Mirrors and Windows: Adding Diversity to the Common Core Reading List

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article about the Common Core’s

Appendix B and multicultural literature. The authors, Jane Gangi, associate professor at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY and Nancy Benfer, 4th grade teacher at Bishop Dunn Memorial School, point out that, “of the 171 texts recommended for elementary children in Appendix B of the Common Core, there are only 18 by authors of color, and few books reflect the lives of children of color and the poor.”

Children need books that show them a mirror—reflect their own identity and experience—and a window—that let them see into others’ experiences (metaphor from Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of The Ohio State University). Teachers are using Appendix B as a starting point to find texts so the more guidance we can provide on which texts will reach, inspire, and engage students of color (close to 50% of American students) and children who are poor (22% of students), as well as providing students who are White and middle or upper class with an understanding of other experiences, the better.

Gangi and Benfer, with The Collaborative for Equity in Literacy Learning, have compiled lists of multicultural titles that could be incorporated into the Appendix for readers in grades K-5. The lists have yet to be incorporated into the Common Core. (Stay tuned to Teaching Tolerance for the updated list.)

After reading Gangi and Benfer’s article, I wondered about the Appendix B list for middle school. So, I took a look and found more diversity in the stories (5 out of 10 represented a multicultural perspective, including Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings, Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, and Sandra Cisneros’ Eleven). The poetry list also included different perspectives (5 out of 12 poems were written by diverse poets) including Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Gary Soto. Among the informational texts, 3 out of 23 titles featured a multicultural focus.

Still, the range of diversity presented was limited, and teachers and students would benefit from an increased range of diverse texts. Middle school students are ready to tackle current events and real world topics, so reading books that represent diversity in all its forms (racial, ethnic, geographic, ability, etc) is imperative.

I searched for books that represent quality literature for middle schoolers and that address key elements of diversity. While finding a range of characters and topics was easy, honing in on more specific aspects of diversity was more challenging. Here is a (hardly exhaustive) list of 15 books that add a range of diversity that starts to reflect today’s experience to Appendix B:

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Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Hush by Jacqueline Woodson

Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt De La Pena

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Diversity of Ability

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

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Diversity of Geography, Region, and Nationality

The Breadwinner Series by Deborah Ellis

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

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Diversity of Sexuality

Absolutely Positively Not by David LaRochelle

Am I Blue? Coming Out of the Silence by Maria Dan Bauer

Out of the Pocket by Bill Koningsburg

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Diversity of Socio-Economic Status

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Kira Kira by Ann Jaramillo

This list is, of course, by no means complete. What other books would you add?

Book Review: Uncommon Core Brings the Discussion Back to Instruction

Full disclosure: I support the Common Core. So, it’s been challenging to watch the discussion around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Just this week:

In the midst of all this discussion, comes the new book, Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards go Wrong About Instruction and How You Can Get it Right (Corwin Press). Authors Michael Smith, Deborah Applebaum, and Jeffrey Wilhelm acknowledge that the roll-out of the CCSS has presented major concerns. (The concerns primarily emerge through materials put out by David Coleman, author of the Standards and president and CEO of the College Board). In addition to the concerns raised by everyone from the Chattanooga Tea Party to Diane Ravitch (that the CCSS are an attempt to nationalize education, there is an overriding focus on profit, high-stakes tests take too central a role) Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm contend that if the CCSS is implemented in Coleman’s model it:

  • May erode teacher autonomy,
  • May result in a shift away from research-based best practices in reading instruction,
  • May negatively impact students who need it most (students who are underperforming or have specific needs), and
  • May result in a widening of the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’

In other words, may not produce the change in education that we want to see.

In addition, the authors point out that reading for pleasure and wisdom aren’t incorporated into the CCSS. Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm argue, and I agree, that reading for pleasure and for wisdom are both important goals for reading in school and at home. (For more about reading for enjoyment and the CCSS is Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts’ Falling in Love with Close Reading.)

In response to the concerns, Uncommon Core provides a well-researched argument for how the CCSS can be used to enhance instruction by building on strategies that teachers already use and with a focus on student independence (one of the goals of the CCSS). A few areas they incorporated:

  • Rather than having students start with cold-readings of complex texts, focused pre-reading and background-building instruction can help students access complex texts and build skills that will make their ability to “cold read” more likely in the future.
  • Instead of reading whole texts in isolation, reading various passages and texts within a unit improves students’ ability to transfer information and skills.
  • The list of exemplar texts, Appendix B, can be a starting point to build a diverse reading list for students with texts that are relevant, engaging and challenging.
  • Text-dependent questions can drive students into text, and can be combined with more general or authentic questions to drive discussion.

Suffice it to say, the authors of the Uncommon Core establish clear approaches to maximizing the CCSS to improve reading instruction.

I have followed the CCSS since 2010 when they were newly released and have seen the discussion develop from excitement to push-back to resentment. Teachers feel overwhelmed with the expectations of the CCSS and a confusing roll-out that’s merged with teacher accountability and evaluation, among other concerns. In the news, the arguments and discussions about the CCSS have gotten far away from the classroom, often devolving into political rhetoric. Uncommon Core brings the conversation back to the classroom and gives credit to teachers who are doing the work of the Common Core. (Edutopia Common Core, Teaching the Core, and Shanahan on Literacy also provide good resources around CCSS and literacy instruction.)

In short: for teachers who are working in states that are debating the CCSS, this book is a must-read. It will provide another access point for the CCSS and a critical look into what’s behind the educational arguments for and against the ELA Standards. For teachers in states that have adopted the CCSS and are moving forward with assessment, this book provides clarity and ideas for strengthening instruction, as well as guidance around how the CCSS have been and can be interpreted. Regardless of how the CCSS shakes out—if they’re adopted as-in, if they’re revised, or if they become the jumping off point for new state standards—Uncommon Core (as promised by the authors) provides a clear path for quality reading instruction using the CCSS.