One of the most beautiful introductions I have witnessed happened on an ordinary fall day. I had word that a new student would be joining one of my schools, and I remember walking into the office that morning and seeing a girl sitting next to her mother. Her name was Mariam* and she had just arrived in Canada. And as I worked with her over the next year, I learned just what this bright and resourceful student was capable of. Despite having had the opportunity to attend only one year of school in her home country, she was literate in Arabic. And despite the fact that she was just learning English for the first time, she was able to quickly grasp curriculum concepts taught visually and with strategic translation, and demonstrate her knowledge in a host of ingenious ways.

But as I say, I was to learn all of this over the coming weeks and months. The first day of school, in a new country, surrounded by strangers and an unfamiliar language, she was understandably uncertain and worried.

With the help of an interpreter, we explained some of the daily routines, and gave her a tour of the school. We showed her where we would take her to be picked up by her mother at the end of the day, the washrooms, the drinking fountain. Several students had already eagerly asked if they could be her friend, and when she walked into her classroom for the first time with us, the entire class smiled and welcomed her.

But I could see that she was overwhelmed. And really, who wouldn’t be? The scary situations some children have navigate each day might make most of us adults freeze up in panic. Yet Mariam carried on. She walked to her desk and sat down, but when the attention of her classmates again focused on the teacher, I could see her quietly brushing away tears. 

The girl sitting across from her noticed as well. Her name was Ellie*, and she said something reassuring in English but realized Mariam could not understand. I saw her pause, then look around until she spotted one of the class iPads on the table next to her. She took it, and began typing. For the next couple of minutes, I saw her hunched over the iPad in unwavering concentration, looking back and forth from the screen to her paper, onto which she was copying something. Finally she straightened up, looked at her paper one final time, and then passed it across the desk to Mariam.

Mariam hesitantly took the paper, and when she saw what was written on it, her entire expression changed in an instant. A smile like sunshine brightened across her face, creating a change in countenance so rapid and complete anyone walking in at that moment would assume she had been having nothing but a blast all morning. 

I looked over at Ellie’s iPad and saw that she had been using Google Translate. She had typed in English “My name is” and then copied the translation of that phrase, the wobbly and earnest Arabic letters proudly centered in the middle of the paper. At the end of her carefully-copied script, she wrote her own name in English. 

اسمي هو Ellie.

My name is Ellie. Said in a different way than usual, but all the more beautiful for it. Since Arabic reads right to left, the name “Ellie” was placed at the wrong end of the sentence. But Mariam knew what she meant. 

Needless to say, a friendship was born. 

And this introduction is just one of seemingly endless examples of the importance of first language in the classroom and the power it has, sometimes, to make all the difference. 

*names have been changed 




I used to listen to a lot of ska (two tone) music during my youth. It was time well spent. Hearing the steady rhythms and upbeat lyrics from the Specials, the Skatelites, and Madness always put me in the right headspace. Now, before you think I have overlooked another key group, look back at the title of this piece, and know that the cornerstone of my record collection was occupied by the English Beat.

Wha’ppen was just one of the many albums to frequently spin on my turntable. While listening, I would read about how this band formed and who played which instruments, arranged the melodies, and crafted the lyrics. I learned that wha’appen was patois for what’s happening? This was my first time hearing a different dialect of English, and it came with a sonic introduction to a whole bunch of new vocabulary too. I also learned that The English Beat formed as a response to a great deal of socio-political and musical upheaval happening in England and around the world at the time.* 

As a teenager, it was really cool to listen to music that wasn’t being played on the radio, and to listen to the collaborations of this group who did not outwardly resemble the lineups of most rock or punk bands that I had known before.

The English Beat looked and sounded differently than others. They incorporated ska, rock steady, roots, along with reggae and infused it all with thought provoking lyrics which were anchored by upbeat tunes and creative instrumentation. This music was unlike anything else I had heard before; with the exception of Peter Tosh or The Wailers.

