Representation matters. It’s a lesson I’ve learned many times, and one that always bears repeating.
This week, I had an outreach visit scheduled with a group that has been difficult for me. There are many issues at play, but suffice it to say that I’ve had a hard time finding the magic formula that helps these children connect with books. I’d even begun to wonder if my visits were doing anything for them at all.
Encouraged by a colleague, I decided to read The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca for my February visits to celebrate Black History Month. After each reading, the children drew up a “blueprint” and used it to build a boat out of found and upcycled materials. Then, we tested them to see if they would float. It was a messy project, but lots of fun. It really got them into that engineering mindset because they had a limited number of materials to work with. Inevitably, every group asked me where the glue was; I kept telling them, “That’s part of the challenge! You have to figure out another way to stick things together!” For a full list of the supplies we used, click here.
One of my biggest fears going into this visit was that since this was a rhyming story, these second and third graders would find it baby-ish. As I said before, these kids have been hard to reach anyway, and in a predominantly white community, this book hadn’t been met with as much love at my other centers as some of the more fluff books I’d picked in the past. But as I began to read, I noticed that the children were listening intently. When I got to the part about Raye’s first ship unveiling and how she wasn’t invited, one little boy even interrupted to exclaim in righteous indignation, “What?! That’s so racist! That was her own creation, and she couldn’t even go see it?!” At the end of the story, we passed around the book so they could all see what she looks like now and read her inspiring message to readers.
I’ll admit that I am guilty of forgetting how important representation is because I’ve never had an issue with seeing myself in literature. But when I forget, the kids have ways of reminding me why it is essential to be mindful of the books I’m choosing.
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” -Rudine Sims Bishop