Diversity in the Classroom, Part 1


As society moves toward greater understanding and acceptance of diversity, many teachers are faced with a challenge: how can I include more diversity in my classroom? This Diversity in the Classroom blog series examines some historically marginalized groups and provides guidance on telling their stories and histories in the classroom.

Today’s post focuses on including people of color in your curriculum. Our world has hundreds of different cultures, but white or European cultures receive a disproportionate amount of attention. To remedy this, it’s important to include more people of color in the books you assign and the historical figures you highlight.

There are so many non-white cultures. How can I include books from all of them?

You likely can’t in a single school year, but you can ensure that a certain number of books come from non-white cultures. A 50/50 split at minimum is a great place to start. If you have less flexibility in changing the curriculum, find short stories or other supplementary materials that relate to the books you have to teach.

The demographics of your students might help you decide which cultures to focus on. If you know you’ll have Asian students in your class, choose books by authors of different Asian heritages. Before the school year begins, invite all of your students’ families to tell you about their heritages so you have time to find books. Encourage families to name multiple heritages. At the same time, do not expect that the experiences of your students of color will be exactly the same as those of the characters in the books you choose. Create a safe space for your students of color to share their own experiences if they choose, but make sure you don’t position them as “experts” on the text or experiences.

Where can I find books/authors from non-white cultures?

Many resources exist to help you find great books about people of color.

  • Your school or local library can help you find books by and about people of color. If they don’t have a specific book, you can request it so they know there is demand for these books.
  • Goodreads is a social networking site where readers can track the books they read. Many readers create “shelves,” or lists, of books by people of color. They may create separate shelves for different races or countries of origin. Search these shelves for books you may want to teach.
  • Book clubs may focus on books by people of color or books about a particular culture. Check out these book clubs’ blogs or websites to find what they’ve read recently.

How do I know that a book accurately/respectfully portrays the people/culture?

Accurate, respectful representation affirms students while inaccurate or disrespectful representation may send harmful messages. Here are some steps you can take to vet the quality of the representation in a book you want to teach.

  • Find reviews written by the people/culture represented in the book. Do they say it’s accurate? Why or why not?
  • Is the book written by a person from that same culture? If not, can you verify that the author researched or hired sensitivity readers before publishing the book? These are important questions to answer because many authors who have written books outside of their own cultures have unintentionally perpetuated harmful or inaccurate stereotypes about those cultures. For example, a recent novel American Dirt written by a white and Puerto Rican author was widely criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of Mexican immigrant experiences and for using barbed wire as decoration for book launch events

What if a book uses controversial terminology?

Due to racism’s ugly history and presence, many harmful terms exist for communities of color. This means that many books, especially older books, casually use terms that we consider inappropriate today. Some communities may have reclaimed those terms while others are strongly against using them. Here are some options for dealing with books that use these terms.

  • Have a classroom conversation about the language. Explain what it means, where the word came from, and why it’s harmful.
  • Explain how and why the word is used in the book. Is the book old? Do the characters reclaim it to take the harmful power away? Do racist characters in the book use it?
  • Set boundaries or rules about saying the word if reading the book aloud is part of your class time.
  • Establish clear rules when having group discussions about the book. Create space for students to process any trauma the discussion triggers. Allow them to leave the room. Take breathing or stretch breaks. Encourage students to use “I” language to talk about their opinions and reactions to difficult parts of the book.
  • Choose another book that doesn’t use this language. This may be the most appropriate for younger grades. For older children and teenagers, you may consider teaching books with this language to begin nuanced conversations about racism.

How can I teach about more people of color in history?

  • Use heritage celebration months to introduce students to historical figures from those cultures. Black History Month in February may be the most well-known, but other months celebrate other cultures, such as Asian American Pacific Islander Month in May and Hispanic Heritage Month in September. As each month approaches, make a list of historical figures from that culture and tie those people into your existing lessons.
  • Provide multiple perspectives. When teaching about subjects like the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, include multiple perspectives from Native American and African American voices. Discuss the difficult facts, such as most of the Founding Fathers being slave owners and redlining housing policies after World War II. 
  • Showcase contributions people of color have made in art, literature, politics, science, and other areas. Avoid perpetuating stereotypes by teaching about more than one person in these different fields. For example, if you teach about the first African American football player, be sure to also teach about an African American scientist or politician to avoid the stereotype that African Americans are only good at sports. 

Where can I find resources to teach about people of color that my curriculum ignores?

Your school or local library may have dedicated sections for different cultures. If they don’t have a specific book you’re looking for, you can request it.

One great online resource is a blog called US History Minus White Guys. You can scroll through this blog to find historical figures and research them further.

How do students benefit from studying diverse races and cultures?

All students benefit from learning about diverse races and cultures. When students can connect to characters who look different from them on personal levels, such as having the same personality traits or interests, they can feel represented. This also helps students build empathy and learn how to be allies for those who are different from them. Students will come away with a deeper understanding of how wrong racism is and how people of any race can accomplish great things in society. With this understanding, students are more prepared to challenge and dismantle racism in their own lives.

As you take steps to make your curriculum more diverse, remain in conversation with parents, administrators, and other educators. Seek input from many different voices to work toward a common goal of giving students classroom experiences in which they see themselves in the stories they read and the historical figures they learn about.