Windows and Mirrors:  Why Representation Matters

Last month, Stacey Abrams made history.  Not just local GA history, but national history.  The whole country was talking about the first black woman to become a major party candidate for governor (…in the year 2018…in the entire United States.  While that is indeed progress and a milestone, it is still rather shocking that it hasn’t happened before now).

Guys, this matters on so many levels.  I immediately think about our young female students of color all over the country.  As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Now they see they can run a whole state one day.  It’s about damn time!

College junior and co-president of the Young Democrats of America (YDA) at Spelman College,  Makailah Pempleston said to Teen Vogue: “Her primary win gave hope and broke the glass ceiling for more possibilities, and that’s what it meant to me. To Atlanta, this means liberation. Keisha Lance Bottoms as [second ever black female] mayor of the city and Stacey Abrams as governor of Georgia will change the whole political atmosphere for the better.”  Representation matters.

At a recent event I attended, I learned about the term “windows and mirrors.”   We were discussing the show Sesame Street and the role it played in shaping parts of our racial identities.  We learned that for many suburban white viewers, the show served as a “window” to see perhaps for the first time, an urban setting and a racially diverse array of actors.  On the other hand, for viewers of color, the show served as a “mirror;” an opportunity to see themselves reflected on the tv. As shamefully underrepresented as minorities are in the media today, the problem was even worse back when Sesame Street launched in the 1960s.  As Newsweek put it:

Perhaps the most radical part of the Sesame DNA has always been its social activism. From the start, Sesame targeted lower-income, urban kids—the ones who lived on streets with garbage cans sitting in front of their rowhouse apartments. The show arrived on the heels of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Chester Pierce, a Harvard professor who founded the Black Psychiatrists of America, was one of the show’s original advisers, and he was acutely aware of the racism his 3-year-old daughter would face in that hostile time. ‘It was intentional from the beginning to show different races living together,’ says David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media. ‘They were very conscious of the modeling that kids and parents would take away from that.'”

Windows and mirrors are the key to building understanding across the lines of identity divisions.  What do the Stacey Abrams election and Sesame Street have in common? Making history, pushing society forward, and giving us the gift of windows and mirrors.  How can we bring more windows and mirrors into the classroom for our students?

In the traditional education system, the teacher is seen as the giver of all knowledge and the student is then the receiver of that knowledge. We know that this process of giving and receiving has worked when students can correctly regurgitate the facts they have been given on a multiple-choice test – a test in which only one option is right and the others are wrong.

With this as the measure of success, it is no wonder that students understand their world to be right/wrong or always/never. And it is no wonder that the process of learning then is rote memorization, often with the assistance of meaningless mnemonic devices. It is no wonder that education is based in simplicity over multiplicity.

A true understanding of our world (and the complexities that exist within human and natural systems) necessitates a release of the tradition of rigidity and an embrace of multiple perspectives. It demands an acceptance of evolving definitions and often an acknowledgement of the unclear or unknown. It demands that we value asking meaningful questions and seeking varied perspectives and solutions more than we value memorizing the one right answer. It demands that we create space for multiple truths to exist simultaneously – a space with the flexibility to think in “both/and”s rather than “either/or”s.

Once we create a space for critical engagement in the classroom, we are ready to critically engage with texts.  In this way, individual texts are not simply accepted as “truth.” Rather, texts are read critically in a practice of exploring the author’s perspective, seeking diverse perspectives, and reflecting on how it resonates with the student’s own way of seeing the world.

There are a few key questions to ask when developing critical literacy:

1.  Who is the author and what is their perspective?  (Understanding the Text)

In traditional literacy, the focus is on the text itself and developing the pure skill of reading in a vacuum devoid of context.  We dehumanize books– we pay little mind to the author aside from some cutesy “P.I.E.” charts and perhaps a brief look at that author’s other literary works.

In critical literacy, on the other hand, the author of the text is not overlooked; rather, we seek to understand the author as we view reality through their point of view. We analyze the work to see how the author’s identity and experience influences the content they create.  Writing is a human act; considering the humanity of the author re-humanizes the reading experience.

