Authentic Voices Matter


My students had the great fortune of having Gita Varadarajan come visit our school again last week. Her book, Save Me a Seat, was a large part of what pushed me to see the immense need for diversity in children’s literature. Her visit to my school last year was the turning point for me; my experience with diverse books went from awareness to advocacy. Seeing the connection she made to the students was life-changing for me and I knew I’d make it my professional mission to give kids and teachers tools to provide all children with windows and mirrors to their identity.

This time when she came to my school she spoke to my 5th graders about authenticity- the need to tell authentic stories, based on your identity, and the impact that has on the stories you create. The statistics on diversity in children’s literature are pretty dismal. While 31% of children’s literature published in 2017 features people of color, only 7% of those books are written by people of color. So who is writing these stories? And how can they authentically tell the story of a person of color? Why is there such a gap? And what does this say about the publishing industry?

Last year when Gita was at my school she ran a writing workshop with students in 4th and 5th grade. She told me to take note of the names my students chose to include in their writing. While most of my students are Indian, Asian, or African American, they often choose very “typical” American names and not names that reflect their own identity. What kids are telling us with this simple choice is that they do not feel people of their culture are characters in stories. This simple action of selecting to name a character “Bob” or “Mary” when their family is full of “Arnav” or “Sanjana” or “Tyree” means they don’t believe their story, their identity, is what stories are about.

So how do we fix this? How can we, as educators, help this? How can we help kids to tell their authentic story? Over the past year I’ve found a few strategies that have really helped.

1- Have diverse books, written by diverse authors, on display. While I have a large collection of books in my library I make sure to prominently display books that reflect my students on the end caps, at the front of baskets, etc. I don’t want these books buried in the library and missed!

2- Feature read-alouds about diverse children, in diverse countries, written by diverse authors! It’s not enough to just have them housed in the classroom- share them!

3- Use diverse names in your own writing! Anchor charts, math story problems, scenarios you write out in science labs… anywhere you are writing a name is an opportunity to “normalize” your students’ diversity. If all of our math word problems show names like “Mike” or “Kelly” why would kids feel comfortable writing one about “Palak” or “Tyshaun”? How are we, as teachers, providing kids with mirrors to their own identity?

4- Support diverse authors! Buy their books! Share THEIR stories! Follow blogs that support diversity. I cannot speak highly enough about Lee & Low Books. They are my go-to resource for diversity in children’s literature.

5- Use your authentic voice and encourage kids to do the same. I am a white woman, so I cannot write from the perspective of any other racial group. I can share authentic stories of my culture, my religious upbringing, my family dynamics, and my life experiences. Similarly, my students can share stories of their own backgrounds! Embrace and encourage them to use their strengths of their own identity to find their voice.

6- Don’t be scared. I spoke to my superintendent today about how sometimes I fear having a voice on this topic because I feel I don’t “deserve” to have a say on a topic that isn’t something I’ve personally experienced. Feeling this way is normal- but we all need to stand up for diversity and helping children to be proud of who they are. Remember, kids spend 6+ hours a day, for 13+ years of their life, in a classroom. That comes out to about 14,040 hours. That’s a LOT of time! We as educators have power to help shape lives with all of that time, but we can’t be scared. Be brave- no change will come from stagnation!



Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani


As I’ve spread my passion for diverse children’s literature I’ve had many joys and unexpected victories- watching children connect, hearing other educators join in on the mission… but few compare to this. The power of diversity in literature is it can bring us together and allow us to connect to students as they share their stories with us. I had this such pleasure when my student, Ashlyn, discovered the book Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani.

I am fortunate to work in a school with a librarian who is tirelessly working to increase the diversity on the shelves. She goes above and beyond the call of duty to get new, high-interest, and diverse books on the shelves. This past week one of my students, Ashlyn, saw this graphic novel, Pashmina, and picked it up. As she was checking out I asked to see her book and did a quick flip-through. I mentioned to her that it looked interesting and to report back.

The next day she came to me to tell me she had finished and asked me if I wanted to read it too. Let me tell you, my teacher-heart was so excited. First of all, this child read the whole book in one night! Second, she wanted to allow me to share in the experience with her. I took the book and read through it quickly myself, captivated by the illustrations and the story.

Pashmina is one of a kind! It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of a young Indian-American child who has been raised by her mother in California. She has never been to India and doesn’t know much about her culture. One day she discovers a pashmina that has magical powers. When she wears it she is able to “transport” to India and learn about her culture. The graphic novel is in black and white, except for when the magical scarf transports the wearer, which then transforms the book into beautifully colored illustrations.

