• By Rebekah Skelton • IDRA Newsletter • October 2023 •
At the recent Texas State Board of Education meeting, board members requested that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) compile a list of books required to be taught at each grade level in Texas public schools. This request complies with House Bill 1605 passed earlier this year. It presents the State Board of Education with the opportunity to actively support culturally responsive and sustaining classrooms by making selections that reflect Texas’ large and diverse student population.
Though this specific opportunity is new, the fight over what students read is not. For years, students and advocates across the country have been calling for schools to diversify their reading lists to include books outside of the traditional high school canon (Fink, 2017; IDRA, 2022; Tschida et al., 2014).
Decades of educational research show that when students have access to diverse texts that reflect their social and cultural backgrounds, it increases their reading comprehension skills and they are inspired to read even more (Eisenman, 2021; McRae & Guthrie, 2009).
Now, with diversity in the children’s publishing industry on the rise (Kirch, 2023), there are more opportunities than ever for the state board and TEA to give teachers the tools they need to build inclusive English language arts classrooms.
State-Sponsored Classroom Censorship
Contrary to calls from students and advocates, the Texas Legislature has adopted classroom censorship policies in recent years. Senate Bill 3, passed in 2021, censors classroom instruction and conversations about race, gender, and systemic oppression. More recently, HB 900, passed in 2023, promotes book bans by requiring school librarians, booksellers, and TEA to review and rate all books in a school’s library collection as either “sexually relevant” or “sexually explicit,” based on vague and undefined standards (Duggins-Clay, May 2023).
The goal of these laws is to create broad, ambiguous restrictions that generate fear and uncertainty for classroom teachers and school administrators, which in turn prevents students from accessing diverse and self-affirming texts (Latham Sikes, 2021).
If TEA uses these censorship laws as a means to restrict diverse voices in the classroom, it will profoundly harm student learning. In real terms, it would mean the state is forcing educators to teach only the traditional – Eurocentric – canon, placing a de facto ban on books by or about Black, Latino, LGBTQ+, and other historically marginalized groups (Duggins-Clay, February 2023).
Consequently, students will only learn dominant narratives that reinforce stereotypes and harmful attitudes about themselves and their communities. As scholar Rudine Sims Bishop noted in 1990, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
Required Reading as an Opportunity to Build Culturally Sustaining Schools
Neither SB 3 nor HB 900 ban any specific books outright, so TEA and the state board have the opportunity to actually safeguard affirming and engaging books that inspire students’ literacy and learning. It is vital to include texts that affirm students’ racial, ethnic and gender identities in required reading lists. If given the chance, students who read these kinds of books can experience many lives; make connections across time and space, continents and cultures; cultivate empathy and compassion; nurture imagination and creativity; and radically hope for a better world (Castillo, 2022).
As Bishop explained when she developed the concept of “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors,” assigning these types of texts can highlight a range of different academic and emotional experiences for children. Books can be “mirrors” in which students see themselves in the texts they read; they can be “windows” into an unfamiliar world, helping students learn to value and appreciate others’ experiences; and they can also be “sliding glass doors,” enabling students to step into the world created by an author (Bishop, 1990).
Expanding school reading lists will cultivate these kinds of school environments and generate life-long interest in reading among Texas public school students.
As a former English teacher myself, one of my primary goals was to foster student agency and a love of learning. To help achieve this goal each year, I developed reading lists that directly addressed the issues my students faced in their everyday lives, and I designed culturally relevant lessons around those texts. In doing so, I saw students who were considered “struggling readers” devour entire books, annotating important thoughts and continuing conversations on those texts with their friends outside of the classroom.
These students honed their critical thinking skills, learned to form and defend their own opinions, and developed essential close-reading practices. But more importantly, they took ownership of their education and became classroom leaders, deftly guiding discussions on complex topics and working together to critically examine the themes of various literary works and how they might apply those lessons to their own lives.
Assigning new, more diverse texts does not mean the old canon has to get thrown out. Educators can pair traditional readings with contemporary authors to highlight common themes and literary devices; stories old and new can sit side by side to enable students to gain perspective and historical understanding. If the State Board of Education allows schools and educators the chance to facilitate these reading experiences, students will benefit in meaningful and authentic ways that encourage their growth and development.
Texas students are counting on their leaders to make good on these opportunities. With TEA Commissioner Mike Morath’s expectation to have reading lists drafted by the fall of 2024, the list below has a few suggestions that will give students the reading experiences they deserve.
Sample Multicultural Texts for K-12 Students
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley & Marjory Wentworth, 2017 (Newbery Medal & Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award)
Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, 2002 (Newbery Medal)
Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhhà Lai, 2011 (National Book Award & Newbery Honor Award)
Rad American Women A-Z, by Kate Schatz, 2015
Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga, 2019 (Newbery Honor)
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, 2014 (Newbery Award)
Dreams From Many Rivers: A Hispanic History of the United States Told in Poems, by Margarita Engle, 2019
Lalani of the Distant Sea, by Erin Entrada Kelly, 2019 (Newbery Medal)
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, 2014 (Newbery Honor)
The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo, 2018 (National Book Award)
Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson, 2019
Home is Not a Country, by Safia Elhillo, 2021
Huda F are You?, by Huda Fahmy, 2021
Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds, 2017 (Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Honor, Printz Honor, Parents’ Choice Gold Award)
The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman, 1996
They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, 2020
Get more teaching resources at IDRA’s School Resource Hub
Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).
Castillo, M. (March 17, 2022). Remarks at the March for Education on the Texas Capitol, Austin, March 12, 2022. IDRA Knowledge is Power.
Duggins-Clay, P. (February 24, 2023). Bans on Black Literature and Learning are Nothing New – State Lawmakers Must Reject Calls to Reinstate Antebellum-era Policies. IDRA Knowledge is Power.
>Duggins-Clay, P. (May 10, 2023). HB 900 Promotes Book Bans and Undermines Students’ Constitutional Right to Access Ideas– IDRA Testimony Against House Bill 900 Submitted to the Senate Education Committee.
Eisenman, J. (June 8, 2021). Why Diversity and Equity in Content Matters for Reading Growth. National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Fink, L. (September 27, 2017). Students Have a Right and a Need to Read Diverse Books. National Council of Teachers of English.
Kirch, C. (June 13, 2023). Diversity Is on the Rise in Children’s Literature. Publishers Weekly.
Latham Sikes, C. (November-December 2021). Strategies for School Leaders to Melt the Chilling Effects of Bad Education Policy. IDRA Newsletter.
McRae, A., & Guthrie, J.T. (2009). Promoting Reasons for Reading: Teacher Practices that Impact Motivation. In E.H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading More, Reading Better.
Tschida, C.M., Ryan, C.L., & Ticknor, A.S. (2014). Building on Windows and Mirrors: Encouraging the Disruption of “Single Stories” Through Children’s Literature. Journal of Children’s Literature, 40(1), 28-39.
Rebekah Skelton is an IDRA intern. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2023, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2023 edition of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]