing those things are out there doesn’t make me want to stop putting things online–it makes me want to share more.

It’s because I’ve put many of these ideas out there that I know how much we can control our online image, simply by creating and interacting online. The more I have out there, the more well-rounded my online image is. Is there stuff out there that I didn’t put up, that I wish wasn’t there? Sure. But I also can’t control what everyone says about me in the real world.

And it seems pretty clear that the teachers doing this have a good sense that social networks can be powerful, positive things–why else would they reach out to these networks for help with this project? Let that be part of the conversation, too.

Sharing is good. Sharing can be powerful. For students and teachers.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33128961@N00/142455033 And if it weren't for people willing to share what they've created, we wouldn't have images like these.
“Sharing” Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33128961@N00/142455033 

Telling stories

A friend pointed me in the direction of this TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi:

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially in conjunction with this quote from Adrienne Rich:

”When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you … when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.”

I wonder how that experience of seeing the world described and realizing you’re not in impacts our students. What message does it send them about whether or not their stories matter?

Do the stories we share and value (as reflected by the curriculum we present) let them know that there is a place for their stories as well? How hard is it for our students to see themselves in our classrooms?