This year, back-to-school means worrying about whether your child will be learning at home or in a brick-and-mortar building, and how you'll manage to teach them if they do end up at home. But just as important as where and how your child learns is what they’re actually learning. And that’s why you might be looking for ways to advocate for a more diverse curriculum in your kid’s school this fall.
"Parent involvement is going to be critical this fall, especially if we're spending time online," Kimberly Parker, Ph.D., a former high school English teacher who advocates for diversifying school curriculums, tells Romper in an email. "They should look at everything their children are being asked to do and who is represented," she notes — and more to the point, who isn't.
"On her first day of high school, my daughter brought home an English class syllabus list made of nine white male authors, the same white male authors I studied in high school thirty years ago," Jennifer Longo, a Seattle-based author and mom, tells Romper in an email.
"This syllabus is 300 school hours of studying white men’s perspectives, to the exclusion of all other voices, it says women exist only to usher in a man’s self-actualization, women are only mothers, whores, or helpless victims, and by the end of each book the women typically die or disappear — that’s if there are women depicted at all," Longo adds. "This syllabus says racist depictions of humans are just 'how things are,' and it says women, all BIPOC authors, do not write literature." In fact, the syllabus presented to Longo's daughter violated her state's standards for English curriculum, which dictate that "great literary works from a variety of cultures" be analyzed.
Unfortunately, Longo's experience is a common one. As the School Library Journal reported in 2018, only 22% of school librarians reported that their book lists were "somewhat diverse." This lack of representation in literature leaves kids feeling devalued, as professor emerita at Ohio State University Rudine Sims Bishop — known as the "mother of multicultural literature" — wrote 30 years ago. "It is absolutely critical to a child’s development to have what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop calls 'windows and mirrors,'" Kiera Parrott, the reviews and production director for School Library Journal, tells Romper in an email.
"Books and other media provide mirrors — they reflect back to us our own experiences," Parrott continues. "When a child sees themselves in a book — a town, a school, a family, a protagonist — who looks like them, who has similar experiences as them, they are getting the message that our wider culture sees them and values them. It’s a form of affirmation."
We learn about people and policies through the stories we read...
Case in point: In 2018, data compiled by librarians at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education's Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) showed that while over half of children's books feature white main characters, only 10% depict Black characters. "There are more children’s books about talking animals and trucks than there are about all other racial/ethnic groups combined," says Parrott. "That is appalling."
"We should aim for a range of races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and abilities," says Parker. "Remembering that we learn about people and policies through the stories we read, it's imperative we ground our children in a broad range of stories written and featuring people who do not look like them, especially if those children are white."
But before you put in a call to complain to your child’s instructor, don't assume the teacher is to blame. “Most teachers encourage inclusivity in the classroom and in the literature that they choose for their lessons,” Elizabeth Tyrrell, a teacher in New York City with a focus on urban and multicultural education, tells Romper. “For the most part, teachers aren’t choosing the booklist or even the curriculum; they are given it from their state’s Education Department.”
All students are being cheated by this curriculum, all students deserve an actual English/Lit class, not a study in White Male Thoughts On Life.
In an attempt to address the her daughter's "damaging" 9th grade curriculum, Longo had discussions with the teacher, the head of the English department, the district superintendent, and the school board. "Everyone blamed each other," Longo says. "The board blamed the supervisors, who blamed the superintendent, who blamed the teachers. The English Department head said the teachers all had their own favorite white male author; none of them were willing to give up their favorite to ‘make room’ for a book written by any woman or a BIPOC man. I was told that (all-white) staff had been having ‘discussions about diversity’ for years, and I should be grateful for the ‘progress’ that had been made so far — which made me wonder, what did the syllabus consist of before the nine white men list? A stack of Hustler magazines and a copy of the Old Testament?"
In spite of Longo's efforts, her daughter's 9th grade syllabus "stayed exclusively white and male," she says. The family moved to another school district only to find a curriculum "very nearly as white and male" as the last.
"We refused to have our daughter steeped in years of toxic masculinity and racism parading as ‘great literature’ so she was told she could read BIPOC women authored books as independent study for class credit," Longo says. "Which defeats the point – this change needs to be systematic. All students are being cheated by this curriculum, all students deserve an actual English/Lit class, not a study in White Male Thoughts On Life."