So what does a memory lane visit about the English Beat have to do with helping teachers at all phases of their careers? Well, it’s about taking time to remember what motivates you. Regardless of who was blasting out of my speakers these artists provided a soundtrack to my life that lifted my thoughts and spirit at a time when I was making decisions that would impact the future.

40+ years later, these songs still bring me joy. It’s not that there haven’t been other musicians and genres to achieve similar revered status because there are dozens that comprise the soundtrack of this teacher’s life. So far. I also love sharing these songs with my students. 

In her P3 Podcast, Noa Daniel asks guests to pick 3 songs (nostalgia, identity, and pick me up) that best represent them. This project was actually inspired by a classroom project Noa shared with her students. Participants picked their songs and then had a chance to discuss them with Noa. I loved sharing my 3 songs with her. 

Music has this way of breaking down barriers and opening up our minds to experience the thoughts and melodies of others. Music is ageless, timeless, and boundless. I can’t think of a better medium or time to remind others that music allows us the chance to listen. And when we listen, we gain understanding, knowledge, and joy. We also gain a chance to process wha’appen each time we put on some tunes. 

Teachers experience a lot of sounds throughout their days in the classroom. Not all of them are soothing. Some sounds are downright dissonant, while still others are reflective of the emotions being felt in our classrooms. After a hectic month of report prep, instruction, and parent conferences, I am thankful to have so many tracks that help to steady my heart and mind from day to day. 

One more thing: I was thinking about walk-up songs. You know the upbeat samples that come on at sporting events when a particular player is introduced. I was wondering what your walk up song would be? What came to mind first might not even be your favourite song, as if anyone could pick just one. Even after much deliberation, I still struggle to decide, but the first song that came to mind was Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. I am sure that a completely different song will pop into my head next time. 

Please share your song in the comments below. Happy listening. 

*Nothing has changed but the day, month, and year on the upheaval front. Sigh.

The Universal Translator

Those of you familiar with Star Trek lore will undoubtedly have heard of one of its most auspicious pieces of technology: the Universal Translator. Whenever Kirk and his crew, or later Picard and his, encountered someone in their interplanetary travels whose language they did not speak, nary a beat was missed. The aptly-named universal translator would kick in, instantly changing the language the other person was speaking into a language understood by the crew. Usually English. As a die-hard trek fan myself, I always wanted to hear a little more Vulcan or Klingon than the show allowed. But the technology did its job, allowing seamless communication and enabling everyone to carry on exactly as they always had, exploring strange new worlds, boldly going to them in the process.

But why am I bringing up a science fiction show of my youth, in an education blog dedicated to pedagogical issues of today?  Because the “universal translator” is becoming more of a reality in our world — and not always in a good way.

Don’t get me wrong. I am the first to marvel at the ways certain translation tools have opened up new possibilities for students and teachers alike. Students can strategically check the definitions of English words they need in learning curriculum and communicating with others. They can also do the same thing in reverse: if they know an English word but are unsure of what it is in their home language they can check that as well, the translation tool helping a bit to maintain and expand first language. Teachers can strategically use apps to translate simple definitions, vocabulary, short class assignments and even parts of worksheets, making content and goals more accessible to students learning English. 

But the key descriptor in all of the above instances is “strategic”. And effective translation is just that: focused, planned, and intentional. I have seen educators deftly use strategic translation to facilitate the learning of curriculum as well as the language students need to negotiate it. Rather than a wholesale conversion of every word uttered or written in the school day (as folks on a certain science fiction show would have it), the key parts are illuminated for students, allowing growth, learning, and inclusion.

So when determining the most effective ways to use the translation tools at our disposal, I always think back to those Star Trek episodes, to the good old Universal Translator that allows things to just ‘carry on as usual’ and ask myself, “Is the way this tool works trying to change the student into someone who understands me, so I can carry on as usual? Or is the tool allowing me to change myself and my instruction, so students can learn language and curriculum?” 