When I spoke to Ashlyn about the book she told me she really related to main character because like Priyanka, our main character, she too is Indian, lives in America, and has never been to India. She told me that this story helped her to discover more about Indian culture and increased her desire to go there and see the family she hasn’t met. As a teacher, I loved that in the story Priyanka struggles with her cultural identity, but in the end reclaims her identity when she reclaims her name and asks her peers to call her Priyanka instead of Pri.

This novel is a fast read but a powerful read. There were sub-plots that are above the heads of my fifth graders, but are intriguing to an older audience. The fact that this is a graphic novel makes it a show stopper. We need more diverse books, written by diverse authors, in diverse formats. Kids LOVE graphic novels so this is perfect fit for so many readers. A must have for all middle-grade classrooms!

I’m Not “Just” A Teacher


(Pictured: Monica Goncalves- Union County TOTY 2017, Maire Cervenak- NJ DOE, Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year, and Me!)

Today I had the immense pleasure of spending time with incredible educators at the NJCTY Fall Leadership Conference. As the 2015 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year I have increased my Professional Learning Network to include so many amazing educators from across the state and beyond. This network has afforded me the opportunity to view myself as a leader in education and to imagine having a reach that goes beyond the four walls of my classroom. A few times a year I get to spend time with these incredible people and each time I leave an event I am reinvigorated.

Since my year serving as the County Teacher I’ve watched many of my peers leave the classroom. I’ve watched them enter administration, jobs at the DOE, working for companies as presenters, etc. Each time someone else left the classroom I felt a slight panic. I felt like I was being “left behind.” I felt like if I didn’t push myself to find what was “next” for me I’d be wasting this experience. I felt like I needed to do more because people expected me to do more. I felt like being “just” a teacher was not enough.

You see, in all other careers when you are high-achieving you get a promotion. In education all moves are lateral moves unless you leave the classroom to go into a different role. I quietly watched as each person left their room and I wondered, “What about me? What should I do next?” It was a quiet panic because I didn’t have something I wanted to do next…. I wanted to teach. But was that enough?

I applied for a job I thought I really wanted. When I didn’t get it I began to doubt if I was good enough. I began to wonder if there was a “next” for me. At the urging of many well-meaning educators I applied to graduate school to get my administration degree. I got in, I paid my deposit, I enrolled… and then, a few weeks before classes were to begin,  I deferred my enrollment. You see, at this point in my career, I don’t want to leave the classroom. I don’t want to do anything other than what I’m currently doing. I’m young and my career ahead of me is long, so I reserve the right to change my mind at some time, but for now I am CHOOSING to be “just” a teacher.

There is a push for teacher leadership. To allow educators to stay in the classroom but have a bigger voice. This is what speaks to my soul. I look at Pernille Ripp, who has a hugely transformative role in education and is arguably a “household name” in the world of reading instruction, but she’s still in her classroom. I look at Colby Sharp, who is pushing us to think about reading and book access for kids, and he is still in his classroom. And I think… maybe I can find a way to lead… but not leave.

You see, as a parent, when I think of my child’s teachers, they are not “just” a teacher. They are the person I am trusting to form my child’s educational journey. They are a name we say daily in our homes, a person we discuss at dinner. They are the person he respects more than me most of the time. They are rock stars… they are not “just” a teacher.

The need for leadership, to have a voice, to be heard, has been sparked and cannot be dimmed. My experiences as a County Teacher of the Year and the ongoing role that it plays in my life has lit a fire that cannot go out. I will never look at education as just what happens in my classroom, but always as a part of a larger picture. I will continue to push myself to achieve more, to increase my voice and my reach, but I will never be “just” a teacher. I am a teacher. I am a teacher leader. I am someone who believes that people who choose to stay in the classroom have something to bring to the table. I do not believe that the only way to be heard is to leave. I refuse to believe that I am “less than” because I do not have ambitions beyond a classroom. I believe that strong passionate teachers are the backbone of this society, and because of that, I am NOT “just” a teacher.