If you plan to follow in Longo's footsteps and demand an inclusive curriculum, she says to prepare for pushback.
"Understand you will get nothing but resistance," she says. "From nearly everyone. They want you to go away, and to stop talking about this. Get ready for the excuses, and for the goal posts to move when you solve the ‘problems.'" Longo was told there wasn't enough money to change the curriculum, teachers didn't have time to make new lesson plans, books needed to be pre-vetted... but even when she presented solutions to those problems, nothing happened. That said, "I found that reminding the district that they were in violation of state standards got some attention," Longo shares. "It is a place to start."
Parrott recommends contacting the superintendent of your district or city/town, in addition to the school principal, and asking for more representative materials. Better yet: Talk to the parents from your child’s class or school and see if you can get them to sign a petition, because, truly, there is power in numbers. “Nothing moves a principal or a superintendent like a letter or phone call from a parent," Parrott says. "Parents have a lot of power here. And the more, the better. Reach out to other parents in your network; see if you can work together as a group. Ten or 20 letters to a principal is more impactful and harder to ignore than a single voice speaking out."
And don’t stop there. As a parent, you have every right to find out what policies your child’s school has when it comes to diversity and inclusion. “Ask your child's school what their anti-racist and anti-bias policies are,” Vera Ahiyya, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, NY, tells Romper via email. And if the curriculum doesn’t match the policies being promoted by the school, call them out on it, and make suggestions as to what should be included. You should always review the materials that your child is reading, Dr. Parker points out, "to see if the materials are historically accurate and feature diverse voices, and especially diverse #ownvoices."
In some cases, you might have to take matters into your own hands. And there’s no time like the present to start pushing for more diversity and inclusion in the reading materials assigned to your child. Parents can begin by picking out book titles that they feel might be more suitable for their children. (If you're looking for ideas, sites like We Are Kid Lit Collective, Lee & Low, and We Need Diverse Books Summer Reading Series are a good place to start.)
Another option is to create an inclusive reading co-op. You can begin by organizing a good old-fashioned (and contactless) neighborhood book drive so that you can get diverse titles into the hands of kids quickly and affordably. Says Parker: "Access to actual books is something kids are hungry for, and creating a book drive lifts the literacy lives of all the children and builds community when we need it most." Kids can trade books with other classmates when they're finished reading and even include a note stating why a title is a total page-turner.
Ultimately, if you're looking to invoke real change, vote like a mother — literally.
And if you're ready to roll up your sleeves and pitch in as a room parent, you might be able to advocate directly for more diversity in the classroom. "Particularly ambitious parents/caregivers might even ask their children's teachers if they can help with organizing and reach out to authors to make arrangements," says Parker. "That way, parents can make sure their child, and ones in their child's class/school, have access to diverse materials, too."
Ultimately, if you're looking to invoke real change, vote like a mother — literally. When school elections roll around, make your concerns about diversity and inclusion heard at the polls. “Make sure there are people of color, and more specifically, Black people, on school boards, as council members, as your representatives, as well as Congress people,” says Ahiyya. “Ask what kind of professional development is happening in terms of anti-racist and anti-bias practices.” Then, find out how you and other concerned parents can support the school to ensure an anti-racist and anti-bias institution. You can find this info out by attending a board meeting or talking to administration to see where your school stands on the issues. After all, if there is diversity in leadership, it will also positively impact your child's curriculum.
Even if school hasnt started yet, you can begin creating a more inclusive curriculum. Parker recommends using your child’s summer reading list as an opportunity for children to "introduce and immerse our children in new books, authors, and experiences that can affirm them through 'mirrors' — which is what Black, Latinx, and other children of color need, especially right now," she says.
Adds Parrott: "It is our duty as educators and parents to ensure that our children not only experience fantastic, far-off worlds through books, but that they see themselves."
Dr. Kimberly Parker, Ph.D., a former high school English teacher and award-winning literary and equity expert who advocates for diversifying school curriculums
Kiera Parrott, Reviews and Production Director for School Library Journal
Elizabeth Tyrrell, MS, NYC teacher
Vera Ahiyya, elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, NY