BY ABBY BIVENS
Over the past year, three Salisbury University students have been working with Associate Professor of Education Dr. Patricia Dean, to study the amount of diversity that is present in children’s literature.
Seniors Allison Stallings and Emily Loux, along with recent SU graduate Amy Pierson, were selected as presenters for the European Early Childhood Education Research Association’s annual conference that took place in Bologna, Italy from Aug. 29-Sept. 1.
At this conference, they opted to do an interactive walk through presentation instead of a formal speech to better display their research. In their presentation, they created posters to describe their findings and suggest solutions to this widespread issue.
“They really ran with the idea when I proposed it to them,” said Dr. Dean.
Dr. Dean pitched the idea based on her interest in children’s literature during her many years as an elementary school teacher. Since becoming a professor at Salisbury in 2002, she was able to learn more about specific topics and begin performing research.
The three students spent many hours in elementary school classrooms and libraries throughout the state in order to evaluate what reading materials were available to young students. They also spent time analyzing different children’s books to understand the representation of diverse characters in literature, noting what “good and bad representations of diversity look like.”
Dr. Dean saw that curiosity truly inspired this research. She also wanted to find out if classroom libraries were being updated to reflect the multitude of diverse families that are present in modern classrooms. The results were somewhat disappointing.
The group found that a vast majority of books available in classrooms center around the typical white household with two parents and two children.
“We studied six individual classrooms, and we found that only about two of them were what we considered to be ‘diverse,’” Stallings said. “Those classrooms were those of teachers that were very culturally aware themselves.”
Dr. Dean explained the importance of exposing children to diverse literature through the ‘windows and mirrors theory.’ This theory states that books serve as windows for kids to look into and learn about other cultures and family styles, but also mirrors where they can see themselves and feel validation.
She also suggested that young students who do not see themselves represented in the literature they read most likely do not consciously recognize this. Instead they begin to see themselves as outsiders subconsciously.
They believe that an initiative to update school libraries to include families with unique structures and heritage is essential to educating young, developing minds about diversity. Through these initiatives, schools will also be encouraging them to be accepting of others.
In response to the discouraging lack of diverse reading materials in elementary schools, the group has developed a possible remedy. They comprised a list of about thirty books that they recommend to expand the diversity of literature available in classrooms.
When creating the list, the group found it important to find texts that were written by authors that came from the cultures themselves as a way to avoid stories with stereotypes of different races.
Once this list is finalized, they hope to distribute it in the educational community through organizations like the State of Maryland International Reading Association.
Some picks that made it onto this list include “In Our Mothers’ House” by Patricia Polacco and “Visiting Day” by Jacqueline Woodson.
Polacco’s book tells a story of an untraditional family—two mothers that adopted three children, each of different ethnicities. The family experiences some dissenting views from the community, but nevertheless grows together.
“Visiting Day” describes a young girl’s special day, her monthly visit to see her father in prison. This book discusses a touchy topic, but describes a harsh reality for one in every 14 children in the United States, who has a parent in prison according to PBS Newshour.
But Dr. Dean says that the list is a project that she sees as ongoing, due to the ever changing diversity in the U.S.
“The list will change as new books are constantly being published,” Dr. Dean said.
Stallings believes that the group’s research is being well received amongst their peers and that the presentation in Italy was just the beginning for the project.
The research and book list will be presented in Austin, Texas this July at the International Literacy Association’s Literacy and Social Responsibility Special Interest Group’s annual meeting.
It is also pending acceptance for the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council’s 46th annual conference in April, which will take place in Baltimore.
Stallings is really looking forward to attending the conference in Austin. She is excited to speak with American teachers after attending the international conference this month, which she describes as a “truly eye-opening experience.”
Dr. Dean is working towards a big step for the project, publication in academic journals. She hopes to focus on this extensive process during the upcoming winter break.
Stallings has learned a great deal from her research and is excited to implement diverse literature into her own classroom in the near future.
“Amy, Emily and I are so grateful to be given this opportunity by Dr. Dean,” Stallings said. “She has instilled a passion for early childhood education, research, children’s literature and travel within all of us.”
Moving forward, Stallings hopes to take what she has learned through this process in order to teach her future students with compassion and mindfulness so that they are better able to appreciate diversity in their own lives.