2.  How does my perspective affect my interpretation?  (Relating Text-to-Self) 

Making connections” is a common reading comprehension strategy taught in a traditional literacy classroom– connecting text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text/other media.  Critical literacy builds upon this practice and takes it a step further by calling us to examine where our interpretation of a book is coming from.

We weigh the author’s perspective against our own experience and create our own meaning from it.  In the process, we develop an understanding that a text can have many interpretations– students may discuss with one another the different meanings they made from the same text.  The meaning depends on the lens through which the text is read and on the context in which it is read. We value all understandings of a text as true to the individual.

A few helpful prompts at this stage could be:

  • What I just read reminds me of the time when I…
  • I agree with/understand what I just read because in my own life…
  • I don’t agree with what I just read because in my own life…
  • For me, this text is a [mirror/window] because…

In sharing different perspectives and understandings, the student-teacher partnership is strengthened.  Students become teachers, and teachers become students.

3.  Whose perspective hasn’t been heard?  (Relating Text-to-World and Text-to-Text) 

Once we have examined the author’s perspective and our own, we are ready to venture beyond those immediate perspectives into imagining or discovering the lived experiences of others.  We challenge the commonly held assumptions, and we seek out the perspectives that are not represented in the text.

There is usually a “default” or commonly adopted interpretation of a text. In critical literacy, we engage in the practice of not only analyzing the default interpretation, but also examining gaps and contradictions that typically go unexamined.  Where did this default view originate? Why? Whose perspective does it reflect? How does that differ from my perspective? Whose perspective does it ignore or leave out?

When building text-to-text connections, we consider how the ideas are similar and different from texts we previously explored, and how that understanding shapes the evolving meaning we are creating together.  We compare and contrast the perspectives of two or more authors and how their content varies accordingly.

Next, we connect the text or texts to the broader world context.  What was going in in the world at the time the book was written that might have shaped the content and influenced the author’s perspective?  Why does this matter?

Prompts for this stage might be:

  • What I just read makes me think about (event from the past) because…
  • What I just read makes me think about (event from today related to my own community, nation or world) because…
  • What I just read makes me wonder about the future because…

In the Western world, the perspective of the white male has manifested as “universal” for so long that it seems invisible — in all modes of media and culture, the white male reality permeates.  This creates a problematic mirrors/windows scenario that shortchanges everyone. White males are surrounded by mirrors that reflect back their lived experience, but encounter too few windows to develop understanding on the experiences of others.  Conversely, women and people of color are hungry for the opportunity to see themselves mirrored in media, but find only windows to gaze through.

As educators, we have the opportunity to change that.  All students deserve a curriculum that mirrors their own experience back to them and validates their reality.  The fresh air of “windows” breathes life into the curriculum. However, this can be a challenge when we lack representative resources.  Each year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of Wisconsin curate and publish statistics on diversity in children’s literature.  Hannah Hehrlich of Lee & Low multicultural book publishers analyzed the CCBC’s findings to shed light on the diversity gap in children’s book publishing, summarized in an infographic:

The gap is startling and troubling. One glimpse of hope though, as the graphic indicates, is the statistics are finally showing signs of progress, and we are starting to have more options to draw from.

 A few of our favorite sources include:

Lee & Low

  • “The largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. We are your diversity source.”
  • Start here:  A list of their themed book collections, from multicultural holidays to anti-bullying.

A Mighty Girl

  • “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”
  • Start here:  Their blog, full of themed lists of books that feature strong females

Critical Literacy in the 21st Century

  • “Critical literacy is the ability to actively read text in a manner that promotes a deeper understanding of socially constructed concepts; such as power, inequality, and injustice in human relationships.”
  • Start here:  Book list that fosters critical literacy

What We Do All Day

  • “Picture books are an amazing way to inspire your kids to look at the world from new perspectives.”
  • Start here:  Scroll down to the lists of multicultural/diverse books and books on social issues
What are some of the ways you help students hone their critical literacy skills?
What are some of your favorite sources for diverse and/or socially conscious children’s books?
​We’d love to hear from you!

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