Bring Diverse Books Into Your Classroom

children's library

By Ali Berman
From elementary school through graduate school, I read a lot of great books. Books that inspired me and taught me to think about literature and life. Books that shaped my world. And yet, it wasn’t until I reached my twenties that I started to realize that, even though I had considered myself to be well-read, I had actually only been given access to a tiny percentage of the human experience. During one particular class in graduate school, when I looked down at my syllabus, I saw all male names, except for one, a lone woman. And with a little more research, I found that, of all the authors I would read that semester, only one was a person of color.
Immediately I started thinking back, reflecting on the books I had been assigned in middle school, high school and college. With the exception of classes like Native American Literature or Pacific Rim Literature where I had opted to look at writing from specific voices, the same held true. I had gone through my entire educational experience reading predominantly white male American voices. And the characters they wrote about largely fit the same demographic. Even in the Native American and Pacific Rim Literature courses, the authors had almost all been male.
Cut to years later, after I had tailored my own personal reading to fill in the gaps in my education, I learned about a new movement that was taking shape called We Need Diverse Books, a movement I believe is absolutely necessary for the creation of a more humane world.
We Need Diverse Books, “is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. We Need Diverse Books is committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.”
The organization is working to amplify diversification efforts by promoting the inclusion of the experiences of LGBTQ communities, people of color, people with disabilities, gender diversity and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities.
Here at HEART we know firsthand just how important it is for children to learn about the experiences of all different kinds of people to help the kids grow up to be more empathetic adults. It’s easy to see the world through our own eyes, but sometimes it can be harder to relate to experiences we’ve never had. By exposing our kids to the inner lives of others through books, we can fight stereotypes and show them that the world is a big place filled with all sorts of people.
Like We Need Diverse Books, we want to encourage classroom teachers to review the books they assign to their students, and, if that list seems lacking, to seek out more diverse authors and characters.
Here are just a few ideas on how to start the process:

  1. Check out this resource from We Need Diverse Books and find new books to add to your curriculum.
  2. If your students are a bit older, talk to them about the issue, discuss why having diverse books matters, and ask them to take part in the process of adding more diverse books to the curriculum. They could bring in their favorite book from home, or head to the library to find new books. As another perk, your students will feel like active participants in their own education which will make them more engaged.
  3. Have students check out the annual VIDA Count. The organization looks at thirty-nine of the most well-respected literary journals and periodicals and breaks down the numbers to see how many women and men they published in a year. As VIDA has shown, there is a huge disparity, with men taking up the vast majority of ink. For example, in 2013 the New York Times reviewed 307 male authors, and just 80 female authors. Bonus points if the kids do a count for their own school by gathering the syllabi from teachers and seeing how many of the books assigned would qualify as diverse. The number they end up with might just help other teachers get on board with diversifying their own curriculums.

What are some of your favorite diverse books?

Photo Credit: Flickr/Salem (MA) Public Library

HEART Offers Online Professional Development Course in Humane Education to NYC Educators

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Why did you become a teacher? Was it to help youth learn how to think more critically and become more conscientious decision makers? Was it to encourage them to become more compassionate citizens? Maybe it was to provide youth with important skills and tools to understand the world around them? Or maybe it was to inspire students to make the world a better place?
Many educators are drawn to teaching because they want to help the next generation lead meaningful and fulfilling lives that can benefit both the student and the greater world. However, it can be challenging for teachers, even those who care about humane education, to incorporate social issues in the classroom when they are trying to get kids to understand the fundamentals.
At HEART, we have an antidote to assist teachers with this dilemma. We offer a professional development course in partnership with the NYC DOE’s ASPDP (After School Professional Development Program). This P-Course is for NYC department of education employees to gain the necessary tools to implement humane education into their classrooms while addressing both literacy and science standards. HEART demonstrates how to effectively teach about human rights, animal protection, and environmental ethics by simply modifying content that they are already expected to teach and by using it as a catalyst to meet common core state standards, NY state standards, and Danielson Competencies. (Sign up for our 2015 p-course by February 20th)
We have offered this course for the past five years to hundreds of teachers and the response has been tremendous. Not only have the teachers been excited to learn about teaching humane education, but most are amazed at how well it fits into their pre-existing curriculums.
Last year one teacher said that she could not believe how easy it was to meet the literacy standards she needed to address with her first grade class by using humane education concepts and humane education literature.
A second grade classroom teacher said that the unit she taught that included humane education was her students’ favorite unit of the entire year and that she planned to continue teaching it year after year after year.
Most recently, a former course participant shared this with us about her experience:

“Taking the Humane Education p-course influenced my personal approach to teaching by giving me tools to incorporate new material into my classroom. The course covered topics which interested me (including animal and worker rights) as well as provided lesson ideas and prompts that expanded my own understanding of these issues. It inspired me to bring humane education values into the classroom in a way that allowed students to have a broader understanding of current events and helped them develop possible solutions through knowledge and critical thinking. Ultimately, as a new teacher the course gave me a broader definition of teaching and showed me that any curriculum can be expanded with humane education.”

