Suffice to say, we are living in tumultuous times. As teachers, we serve as mentors and guides for our students as we negotiate the world around us. A global pandemic, losing loved ones, increased economic uncertainty, rapid changes to climate, and the gradual return to a new “normal” are few of many traumas our students have endured over the past few years.
Some of the more disconcerting traumas occurring in our classrooms stem from the continuous attacks on the implementation of diverse curriculum and instructional practices promoting inclusion and empathy. Often associated with the tenets of Critical Race Theory or CRT, the implementation of a diverse curriculum faces continuous scrutiny perpetuated by misinformation regarding the purpose and importance of having a curriculum that meets the needs of all students (Morgan, 2022; Souto-Manning et al., 2021; Thomas, 2016). Furthermore, there is a silencing of marginalized voices and persistence to eradicate literature that promotes these voices. This can lead to tensions for teachers and students.
Even more troubling is a general increase in instances of hate, prejudice, and a seemingly overall lack of empathy for others. A New York Times report (Harris & Alter, 2022) and a similar story in The Washington Post (Natanson, 2022) drew on the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual censorship report and discovered that hate crimes surged in 2022, noting that San Francisco State University “tracked more than 10,000 incidents of hate from March 2020 through September 2021” (ALA, 2022, p. 13). While we may try our best to cultivate a welcoming and accepting classroom environment for our students, our walls are not impervious to the effects these traumas have on our students’ everyday lives.
To that end, books have always been a way to bridge the connections from students’ everyday lives to the lives of the characters and storylines they encounter. Through these storylines, students are able to navigate their own experiences based on the experiences of influential book characters (Buehler, 2016). Students’ backgrounds and lived experiences permeate the texts they read as well as allow them to create meaning with and from their texts (Wilhelm, 2016). Books have the power to be welcoming and affirming places where difficult conversations can be met and discussed within a classroom community based on the tenets of trust, empathy, and understanding.
“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it from happening again” – Anne Frank.
I recently happened upon this book by chance while looking for a new graphic novel. Because it was written by R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder, I was excited to see what kind of light-hearted story filled with important life lessons Palacio had concocted for her debut graphic novel. What I found was not light-hearted. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by this poignant piece that not only provides a fictional yet first-hand account into the horrors of the Holocaust but how, unfortunately, events in our time are also following trends of hate and prejudice.
White Bird delves deeper into the story from one of the characters we meet during Palacio’s book, Auggie & Me, a follow-up to her best-selling book, Wonder. White Bird focuses on the story of Julian’s grandmother known as Grandmère and her time surviving as a young, Jewish woman during the Nazi Occupation of France in the early 1940’s.
As a young woman in school, Grandmère (Sara) grew up with two doting parents in the fictional yet picturesque town of Aubervilliers-aux-Bois, France. Sara was fortunate enough to attend a school that welcomed students from all faiths and she excelled in most academic subjects. This is where we are introduced to Sara’s classmate, a young boy named Julien. Julien was afflicted with Polio, which took away his ability to walk without crutches. As a result, everyone called him Tourteau, a cruel nickname that translated to “Crab,” meant to mock the deformation of his legs. Everyone teased and ridiculed him, including Sara.
As the Nazi Occupation of France slowly inched its way into the Free Zone and the town of Aubervilliers-aux-Bois, Sara found herself isolated from certain stores, unable to do activities with her friends, and even became the brunt of ridicule herself. One fateful day at school, Sara and the other Jewish children at her school were targeted by the Gendarmes, who were sent to round up the Jewish children and send them away. Sara managed to hide away in the bell tower watching as the young, Jewish students of all ages were loaded onto a cart and taken away. Julien soon finds Sara’s hiding place and in an incredible act of bravery and kindness, helps her escape from the school.
For years throughout the Nazi occupation of France, Julien and his parents were able to hide Sara away. Despite the cruelty of her actions, Julien was the only friend Sara had. Sara soon realized her unfounded cruelty towards this boy and felt incredibly foolish for taking part in the teasing and torment against him. For years, Julien and his family risked their lives to protect Sara and she was forever grateful for the kindness of this family. This kindness she hoped to pass on to her son and grandson, who were both named after her savior, Julian.
While this book provided an insightful, yet elementary introduction to the Holocaust, what I really loved about this book were the parallels it drew between the initial prejudices experienced by Sara and the current prejudices existing in today’s world. But the most impactful part of this text is that it calls for a plan of action. “A call to resist contemporary manifestations of prejudice and xenophobia … to stand up against tyranny and cruelty wherever we may find them” (Ruth Franklin, p. 208, Afterword).