The Invisible Boy

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When you begin looking into the world of diverse children’s literature and the research surrounding it you will quickly stumble upon the concept of “windows and mirrors.” Windows are books that open your eyes to the experience of others, letting you see in to a world unfamiliar to yours. Mirrors are books that reflect your personal experience, validating your experiences, and deepening your understanding of who you are. Kids need both types of books in order to grow as people. As I read this story, The Invisible Boy by Patrice Barton, I felt I had the opportunity to view this through both a window and a mirror. That is such a powerful experience!

In this story we meet Brian. Brian reminds me a lot of my son in some ways. He’s sweet and kind, but he can easily blend in to the background because he does as he’s told but doesn’t “stand out”. In preschool a teacher once said she almost “forgets he’s there” referring to my son because he’s so good and quiet. While she meant it as a compliment, I was sad… knowing that to her, my son was invisible. When I first read this book I was taken back to that moment. Fortunately for my son he doesn’t struggle socially the way Brian does, but for many kids, that struggle is so real. When Brian couldn’t find a partner I could remember all the times I told kids to “pick a partner” and you see the frantic eyes as they search for someone to partner up with. When the kids were picking teams at recess and Brian wasn’t chosen, I thought of my own experiences in gym class. I was always chosen last because athletic abilities are pretty low down on my list of strengths. Brian provided so many mirrors for me to my own life that I instantly loved him.

Yet, this book also gave me the brilliant exposure to a mirror through Justin. Justin comes to school and is new to class. He is Korean and has bulgogi for lunch. He faces the experience of being an outsider culturally and the implications it has on his first day. Yet, we also have Brian… sweet, sweet, Brian, who extends himself to include Justin, literally breathing light and color into Brian’s life. The illustrations and the use of color/black and white added such a deep element of conversation for my students.

The Invisible Boy was a valuable book that showcases a child from a diverse background without the whole focus of the book being on his “differences.” It showed the importance of reaching out to others and being inclusive. It taught kindness and compassion. It touched me and I think it’s a book we all need in our classrooms.

Alma and How She Got Her Name

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Today was day #8 of school and this wonderful story, Alma and How She Got Her Name is the fourth book I’ve read that focuses on a child and their name. To some that may seem like overkill, but I’m doing it with a purpose. The purpose is to make it clear to my kids that their name has value. That their identity has power. That who they are is enough, is worthy, and should be respected. I’m driving the point home by repeatedly reinforcing through the use of diverse children’s literature that our cultural identities are who we are and that should not be hidden or something to be embarrassed by.

In this story we meet Alma, who doesn’t like her name because it is so long. As her father explains to her what each of her names means and why they were chosen she comes to see that each of these names truly represents her, making it the perfect name for her. It’s an adorable story, perfect for young elementary kids (although my 5th graders enjoyed it). My personal favorite part was the last page where the author explains why she wrote this book and explains how as a child in Peru she didn’t appreciate her name until she came to America. The questions posed open up conversation and allow kids to share their own identities.

All of these books focusing on the power of our names have had a huge impact. For years I’ve been teaching in a school where the vast majority of my students have names that are traditional to their various cultures. For years and years I’ve said their names wrong and the kids never corrected me, even when I asked them to. But this year? This year is so different. My kids are really working with me to help me learn their names and pronounce them correctly. They aren’t scared to correct me because we are building a community of respect. They believe me when I say I want to say their names correctly because I’m devoting so much time to sharing with them the value in a name. I now see that while I told them to correct me if I was wrong in the past I didn’t reinforce the value of their identity, and these books have made all the difference.

Always Anjali

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Today I read Always Anjali to my class and I can say, with complete confidence, that this book embodies why I have made my mission as an educator to spread the value, necessity, and importance of reading diverse books. I held this beautifully illustrated book in my hands, and before I even read a word, a little girl in my class raised her hand  and said, “Anjali is my grandmother’s name.” A little boy from the back chimed in, “Yeah! That’s my sister’s name!” Prior to me even reading the book my kids knew this was a book that would represent their culture. One little girl raised her hand and asked, “Is this an Indian book?” I told the class it was and she said, “Oh, cool!”

This opened up the conversation I’ve been dying to have. My kids don’t know me yet, we’ve only been together 7 days, so they’re not ready to open up their hearts and souls. And that’s ok- that’ll come. But I’ve been dying to ask them if they feel represented in traditional literature. So I asked, knowing the conversation would likely be very surface level. One boy, oh so eloquently and well beyond his 10 years, said, “Even if Indian students are the majority in our town, we make up only 2% of the population in America. We are not represented in books.” We went on to discuss how sometimes we see traits of ourselves in books and characters, but many of us don’t see our cultures, religions, family dynamics, and countries of origin. (Well, except for in book 4 of Harry Potter as both classes quickly pointed out!)