To elaborate on this statement, I offer the wise advice shared with me by ESL educators over the years, as I was learning effective (and not-so-effective) ways to use various tools: to avoid blanket-translation of lessons and interactions (such as running auto-generated first language subtitles under a lesson or conversation in real time with no other adaptations, or simply speaking into a voice-translation app to have a conversation with a student). First, these translation apps are not perfect, and errors abound in the accuracy and intelligibility of translation. Second, it is exhausting to read subtitles for the length of a lesson (or six!). Third, if absolutely everything is translated to first language, how are students learning English? How is the language of instruction being scaffolded for them? And finally, wholesale translation without other forms of scaffolding and language support is isolating. How can a student belong and contribute to class learning when they are desperately trying to read subtitles or are plugged into auto-translate headphones?

For a list of quick and effective strategies that can be used in combination with strategic translation, that scaffold English and enable MLLs to participate in curriculum tasks, I have summarized some of the critical ones in my blog entry Let that be a lesson for everyone. And although these strategies are intended for MLLs, they often enhance and amplify instruction for everyone. 

A noble goal.  And, as ever, I wish you all the best of luck in making it so. 

What’s in a name?

Hello, my name is…
I have never heard that name before
… Can you say that one more time?
Is there a shorter form of your name?
That is a hard name… Can I call you…?

In the classroom, where knowledge blooms,
Names are like stories; never assume.
Each kid’s got a name, unique and cool,
A tale in sounds; don’t treat it like a school rule.

Some kids have names that might sound entirely new,
Hold onto them; it’s what makes them true.
It’s on you to get it right,
Say those names like you’re reading the night.

Generations of kids given names with pride,
A cultural mark; don’t let it slide.
In each twist and turn of every name,
There’s history, stories, a deep-rooted claim.

Step up; it’s part of your task,
To honour each name, even if you must ask.
Mispronunciation, that’s a miss,
Say it right, it’s a big part of this.

Empower students, let their names ring,
In each syllable, let understanding cling.
The classroom is where their stories bloom,
In every name, there’s room for room.

In the everyday chatter, let respect be heard,
For names are more than just a word.
It’s on you, make no mistake,
To say each name and raise the stakes.

In classrooms where futures unfold,
Speak each name with clarity, let the story be told.
For the duty is yours, let it be clear,
To honour, to learn, to be challenged, to care.


Why Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly is So Important

Partners, Cheerleaders, and Self-Talk

About a month ago, my son was struggling hard with fractions. Despite all of his teachers’ and my best efforts, he had missed some mathematical experiences to understand parts of a whole. We worked at our kitchen table together for days to try to build upon and solidify his fragile understanding. After many frustrating hours together, I realized that this time together wasn’t productive for either of us. He was coming away feeling defeated – as though he couldn’t make anything stick in his mind – and I was feeling frustrated that I couldn’t provide him with just the right learning moment in all those trying hours.

I decided that I would change my strategy. Somewhere I heard a reminder that kids already have SOME understanding of what we are trying to teach them. Some experience had taught them part of this ‘new’ learning already and they were not coming to a lesson as a blank slate. The curriculum is designed to build upon and extend prior knowledge, I just needed to find out what his knowledge was. So, I asked him what he knew about fractions as soon as he sat down. Not what he remembered about fractions, but what he knew for sure.

It turns out that he knew some good stuff! He knew that the denominator was all the pieces and they had to be the same size, he knew the algorithm for multiplying and for dividing fractions. Then I asked him what he thought he needed to focus on for the upcoming test. As it happens, he also knew he needed to work on adding and subtracting fractions and he could identify that his biggest hurdle was finding common denominators because he struggled with an efficient way to find common multiples. Listing multiples was his only strategy and that was tedious work for bigger numbers because it was taking too long.