At the end of the book, so moved by his Grandmère’s story, we find Julian, the original antagonist and bully from Wonder, participating in a Never Again #WeRemember protest pledging to fight racism and end xenophobia. This is a complete departure from his attitude in Wonder as Auggie’s antagonist using Auggie’s facial deformities as the crux of his bullying. Instead, we see Julian transformed, feeling empathy for his namesake and making a change and standing up for those whose voices are often silenced.
What Comes Next? Where the Rubber Meets the Road
In April 2022, The New York Times reported that attempts to ban or remove books from US classrooms were at their highest level since the American Library Association began tracking book challenges 20 years ago (Harris & Alter, 2022). ALA’s annual report on censorship notes that there were 729 attempts to remove books from public libraries, schools, and universities in 2022 and 1597 challenges on books and/or removals of books (Harris & Alter, 2022; Nantanson, 2022). The most often targeted titles for banning included The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, among others. It is worth noting that these three authors are BIOPIC.
One of the latest attacks on teacher’s autonomy for selecting books to present to their classrooms is the introduction of Florida’s bill CS/HB 1467, which took effect July 1, 2022. One stipulation of this bill requires the “consultation of reputable, professionally recognized sources and school community stakeholders for each selection” within the school’s media center collections (CS/HB 1467, 2022). This bill essentially adds an additional layer of oversight; further preventing teachers from selecting texts to include in their libraries that they feel would reach the children in their classrooms. This comes at a time when students need to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom more than ever (Souto-Manning et al., 2021; Thomas, 2016).
When thinking about different teacher activities to accompany this book, I began thinking of a saying I first heard from a professor in my doctoral program: “where does the rubber meet the road?” – what are the important “aha” moments that we can instill in our students to take action, like Julian did in White Bird? Classroom discussions, close reads, and character analyses to accompany this text would all be helpful, but what can teachers do to encourage action and a potential transformation of students’ beliefs and attitudes?
While reading and sharing books that contain an influential and important message is essential to the overall growth of critical literacy in our students, what is often lost is the “action” portion of student’s growth - what comes next? What should students do to influence and create change in their lives and the lives of others? In other words, where does the rubber meet the road, when does lip service become action? How can students take a stand against the inequities in their world and prevent these inequities from happening again?
An Example: When Lip Service Becomes Action
As previously mentioned, the ALA reported their highest number of attempts to ban or remove books from US classrooms over the past 20 years (Harris & Alter, 2022). Of those bans, one of the more notable was a Tennessee school district’s decision to remove of the book Maus by Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer Award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust in January 2022.
However, what happened afterward was where the lip service became action. Soon after the removal of Maus, Forbes reported a 753% increase in book sales for Maus in January 2022 (Kaplan, 2022). Students and teachers took a stand against the silencing and censorship of the books in their libraries. Students wanted to read what was deemed “inappropriate” and awareness of this injustice grew. Students showed up to district meetings to protest the censoring of books in their classrooms. They passed out copies of Maus and other banned books including Toni Morrison’s, Beloved. To me, the ban of this book set off a fire – promoting actionable change and results.
Students took notice of what was being taken from them, and instead of accepting this change, they sought action. This movement was so inspiring, because even if it didn’t help to rectify the situation – no, Maus never returned to book shelves in McMinn County, Tennessee, it lit a fire in students to take action against something they probably didn’t even know they cared so passionately about in the first place. This movement gave students a “seat at the table” to protest against an injustice. Finally, it provided students a collective voice and a mentality that they could take with them and use when they see other injustices affecting their world.
In a similar vein, we saw Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give center on the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a real-life, authentic movement where students saw and felt the passion of protesters and the increased awareness of the injustices experienced by the BIOPIC community for years. Although many decried the protests of 2020 as a direct result of the implementation of CRT in school curriculums, students are often interested in learning more about the inequities that started these protests (Morgan, 2022). To prevent students from discussing these topics does a disservice to their education (Morgan, 2022).
So what could this look like in schools?
How can we create a meaningful, actionable experience for our students? One step is to ensure that teachers are creating a climate where students feel welcomed, safe, and valued. The following are some actionable ideas that could promote a climate built on trust, empathy, and student understanding.
- Advocating for campaigns promoting kindness and acceptance
- Think Kindness is a campaign featuring promotional speakers that promote “measurable acts of Kindness in schools and communities around the world”.