I loved the conversations that Always Anjali opened up with my class, even with us still not knowing each other the way we will a few months from now. We discussed what it’s like to find our names on fun souvenirs at amusement parks, and why many of us don’t. We discussed outright racism and how using something that is valuable to one’s culture (specifically a bindi) and using it as an insult is demeaning. We marveled at the incredible illustrations that truly set this book apart from many others. We cheered for Anjali as she found her confidence in herself to be proud of who she was. Whether your name is Mary, Courtney, or Anjali, this book showed us the value of embracing who we are, and with my students approaching that tender age of pre-teen life, I can’t think of a more important lesson.



Fostering Lasting Relationships

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I consider myself to be one very lucky teacher. Every year I get a new crew of kids and I think I’ll never love them the way I loved my previous class, and every year I learn that (much like being a mother) your heart can expand to fit more and more kids within it.  I love my students, I call them my kids, and my kids they will always be.

Those two girls were both former first graders of mine and both have kept in contact with me since they were in my class. These pictures represent times that these girls wanted to include me in their lives outside the classroom long after they were in my class; as a speaker at her Bharatanatyam Arangetram, and visiting another while she worked. Both events made me so proud of how these two have grown, evolved, and changed since they were in my class.

Over the years I’ve been lucky to have many relationships last long beyond their tenure in my classroom. On the first day of school this year I had emails from 12 former students, ranging from high school seniors to sixth graders I had last year. When I think about what makes these relationships last, what makes these kids still see our classroom as a place they can call home, I think it’s a combination of a few things… all of which are so small, but add up to a lasting impact.

1- “Relationships First” is not just a cute phrase or hashtag on Twitter. It’s the driving force behind my teaching. There are definitely teachers out there who are more talented than I in the craft of teaching, who have better anchor charts and flipcharts, better lessons and assignments, but I know my kids always know that to me they are #1.

2- I show that I’m human. I admit my faults and my wrongs, I apologize if I overreact, I check back in if I think I hurt a kid’s feelings, and I write private notes to kids who maybe need to know that I’m here. I share stories about my kids and my husband, I show videos of my kids and their silly antics, I read books that were my actual physical books when I was a child and share the pages that made me swoon. I tell them about my dreams and fears and I model my beliefs every day.

3- I respond. If a child reaches out to me in email, I respond immediately. If they write me a note, I write back. If they draw me a picture, I hang it up. I’m also human and sometimes I forget. Then see #2- I say I’m sorry and fix my errors.

4- I use humor. Everyone is different, but my kids get to know me and my humor. I can be silly and dramatic, I overemphasize and act out my feelings, and we all laugh… every day. Kids like to laugh. I like to laugh. It works!

5- I like them. I have never met a kid I don’t like. The most challenging kids I’ve ever had are the kids who carve their way into my soul. They keep me up at night years later wondering where they are and how they’re doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle, that there aren’t kids who bring me to my personal brink, but when that happens I step back, often turn to humor, and also give space. A whisper of “I care about you and know you are better than this behavior. Let’s take a breather and come back when you’re ready” can solve more problems than I can count. Even with the toughest kids.

There is no magic formula that leads to lasting relationships, but if at the base of all of your interactions is a belief in mutual respect you will be golden. Respect kids time, respect kids space, respect kids lives. They don’t all come to us with Brady Bunch parents, three well-balanced meals, and a fully stocked library in their homes. Some of them come to us from chaos and school is their safety. Some of them come to us having it all but still need just a little bit more. You don’t have to be a superhero to create lasting bonds- you just have to care. Every day. No matter what. Kids can tell, and kids deserve it.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

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One of the greatest truths in life is that we all, regardless of age, want to feel accepted. Accepted by peers, accepted by those in authority, accepted by our communities. The need for acceptance can often make us give up on parts of who we are that we feel are “less than” or “not as good” as those around us. As a child myself I never felt as good as my peers. I often made up stories to try to fit in, knowing that what I was saying was untrue, but desperately wanting the acceptance of others.

In The Name Jar we meet Unhei, a lovable little girl who has just immigrated to America from Korea. As she enters her American classroom she realizes that her peers cannot say her name, so she chooses to pretend she doesn’t have a name yet. Her classmates begin a voyage to choose a name for her, while she internally struggles with wanting to fit in and wanting to stay true to herself.