I think about this moment and felt some real mom guilt about all that lost time together. I wish I would have asked him what he understood first and then asked him what he wanted to work on improving. As soon as we could focus on the specifics, he was able to build his understanding in an afternoon. Then we spent some time talking about reasoning strategies for finding common denominators and putting fractions in lowest terms, e.g., what could he identify as a ‘fact’ (even numbers can be divided by two) and what he knew was an efficient strategy (multiples of fives and tens).

Before the test I knew he was so stressed about, I told him to remind himself about all the things he already knew about fractions. We worked on that positive self-talk together to reassure him that he had the knowledge for this assessment and that he would have a starting place for every challenge.

Engaging my son with his own learning made it more meaningful for him. He knew there were some things he was already quite good at and other things that needed some more practice. He walked away feeling like he could be successful and his confidence was built up with that self-talk; knowing what he was capable of helped him to know that he had ability and strength as a mathematician.

I think about what this means for students in school. What do they know about themselves? What would it mean if our observations and conversations with students began with asking them their strengths and asking them what they want to improve upon? As a radical dreamer this year, I’m redefining my role in assessment as a facilitator for students’ understanding; to help them articulate what they know, advocate for what they need, and develop strategies to better understand themselves as learners.

Using some strategies, such as a K-W-L chart (Know, Wonder, Learned) or an opening mind map were some helpful ways I used to assess student knowledge before beginning a unit or new topic. We always did this as a class and we revisited the chart or list at the end to add to our learning. Now, I feel that’s different from building individual students’ understanding of themselves as they are learning. It’s different from empowering each student to know themselves and to letting them know that I believe they are active and capable learners.

What does this look like in my year of radical dreaming? I dream of this opportunity in small groups, in 1:1 conferences, and in the small moments that I know matter to them – like when that really anxious student is stuck just before beginning a task. I want them to know that I am their cheerleader, that they are not passive receivers of knowledge, that we are partners in helping each other become better mathematicians, readers, writers, scientists, and learners.

Thinking about annual learning plans, professional learning, and professional goals, I wonder about the opportunity to reflect on my own growth as an educator. When is the last time I reflected on what I am doing well? When is the last time I voiced what I need to improve upon? Who is my partner, my cheerleader in my journey? I wonder about the impact of a supportive space for educators to know themselves, to understand their strengths, and identify their areas of growth. It may take some time, vulnerability, and courage, but I think it would be worth it.

And just in case you were wondering, my son brought home a solid B on that fractions test.

Prep Teacher Appreciation

My experience as a prep teacher began with my wish to be the teacher-librarian. I was so excited at the prospect of developing the library collection and sharing my love of reading with students that I took the job eagerly. Little did I know what a fantastic learning experience I would have. Like all teaching positions I had days that were incredible and some that were not.  Each prep teacher has a unique schedule and it can feel somewhat isolating to be alone in the role. Today I’m writing to remind prep teachers of their important role in the school community.

One of the most successful strategies I used as a prep teacher was to develop a very positive and collegial relationship with the homeroom teachers and all support staff. I went to my colleagues for details about students, advice on behaviour management strategies and sometimes we approached students and parents as a team to solve problems we were experiencing. Once we had a grade 1 student who was having the most difficult time remembering his classmates’ names even though he had a great memory for facts and information. He also had frequent falls and collisions when I had him in gym class. His classroom teacher and I had a talk and suggested having his eyes tested. He got his first pair of glasses and he became more confident and skilled in physical education plus he could recognize his classmates and began making friends.

The prep teacher position can be extremely rewarding. I loved seeing students over several years and getting to know some of their unique abilities in the subjects I taught.  We developed strong connections even though I was not the homeroom teacher. Getting to know the students over time was also very helpful in making book recommendations during the library period. I knew who wanted the books on soccer, hockey, jokes, pets, art, musicians, etc. 

For some students the subject that the prep teacher covers is the highlight of their day or even their week! It’s a highly meaningful and important role to play in the school. I found I could help coordinate school wide events because I worked with so many staff and students.  In a large school it can be challenging to know everyone but the prep teacher gets that chance. Students appreciate being recognized and noticed when they walk down a busy hallway. It helps a school feel safer and builds a trusting learning environment.