It excites us to hear that many teachers are interested in humane education and that when they incorporated it into their lessons, their students embrace it. This year we wanted our course to be more accessible to teachers than it has been in the past, so, for the first time, this course will be offered online.
Register for the P-course today and learn how to merge academic skills with humane education to help your students grow to be compassionate leaders and changemakers, working to create a better world for all life.
Register on the ASPDP website by February 20. The course runs from March 8 through May 22.
The P-Course is only available to NYC Department of Education Employees.

Challenging Stereotypes about Muslims and Sikhs in the Classroom

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By Sonny Singh
“Terrorist.” “The enemy.” “Dangerous.” Whenever I ask a group of students what common stereotypes about Muslims are, these responses are repeated without hesitation. To me, it comes as no surprise that these common societal perceptions of Muslims trickle down to young people—and impact how they treat each other.
In 2011, filmmaker Christina Antonakos-Wallace made a 10-minute documentary called Article of Faith, which was featured in the Media that Matters Film Festival. She followed me around with a camera and documented some of my work to address the overwhelming problem of Sikh students being bullied in NYC schools. While the film is very personal for me, it illuminates a problem much more widespread to New York City and our entire country—bias-based bullying and harassment, in this case based on being Sikh or Muslim.

Since then, HEART has used the film in over 60 workshops in NYC schools on addressing bullying and/or post-9/11 racism, from 4th to 12th grade. Some might be surprised that kids so young can understand and relate to the content in the film. The reality that we’ve seen time and time again is that even 9 or 10-year-olds have learned negative stereotypes about Muslims and are very ready to talk about them.
After watching the film, we usually talk about why Sikh youth in particular are being bullied and harassed. Student responses almost always include, “Because they’re different,” and, “Because of 9/11.” Sikhs are indeed often mistaken for Muslims, but that is not the heart of the problem, we discuss. “No one should be treated like that, whether they’re Muslim or not,” a student declared to the class a few weeks ago at a workshop I was teaching at a Manhattan high school.
Once we identify anti-Muslim bigotry, or Islamophobia, as the overarching issue, we discuss why an entire community (of 1.5 billion worldwide) has been blamed for the actions of a few. Through this discussion, students grapple with and begin to unpack the core of what stereotypes are. Students then start making connections to their own experiences and observations.
For example, at a middle school in Hunts Point in the Bronx, one Dominican student told the class about how her dad has a big beard and has been called a terrorist many times. Another Latina student talked about her father who also has a beard had experienced similar things, including being harassed by the police. A black student talked about being followed around in a store where the owner assumed he was trying to steal something. After he shared that story, many more hands darted up with stories of their family members being questioned by the police, unjustly arrested, or treated with suspicion solely because of their skin color.
Finally, we transition into talking about taking action. To get the brainstorm started, I ask the students what the youth in the film did about bullying and harassment. They spoke up, they shared their experiences with others, they protested. They didn’t remain silent. While Article of Faith brings up a lot of sadness and anger for students who watch it, it also leaves them with a sense of hope and empowerment because of the courage of the youth in the film.
I ask students, “So, what can we do about it, what can you do about this problem?” Younger students often respond, “Don’t judge people,” or, “Help someone if they are being bullied.” Some high schoolers suggest: “Don’t believe everything you hear in the media,” or, “Organize more workshops like this.”
Sometimes students may still leave with more questions than answers, which to me is a success. Encouraging students of all ages to think critically is the first step to debunking stereotypes. Young people are ready and willing to talk about these complex and challenging issues. As educators, it is our responsibility to initiate them.