As I read this book to my class my heart tugged in a few directions. I loved that this story showed the struggle that children face when they are in a new land, with new people, and want to fit in, while also not wanting to give up on who they are. I also loved that ultimately the act of kindness that helped Unhei to be true to herself and her name was a friend taking the time to extend a gesture of acceptance. Her friend took the time to learn a little bit about her culture and show his appreciation for her differences, and this made all the difference.

This book also opened the floor to a discussion about the meaning behind our names. The kids were all eager to share what their names mean and why their families chose them. We discussed how when we say our names wrong, not only is it not our name, but it’s also no longer a word with meaning. So, on day 3 of the school year, while I still struggle to learn names and say them correctly, I continue to try because I do not want to rob kids of their meaning, their identity, and who they are. The Name Jar allowed us to have such rich conversations about our identity, the feelings of acceptance, and the struggle of wanting to be true to yourself as well as fit in with peers.

My Name is Sangoel by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed

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Before I even begin, I must tell you that when I read this book today TWO classes of 5th graders clapped at the end. I’ve been teaching 5th grade for a long time and I can’t recall many times kids clapped at the end of a book, but this book literally brought the house down- TWICE IN ONE DAY!

When I think about why… why was this the book that made them clap, the book that so deeply resonated with two separate classes- I think the answer is two-folds. On one hand my kids can so relate to Sangoel, but also Sangoel is just such a lovely character. He is composed and calm at times when he is frustrated, he doesn’t give up on who he is, and in the end he gets his whole class to say his name properly- he’s winning!

Most of my students are from India and have traditional Indian names. When I asked them today to raise their hand if someone has ever said their name wrong most hands went up. I then asked them to keep their hand up if they have ever gone a whole year in school with their name being said wrong every single day. Most of the hands stayed up. When I asked why the answers were as I expected- they felt too shy to tell the teacher, they didn’t want to be disrespectful, they tried to tell them but the teacher still didn’t say it right, and more.

What I find with my students is that most say, “It’s ok, say it the way you said it, that’s the American way.” But when we do that, when we accept the American way as “good enough” because the kids told you to, you are robbing them of their identity. I’m not going to pretend I can say all their names right- I have a few I’m totally butchering, but I told them that their job is to help me, daily, until I get it right. I go over to them quietly and have them help me. I practice and practice, at home looking at my roster, and in the classroom next to them. I am not going to rob them of their identity by accepting their permission to call them their “American name” when I know it’s not their real name.

What made Sangoel so incredible was that he held strong. He thought outside the box and found a way to show his classmates and teacher how to say his name. He also opened a door for deep, rich conversation with my students as we discussed the importance of our names. Sangoel provided my students with a safe place to discuss a topic that they often are too shy or embarrassed to discuss because they don’t want to correct their teacher, but when we discussed this concept through Sangoel, they were so incredibly comfortable sharing their stories.

And that, my friends, is the power of diverse children’s literature and why it matters. Not only does it show representation, but it allows conversations to naturally occur in a safe space. Kids deserve it.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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This summer I created a Donors Choose project to try to get more diverse picture books into my classroom. As the supplies came in last week I sat there, surrounded by all of these beautifully illustrated masterpieces, and thumbed through the pages. The first one I decided to read was The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson. Something about the cover called to me.

As I read the story I immediately knew this would be my first day of school read aloud. The story shares the tale of a first day of school for kids who are perhaps not just like everyone else in their class. We meet characters who face kids that laugh at their name, their lunches, or something else about their identity. As I read this I saw my students. Most of my kids aren’t named Nancy or Tom, with peanut butter and jelly in their lunch box. My kids come from all over the world, their names and lunches reflecting them. I just knew this story had to greet them on their very first day.

However, the part that pulled on my heartstrings the most was when the one character feels “less than” her classmates because she doesn’t have exciting stories to share about her summer, stories filled with travel and far away places. When I read this I felt like the author was reaching into my classroom, touching my students who are just like this character, and reminding them that does not make their story any “less than” their peers. While many of my students spend their summer in far away lands, many also spend it at home. With family. Reading books, playing outside, and living their life much the same as they do during the school year. Seeing a character embrace this and learn to be proud of her story was so inspirational that I knew it had to be shared immediately.

Both of my classes loved this story. They saw the beauty in diversity but also saw the underlying sameness, that we all just want to feel included and part of the whole.