If you’re a prep teacher I hope you know you are not alone and you can reach out through social media to contact other prep teachers for suggestions. And if you’re not a prep teacher I hope you will consider trying the role one day.  It might be just the change you are looking for. Also, let’s tip our collective hats to the prep teachers out there and say thanks for bringing their subjects to life for our students.

Thoughts from a New Occasional Teacher – Part 2: Change in technology

In part one I wrote about the importance of safety as an Occasional Teacher. This month I started my days by discussing safety with students as part of my introduction and reminding them that in order for our brains to be ready to learn we need to feel safe. That includes being safe with our bodies, tone of voice and word choices. Then I worked on learning their names to build a rapport. I’d refer back to being safe throughout the day when issues would arise and it’s been helpful in creating a positive learning environment. Most of my work has been in the primary division so I’m interested to try this strategy with older students to see how it works.

Let’s address a question from one of the Heart and Art readers that is on the minds of Occasional Teachers everywhere, “How does one stay familiar with the changing technology presently being used in the classroom?”

I can relate to this question because I am not someone who adjusts quickly to new technology. I think I had access to Google docs for a decade before I started using it. Nowadays many teachers email me a link to their day plans with links to online resources included. I need to be connected to a projector and/or a Smart board to implement most lessons. In using this equipment I have to troubleshoot issues with sound, connection and even markers. Solving problems while keeping students engaged is very challenging but I know it’s worth it because the technology can engage more learning styles and reduce students being off-task.

Preparation is key. If I have the day plans the day before then I will read them over and be aware of the times that a laptop and/or Smart board are needed. If there is a laptop cart being used by students then I need to ensure there is time in the day to safely transport the equipment. Sometimes I need to try out an app that students are using or at least read or watch a video about it so I can assist them.

So far, I’ve found that students and colleagues are the best resource for addressing questions with technology. They are most familiar with quirky situations that arise in individual schools or classrooms. For example, I was in a room using a white board rather than a smart board and I could not find a dry erase marker but the students came to my rescue. In another room I accidentally plugged in the 3D projector instead of the Smart board projector but a colleague spotted the issue quickly.

If I’m feeling unsure about technology there are a few places I go for help. Sometimes the youthful people in my life can figure out my question immediately. This often happens with my cell phone. I have teacher friends in person and online who are an excellent resource. There are numerous groups in social media and I can pose a question there and usually get help very quickly.

My school board has a team who will answer questions and host professional development sessions on the latest software and hardware being used. ETFO also hosts pd opportunities that focus on technology including the summer academy.

Technology has changed constantly throughout my career. There were times when I had to learn and adapt quickly as new applications and equipment were introduced. Keeping up with the changes has helped my confidence and I’ve learned it is ok to ask for help, even if it turns out to be a very simple problem.

My adventures continue as a new OT and I may find more blog topics to continue this series. In the meantime, happy teaching!

Avoiding Burnout: A Vital Pursuit for Educators

Burnout is a pervasive problem affecting educators worldwide, leading to decreased job satisfaction, compromised well-being, and diminished classroom effectiveness. Addressing this issue is paramount to maintaining a high-quality education system. The demands of teaching can be overwhelming, leading to physical, emotional, and psychological exhaustion. To maintain a high standard of education and foster a healthy learning environment, educators need to prioritize their well-being and avoid burnout.

The first step in avoiding burnout is recognizing its signs and symptoms. Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Educators may feel emotionally drained, detached from their students, and experiencing a diminished sense of personal competence. Identifying these signs early on can help educators take proactive steps to prevent burnout. Understanding the root causes of burnout is essential for developing effective prevention strategies.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich


One of the primary causes of burnout is an imbalance between work and personal life. Educators often dedicate long hours to lesson planning, grading, and extracurricular activities, leaving little time for themselves and their families. Educators must be intentional about self-care and establish clear boundaries between work and personal life to address this issue. Setting aside time for relaxation, hobbies, and spending quality time with loved ones can help alleviate the stress associated with teaching.