Snacks in the Classroom: Changing the Way We Eat

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By Kim Korona
We’ve all read the studies. Childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and food allergies are on the rise. Teachers, the guardians of kids between the hours of eight and three, are often caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to bringing treats into the classroom. Plus, as humane educators we know that many foods on the market (due to the ways in which they are produced) have dire consequences for people, animals and the planet. On the one hand, we want to reward our students with foods they enjoy and allow parents to celebrate their child’s birthday by bringing in treats, and on the other, we desperately want to teach our kids healthy and humane habits that will help them grow up to be strong and ethical adults.
As an educator myself, I often want to share food with students at the end of a program to celebrate everything they have learned and accomplished, but I want to offer foods that are humane too. It can be challenging to know what the right snack is to bring into a classroom. The criteria I often consider in foods is that they are:

  • Fair-Trade or local
  • Organic
  • Not made with animal products
  • Tasty
  • Inclusive

The list is a high standard to follow, but I think all of these factors are important. However, I often miss an additional consideration that is equally as important: that the food is healthful. I have been guilty of bringing my students cookies, pretzels, popcorn, and chocolate even though I know they are not necessarily the most nutritious of foods because I thought, “It’s a celebration. I have to bring in something really tasty.”
Recently, while I was at a party, I talked with a teacher who shared her classroom food policy with me. In an effort to combat the negative impacts of too much junk food, include the students with food allergies, and so as not to make kids who cannot afford to bring in expensive treats feel left out, she has asked parents not to bring cupcakes or cookies to the classroom anymore. The teacher came up with an idea for a snack that everyone can enjoy. Each student is asked to contribute one type of fruit that has been pre-washed and cut into bite sized pieces. She brings in a very large bowl and combines all of the different fruit to make a large fruit salad and calls it a friendship salad.
While it sounds like a simple idea, this special friendship fruit salad has taken the place of all other junk foods that the students would have otherwise shared as a class. She told me it is a huge hit with the kids. They think it is incredibly tasty and each one of them is excited that they were able to contribute to the dessert. It is simple, low-cost, and only requires minimal preparation time for the parents. No family is left out because they didn’t have enough time to prepare a baked good or didn’t have extra money to buy a lot of ingredients. Everyone is only asked to bring in a little and when it is combined with 25 or so other contributions, it makes for a bountiful treat for everyone.
Since this has become the new classroom tradition the students get excited about friendship salad day. They now associate fruit salad with having a party, instead of foods like cheese puffs, cake, and chips. Some of the students have even been exposed to fruits that they had never eaten before.
From time to time we all enjoy a cupcake or cookie, but in the classroom we can be role models for our students. We can make the time we have with them an opportunity to expose them to things that are the best for them, such as healthful, great tasting, humane food. You might just want to make a friendship salad for your own class soon!
Photo Credit: Flickr/ebarney

Teaching Kids About Water Issues

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By Kristina Hulvershorn
Tasked with teaching water conservation to a group of kids ranging in age from 8 to 18, I enlisted the help of Aspen, one the teens who would be in the group, a few days before we would all meet. He and I wanted to strategize a way to let everyone really engage with the material, in spite of their age or background knowledge. One of our challenges was to encourage the students to make connections between water usage and food choices. Every piece of food we eat has a water footprint, and some kinds of foods require much more water than others. The data was pretty heavy and even adults glaze over when simply told the statistics.
“What if we use these bottles that are about to be recycled to symbolize a larger amount of water and we have a bottle for each food choice?” I asked him. Aspen told me that the water had to be blue for a stronger visual effect. I trusted him and we set to work measuring, dying, and labeling the bottles.

We decided that one bottle should represent 500 gallons of water, which is pretty close to the amount of water in five hot tubs. As we expected, we needed a lot more bottles to explain how much water is needed to produce chicken, pork, and beef than we did for other kinds of foods like vegetables. In fact, to fairly convey how many gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef we needed ten full bottles (to symbolize 5,214 gallons!), compared to the mere ounces to symbolize most of the vegetables. You read that correctly—ten hot tubs’ worth of water to produce one pound of beef.
When it came time to do the activity with the students, I strategically gave the hamburger to one of my wiggliest students. One by one, I asked each student to come up and find the label with the amount of water that correlated to their food. We learned that tomatoes require 23 gallons, potatoes require 24, and so on. When it was his turn to show us how much water is needed for the hamburger, I asked him to come up and suggested that he may need a friend to help. He gladly boasted, “I can handle it by myself.” As he attempted to haul 10 bottles of water back to his seat, several fell to the floor. We all laughed with him and no spills happened, but that movement, that action, burned that number (and, more importantly, the significance of that number) into all of our minds.
Four months later, when I saw him, I asked him, “How much water does it take to produce one pound of hamburger?” He smiled and told me, “Over 5,000 gallons!”
This activity is now housed as an exhibit in “be the change” and people are always drawn to these mysterious blue bottles. Finding ways to convey difficult, often depressing data and statistics in playful and hands-on ways is one way we are helping people to make the connections between their everyday actions and the impacts they have on our planet, on animals, and on other humans.
“Be the change” is the first humane education exhibit of its kind. It is housed in Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Photo Credit: Max Guitare / Flickr