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Teachers face difficult situations daily. Students come to the classroom with very different experiences and circumstances, yet all are expected to transcend those differences, focus on the curriculum, and meet the objectives established by the state. They need help if they are to transcend this wide range of socio-economic, cultural, family, and health circumstances, build understanding, and succeed in school.

Using children’s literature, teachers can help their class through difficult situations, enable individual students to transcend their own challenges, and teach students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware. Two approaches will help you get the most out of children’s literature: bibliotherapy, which uses books to help children deal with specific situations; and building critical literacy, the ability to consider various points of view.

Bibliotherapy: dealing with personal situations

When faced with a difficult situation, many parents and teachers look for a book to help explain, to provide a conversation-starter, or to fill in the gaps in their own understanding so as to better address the situation at hand. Bibliotherapy is a term for this strategy, but the name really isn’t important. What matters is that when used correctly, books can heal. Books can promote understanding, provide context, and facilitate conversation.

Using books to spark discussion

Some issues, such as bullying or disabilities, affect the entire class and should be discussed as a group. It is essential that you use the book not as a substitute but as a catalyst for discussion. In the ERIC digest article "Using Literature To Help Children Cope with Problems," Wei Tu provides guidelines for selecting and using literature in the classroom and summarizes a five-step approach appropriate for whole-class participation at any grade level:

  1. Identify. Determine and discuss the problem. It should be meaningful, interesting, and appropriate for children.
  2. Brainstorm. Encourage children to think about possible solutions. Listen to and respect all of their ideas. Keep a record of the solutions suggested in case the children want to try more than one.
  3. Select. Help children examine the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions and then choose one that seems workable.
  4. Explore and implement. Let children gather the necessary materials and resources and then, if it is feasible, implement the solution they select.
  5. Evaluate. With the children, observe and discuss whether the solution to the problem was successful. If appropriate, help the children think of changes in the solution implemented, or encourage them to explore new solutions. 1

This problem-solving technique provides the catalyst for discussion which is essential to supporting students through traumatic events in their home or school lives. Through guided problem-solving, students can build the capacity to solve problems on their own when they arise.

Inspiring independent reading: book talks

One approach to using children’s literature to address student issues is to provide book talks to inspire independent reading. If the issues are specific to only a few children then it may be beneficial to encourage those students to select relevant titles in the media center. Directing students to the right books is not difficult: if you pique their interest they will gravitate to titles that are relevant to them.

A book talk provides a short summary of a book’s plot with enough of a lead-in that students get hooked without any plot spoilers. Holding the book up to the class, simply introduce the title and provide a glimpse into the character or plot elements that are key to this recommendation. No more than two or three minutes should be devoted to any one title, so a twenty-minute book talk on a given topic may include as many as fifteen titles. Students may need some time after the talk to examine the books, determine length and reading level, and decide for themselves if it looks as interesting as it sounds — they often judge the book by its cover!

The media center is the best place to start. An online catalog can help you collect books relevant to specific topics or, with some advanced notice, your media specialist may select and make available a collection of books at an appropriate level about a specific topic. You can ask your media specialist if he or she would schedule a book talk for your class on specific topics, or try book talking yourself. On Nancy Keane’s Book Talks Quick and Simple, you can find titles by subject, including critical topics such as suicide, alcoholism, child abuse, and foster homes. There are also sources of book reviews and tips for book talking to help you find and present relevant, recommended titles to your class.

After students are introduced to the idea of a book talk as selection tool, you may want to encourage students to write their own review and recommendations. As with any book review, the presentation could be oral or written. In the context of bibliotherapy, you could encourage students to emphasize character or plot elements they found the most authentic, inspiring, or helpful. This approach allows for informal sharing in the classroom that may provide yet another opportunity for discussion, building support and understanding among classmates. If you assign a written review, you might encourage students to publish their reviews so others can benefit. Online book review sites such as BookHooks are great for this purpose.