Educators should not hesitate to seek professional support when experiencing burnout symptoms. This may involve consulting with a counsellor or therapist specializing in educator well-being, and sharing challenges and concerns with a trusted mentor and/or professional can provide educators with valuable insights, coping strategies, and emotional support to navigate the demands of their profession effectively.

Mindfulness and stress reduction techniques can be valuable tools for preventing burnout. Practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, movement activities, nature explorations or yoga can help educators manage stress and stay grounded in the present moment. Integrating these techniques into daily routines can improve emotional resilience and well-being.

Creating/immersing in a supportive community within the school environment can also contribute to educator well-being. Participating in professional development opportunities, such as workshops, conferences, and ETFO local union events (socials) and peer support groups, can provide a network of like-minded individuals who understand the profession’s challenges.

Burnout is a significant concern in education, as it affects educators’ lives and the quality of education provided to students. Prioritizing your well-being and implementing strategies that enable work-life balance, will ensure that you have a fulfilling and sustainable career as an educator while providing the best possible learning experience for your students. Ultimately, the prevention of burnout is not only essential for us as individual educators but also for the betterment of the entire education system.

ETFO members who feel that they are experiencing mental health challenges should discuss their concerns with their family doctor. Mental health support may be available to ETFO members through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), accessed via their district school board.
Additional support may be found through Starling Minds, which offers a variety of digital programs free of charge for ETFO members. Read this PDF about Starling Minds and learn how to register.

Why Are Initial Assessments for Newcomer Students so Important?

Initial assessment is an area of public education that doesn’t get a lot of attention, and yet it is a critical step in the journey of newcomer students in Ontario. In this post, I hope to help educators become more familiar with his important process.

What is Initial Assessment?

Initial assessment is the intake process that occurs when students enter Ontario schools from outside of the province. The process of initial assessment has been established by the Ministry of Education in several documents, and Ontario educators can find these resources in the EDU resources area of Brightspace.

During the initial assessment process, newcomer families are interviewed by school or board staff to gather information about the child, and any background information relevant to their schooling. For example, if a child has a diagnosis or assessment related to special education, the family could share these documents so the appropriate supports may be put in place.

Educators then work with students to complete an initial oral communication, literacy, and mathematics assessment. The information gathered at this assessment is used to place students on the Initial Assessment STEP Continua, which offers the educator team at the student’s school a snapshot of their English language proficiency. A summary of core numeracy skills are also documented as an assessment for teaching resource.

Why is the Initial Assessment Process so Important?

The initial assessment process is important for a variety of reasons. Let’s take a closer look at these reasons next.

Initial Assessment Supports Student Transitions

Starting a new school in a new country or province can be one of the most life changing experiences for children and their families. The initial assessment process provides schools and boards with an opportunity to welcome families, share valuable information about the Ontario education system, and help them to feel more at ease in a new environment.

Through the initial assessment process, families also have a space to share their child’s interests, strengths, areas of need, and any cultural or background information that can inform placement and programming. We will explore the value of receiving student background information next.

Background Information Helps Educators and Families Plan Programming and Student Pathways

Newcomer students arrive in schools with a variety of background experiences that can have significant impacts on their learning and overall well-being. They may have been through traumatic experiences, family separation, or long periods of interrupted schooling. They may be coming from under resourced schools and regions, private schools, international schools, or home schooling.

Having information about the previous schooling experiences of newcomer students and the journey they have been on prior to arriving in Ontario helps educators and families to collaborate and plan educational pathways for students. For example, the teaching team at the receiving school may offer ELD (English Literacy Development) program adaptations to help build the student’s foundational numeracy and literacy. Referrals to community services may also be made, which helps families to settle into a new environment.

