Thursday, March 15, 2007

On Building a Classroom (or Home) Collection

My parents made the trek to Richmond, VA from Rochester, NY for Thanksgiving 2006. We had only been in our new house for a few months, but even with a few unpacked boxes still hanging around, I was determined to have them visit. Both of my parents were born before 1930, so I can tell you that as much as I love them, they have some "old-fashioned" ideas that at times, I just find hard to swallow. Here's one example. Upon entering my son's new room (yes, we bought bunk beds for an only child), my mother commented on the bed first and then on the enormous number of books he owns. What can I say, I love to read and so does he. During the visit I was surprised by the comment that there were lots of (forgive the language here) "black and oriental" books in the collection, as well as many books about girls.

I still think about this comment. It wasn't meant to be offensive, it's just that my mom reads about the world she is comfortable and familiar with, and I read about the world that I don't know, want to know better, or fear/hope I will never be exposed to in this lifetime. I want my son to read for the same reasons. I want him to experience what he may not know or see, but I also want him to know that there is so much more beyond his little corner of the world.

I think this holds true for classroom collections. As a teacher, I made an effort to purchase books that covered a range of genres and included characters from all walks of life. I began my career teaching in a preK-8 private, Catholic school. There was not a lot of diversity in the student body, but there was diversity in my collection, precisely because I wanted students to know that not all children in this world were like them. This is what I want for my son. Perhaps I am still feeling the pangs of guilt about abandoning the city and its urban schools for a suburban neighborhood closer to work with a fantastic school system. William loves Kindergarten and is thriving, but I can't help but worry about the startling lack of diversity in the school. How will he learn to appreciate the gifts that children from different races, ethnicity, religion, and background (think SES and family structure) can bring to the life of the classroom and our world if he doesn't experience them first hand? This is why we read such a broad range of books. It is why I hope teachers will build collections that represent this colorful quilt of humanity. It is why in my thematic book list posts I try hard to provide a selection of titles that cut across these lines.

In a recent post on PlanetEsme, Esme Codell wrote:
Teachers and parents, especially if you work or live in a homogeneous school or community, you don't have to apologize or rationalize or explain when you buy a book that widens horizons and gives children the chance to vicariously meet people they would not or could not in their day-to-day lives. Recognize that you have a special opportunity, maybe even a responsibility to take integration another step from the classroom to the bookshelf. Be inclusive in your collection based on the excellence of the text and illustrations sooner than the race of the reader, and in this way, your collection will be richer and naturally more representative of many people, and your children can fully benefit from the empathy towards the human experience that great children's literature--and great literature at large-- has to offer.
Thanks, Esme, you've given voice to what I feel in my heart, and I couldn't agree more.

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