- The Be Kind People Project “is a public 501 (c) 3 non-profit that initiates a positive change in the overall learning environment and provides relevant learning and youth development opportunities that inspire humanity, academic achievement, and healthy living for students wherever and however they learn.”
- The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation provides free school lessons and resources based on bringing kindness to the classroom.
- The Kindness Curriculum is a series of free lessons and resources created by Kaplan academics. It follows the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) competencies and the OECD’s Learning Compass 2030 evolving learning framework that “sets out an aspirational vision for the future of education and contributes to the well-being of communities and the planet.”
- Creating groups dedicated to the creation of safe spaces
- GSA Network Genders & Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) are “student-run organizations that unite LGBTQ+ and allied youth to build community and organize around issues impacting them in their schools and communities.”
- Affinity Groups dedicated to Race, Culture, Religion, etc. Affinity groups are groups of students sharing common identities who gather with the intention of creating connections, finding support, and/or promoting acceptance and understanding. These affinity groups are identity-based and can center on race, culture, religion, or any other identity shared by a group of students. They often provide “a platform for voices often regulated to the margins” (Bell, 2015). In the Learning for Justice Magazine, Bell (2015) published a list of guidelines for starting an identity-based student affinity group. Additionally, Great Schools Partnership provided a list of tools for school leaders on introducing and supporting student-led affinity groups.
- DEI Groups can be groups that include anyone at the school that promote the tenets of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Here are six strategies to promote a DEI initiative at your school (Abrokwa, 2022).
- Other actionable items that highlight the changes you want to see in your school.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Along with the suggested action groups and campaigns listed above, R.J. Palacio listed several sources dedicated to Holocaust education and anti-Semitism in White Bird. Some of these include:
- Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect
- Anne Frank House Museum
- The Anti-Defamation League
- Auschwitz Memorial and Museum
- The Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
It is our hope that our students receive the message that they matter and that the materials they read and write matter. Having characters in their books with whom they connect is essential. The contents of our classroom bookshelf and the choices of books we share with students are crucial and it is imperative that we ensure all voices are heard and valued. As teachers, we need to contemplate the “next steps” and authentic opportunities students can participate in after reading an influential book. In what ways can students take action – where can the rubber meet the road?
Abrokwa, F. (2022). 6 strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion at your school. EdWeek https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-6-strategies-for-promoting-diversity-and-inclusion-at-your-school/2022/01
American Library Association. (2022). State of America’s libraries: Special report: Pandemic year two. https://www.ala.org/news/sites/ala.org.news/files/content/state-of-americas-libraries-special-report-pandemic-year-two.pdf
Bell, M. (2015). Making space. Learning for Justice Magazine 50(Summer), https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/summer-2015/making-space.
Buehler, J. (2016). Teaching reading with YA literature. National Council of Teachers of English.
CS/HB 1467, 2022 (FL. 2022). https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022/1467
Harris, E.A., & Alter, A. (2022 April). Book banning efforts surged in 2021. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/04/books/banned-books-libraries.html
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Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. (2018). Engaging disturbing books. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(2), 143-150.
Kaplan, A. (2022 February). Sales Of ‘Maus’ soar 753% in last week of January following ban by Tennessee school district. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/annakaplan/2022/02/04/sales-of-maus-soar-753-in-last- week-of-january-following-ban-by-tennessee-school-district/?sh=1d61ae94cb74
Malo-Juvera, V., & Greathouse, P. (Eds.). (2020). Breaking the taboo with young adult literature. Rowman & Littlefield.
Morgan, H. (2022). Resisting the movement to ban critical race theory from schools. The clearing house: a journal of educational strategies, issues and ideas, 95(1), 35-41.
Natanson, H. (2022 April). More books are banned than ever before, as Congress takes on the issue. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/04/07/book-bans-congress-student-library/
Souto‐Manning, M., Ghim, H., & Madu, N. K. (2021). Toward early literacy as a site of belonging. The reading teacher, 74(5), 483-492.
Thomas, E. E. (2016). Stories still matter: Rethinking the role of diverse children's literature today. Language Arts, 94(2), 112-119. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/stories-still-matter-rethinking-role-diverse/docview/1835329714/se-2
Vasquez, V. M., Janks, H., & Comber, B. (2019). Critical literacy as a way of being and doing. Language Arts, 96(5), 300-311.
Wilhelm, J.D. (2016). "You Gotta be the Book": Teaching engaged and reflective reading with adolescents. Teachers College Press.