Initial Assessment Helps to Put Appropriate Program Supports in Place

A fulsome initial assessment process helps to ensure that students receive the right program accommodations or modifications. You might think of initial assessment as a quick snapshot of a new student, which gives you a sense of what to expect when they enter the classroom. Beyond placing students on the Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) continua, the assessment can help educators to broadly understand where they might need more support or additional scaffolding.

For example, many multilingual students arrive in Ontario schools with different levels of literacy in their home languages. Having an understanding of what they can do in terms of written or spoken output indicate which skills the student will transfer into English over time. If the  assessment shows the student is an emergent speaker of English, then the educator can modify learning expectations accordingly.

Who Administers the Initial Assessment in Elementary Schools?

In Ontario, the initial assessment process can be administered by any teacher. Some boards have educators in an assessor role, others have an itinerant that visit schools, and in other boards a school support teacher may administer it.

Classroom teachers may also do an initial assessment, or place the student after they have had time to gather sufficient observations of the student’s language and literacy behaviours.

Where Can I Learn More About Initial Assessment in My School Board?

Every school board has developed their own processes for initial assessment, and may have their own resources for completing the task. To learn more about the initial assessment process in your board, reach out to the ESL/ELD support staff in your board or school.

Diverse Books

Dr Rudine Sims Bishop’s research in children’s literacy has been on my mind as of late. Many of us are familiar with the terms, mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors as they refer to texts that children read. Sometimes a text is a mirror in which students can see themselves and their lived experiences reflected back to them. This can be very validating for students to affirm their identities and connect with characters, themes, and ideas they find in text. Sometimes a book may be a window through which they can see someone else’s lived experiences and learn about others’ identities. At times, the right text can be a sliding glass door allowing students to step into a story, to build empathy, and understanding for other people as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to see that mirror reflecting back images of themselves in our classrooms. Whose identities are always affirmed and validated? Which children are always looking through a window at what is being celebrated as the ‘norm’ in the world?

We all know we need to have more diverse books. I can think of the books we read in school when I was in elementary – I rarely saw Asian families or mixed race families. I felt like I was always looking through the windows at how other families lived. This experience taught me how to ‘fit in’ in order to be accepted into the world. It showed me all the ‘right things’ to do and the ‘right things’ to talk about in class, but it also told my classmates what was normal and reinforced who should take up space in their world.

I had some great teachers back then, all trying to navigate teaching and learning with the best intentions, the recent research and the available resources at that time. We know that things have changed over the past forty years, but the need for diverse books in the hands of children who need to learn about themselves and others remains. Diverse books are necessary for racialized children or 2SLGBTQ+ children to see themselves reflected in that mirror, but they are also for children to learn about others, to open their minds about who belongs, and to have a real sense of the world outside of their own experiences.

As educators, text selection is one part of this journey. Looking critically at the books in your school library, classroom collection, read aloud books, student choice texts, and knowing the learners and families who share space with you adds another layer. Think about which voices and identities are taking up the most space and which voices and identities may be missing. Providing the opportunity to learn about others can help to break biases students are building about people and communities. It may build empathy and develop an understanding of lives outside of their own experiences.

It’s also important to think about the educator’s role in conversations. Engaging in diverse texts offers students the opportunity to see adults learning about others in a way that is respectful and models appreciation, not appropriation. Explicitly teaching how we learn about others, how we navigate our own biases, and modeling how we interact with texts is a great learning opportunity for students.

If you haven’t had the chance to learn about diverse identities, it’s a great idea to engage in that experience yourself. Try reading, listening, or watching something to learn about other experiences. Notice how you navigate texts, the emotions, or thoughts that you are having and what you might choose to say that would guide students through their own thought processes. It’s an ongoing practice to understand and work through having conversations with the students in your room.

Always remember to preview the texts you are interested in including in your literacy program. Know what some of those important conversations will be and the content that you are helping students to navigate and learn. It’s so important to be aware of whether you are offering a mirror, a window, or a sliding glass door to children and the different ways you can provide opportunities for discussions for each.