Critical literacy: addressing broad issues

I first heard the term critical literacy in a workshop at the International Reading Association conference. During this session we worked in groups to define critical literacy as building thinking skills that enable students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware. North Carolina is changing, and those changes are reflected in classrooms across the state, possibly even yours. The largest groups of new immigrants are Hispanics from Mexico and Hmong from Southeast Asia, not to mention the steady influx of people who have relocated here from New York, New Jersey, and the rest of the United States. The cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity in North Carolina’s schools grows every year, and with this diversity comes opportunity.

Perhaps you’re already using some activities to build critical literacy in your classroom. If you read novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country, you’re providing an opportunity for your students to stand in the shoes of another: that is critical literacy. If your students hear stories about people who practice religions different than their own or if they consider the differences between their lives and the lives of people like them who lived through war, the Great Depression, or the Civil Rights movement, that too is critical literacy. If you ask you students to write from the point of view of someone much older than they are, that’s critical literacy. These activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

Levels of engagement with other cultures

What can we do to build critical literacy skills in our classroom? Social justice curricula provide a good starting point for building understanding. These lessons and approaches can be categorized as follows:

  • Contributions approach: discrete cultural elements added to instruction
  • Additive approach: perspectives of other cultures added, but structure of curriculum does not change
  • Transformational approach: thoroughgoing change enables students to view the world from perspective of diverse groups
  • Social action approach: students empowered to decide and act 2

Most schools make an effort to address diversity on a contributions level. Including a Chanukah song in the winter holiday program and assigning the Famous African American report in February add discrete cultural elements to the curriculum. These elements are separate and may feel like an add-on or an afterthought, something more obligatory than celebratory.

The next level is the additive level. Selecting books from different cultures is one way to add the perspectives of others: the format does not change (you still assign a novel or provide a variety of stories to read) but multiple experiences add depth to the curriculum. Textbooks use this approach when they add a color call-out box with the title "The Black Experience" or "A Woman’s Perspective." These extras give some opportunity to learn how different people experienced the same event, but they are still separate from the mainstream story; students are not asked to consider these perspectives as "normal," let alone to attempt to see the event through them.

The contribution and additive levels are simply not enough to building the thinking skills that enable students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware. There are, however, ways to approach diversity that build critical literacy skills.

Transformative reading: Reader’s Theater

The transformational approach adds an element to the reading process that changes the entire process. Sometimes this kind of change is called ecological change because, like a change to an ecosystem, it affects everything else around it. (In this terminology, ecological change is opposed to additive change. As an example, getting a cat is an additive change to your life; having a child is an ecological change!)

Reader’s Theater is reading that transforms. Reader’s theater is simply a dramatic adaptation of any story or scene from a novel. Reader’s theater scripts may be purchased, created by the teacher, or developed by students in the classroom from books they have read. Don’t let the word "theater" turn you off — there are no sets, costumes, or makeup in Reader’s Theater; performances are low-key. Students simply read aloud the words of their assigned character, verbally acting out the story or scene for the entire class.

So why try Reader’s Theater? Role-play and theatrical text build oral communications skills and reading fluency as students must act in character, conveying their lines expressively at the proper time. The shared reading experience also promotes social and emotional bonds between classmates, building interpersonal and collaborative skills in the classroom. Most importantly, Reader’s Theater provides a powerful experience for all who participate because it is an active learning experience — students do not passively read about what happened but become active participants in the events. If you have never tried this, you will be amazed at the difference between reading aloud and Reader’s Theater. You may have read about the Holocaust, you may even think you are an expert but even so, Reader’s Theater can reach a place inside of you that has yet to be touched. It is impossible to read from the perspective of a child writing from the Therein concentration camp in I Never Saw Another Butterfly and not be profoundly affected by the experience!

Check out these resources to get scripts or to learn more about Reader’s Theater.

"Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges," a lesson plan from ReadWriteThink, is another example how reading can encourage critical discussion and build thinking skills. Tackle point-of-view in the shared reading of books like Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side, which is told from the viewpoint of Clover, an African American girl who lives in a town with a fence that separates the black side of town from the white side. Compare the challenges faced by the poor in your own community to those portrayed by Frances and Ginger Park in The Royal Bee, the story of Song-ho, a poor peasant boy who is determined to learn how to read and write. By addressing barriers that separate human beings from one another and examining the role of prejudice and stereotypes in sustaining injustice, students can discuss difficult issues such as race, class, and gender and work towards social justice and equality.

Service learning: a social action approach

The highest level of social justice activities are those that lead to action. Community service, sometimes referred to as service learning, is integral to many school and district-wide programs. Some individual classrooms and student groups take on community improvement efforts by cleaning up school grounds, monitoring nearby waterways for pollutants, and volunteering at community facilities. According to the research,

service-learning has proved to be a powerful antidote to student disengagement, in addition to offering the following benefits:

  • Reinforces and extends the standards-based reform movement by providing real-life context for learning and giving students a sense of the practical importance of what they are learning in school.
  • Builds on students’ willingness to become involved in service while adding an academic component to the service.
  • Contributes to young people’s personal and career development. 2

When you take the social action approach, students make decisions on important social issues and take actions to help solve them. Read the Learning in Deed report for more information about service learning, including research demonstrating the impact these activities have on student achievement.

The internet adds a new dimension to the discussion, creating a framework for better communication and more collaboration opportunities on a global scale. For example, you may join the online community at TakingITGlobal and take part in new thinking, a diversity of voices, and new opportunities in the areas of peace and justice, environment and equality. If students are frightened by the degradation of the environment they can make a difference on a more-than-local level with Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!). If you are frustrated by the content on the evening news, you may make sure your views are heard when you join OneWorldTV and share news as you see it, record images as you see them, and discuss issues with others.

Selecting books to help students

It is important to find books on specific topics but it is even more important that these books be developmentally appropriate, well-written and are appealing to the students. These resources include carefully-selected and reviewed titles and will help you to find the right book for any situation. Start with the winners. Use the Database of Award-Winning Children’s Literature, developed by reference librarian Lisa Bartle. Not only can you search across award categories, but you can generate a reading list. You can restrict the list using criteria about the intended audience or the story itself. For example, you can restrict the search to contemporary stories, multicultural (two or more cultures represented), with an African American protagonist and get forty-one books, including biographies, poetry, and fiction. Restrict to reader age 8-10, and the list is down to seven award-winning books, including All the Colors of Race, which presents poems from the perspective of a child of an interracial marriage, and Smoky Night, in which a child finds out, during the Los Angeles riots, how alike people are despite racial differences. Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site subject list includes topics such as families, racism, diversity, and tolerance. The term "list" is deceiving; the books are actually presented in articles detailing the plot, setting or character features that distinguish the books selected for each subject. Like the subject lists, the curriculum areas are another good access point for teachers seeking books to build understanding. Under the curriculum area language arts there are listings for books with characters that are bullies; under United States history there are book recommendations for topics such as slavery, Native Americans and Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Most of the articles integrate ideas for presenting or integrating the book into teaching. Don’t miss the articles on "Looking Critically at Picture Books" or "Reading Aloud — Recommended Titles, Grades K-9."

Another good source is "Notable Social Studies Books for Young People" from the National Council for the Social Studies. These annual lists are not searchable, but titles are arranged by themes, including culture, contemporary concerns, social interactions, and relationships. The annotations provide information about both content and intended audience. The 2001 list included a variety of titles that might address classroom concerns. Explore the balance between personal freedom and government intervention in Lynn Joseph’s Color of My Words, a story addressing a young girl’s struggle to write and be heard in a society without protection for the freedom of expression. Examine a single event from sixteen different perspectives in Voices of the Alamo by Sherry Garland, and then discuss how current events or issues may appear different to different people. The 2003 list offers selections to deal with the fears students express about violence on the global scale, such as Understanding September 11th. On a more local scale, A Perfect Snow provides context for a hate crime and reveals the dangers of fearing people who are not like us.