Many teachers I work with recognize the importance of representation. The difference it can make for students to see their cultures and identities reflected in curriculum and educational spaces they occupy each day is undeniable. They feel welcome and they recognize school as a space they belong. A student’s relationship with education can be positively influenced once they know that this is a place where they are seen and celebrated.
Lately, however, I am consciously reflecting a little more intentionally about the types of representation I am including in the classroom. What guides your decision making? What are some of the considerations you have when choosing a text to analyze or share with the class?
Many typical titles I see in classes are books like The Breadwinner (Deborah Ellis, 2000) or Thirst (Varsha Bajaj, 2022). These types of books always centre identities from “far away places” that often face hardships and oppression. When we only share texts that centre stories of oppression, poverty, or underprivileged experiences, we run the risk of confirming stereotypes and biases students may already have about others. Chimamanda Adiche reminds us, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Adiche,Ted Talk, 2009).
For me, I’ve decided to start with centering joy. Finding texts that celebrate the joy of identity is necessary. Intentionally using texts in the classroom that centre around people and communities that are living their lives proudly and joyfully can help to debunk certain stereotypes. As a person with Filipino heritage, oftentimes my childhood classmates only knew the stories that came from the media; a country that is poverty stricken, no running water, oppressive or corrupted government systems, etc. As an adult, I imagine what I would have wanted them to know; the smells and flavours of our food, big extended family parties and get-togethers, traditional dances, wardrobes, and ways of being. Yes, parts of the Philippines may not have access to running water and electricity and some people there do live in poverty, but that is not all there is to my identity and that is not all there is to my culture.
Of course, it is important to recognize that there are societal structures and systems of oppression that are in place and strongly affect many different identities. I’m not suggesting that we ignore or gloss over injustices, but I am considering how to humanize stories so that students will be able to respectfully appreciate cultures and identities of their own and others. I don’t want any child to think that the only time their identities will be explored in school is when it is centered in oppression. Instead, let the message be that their culture and communities are valued, that I respect and recognize that there is no one single way of being and no single ‘right’ way to experience joy.
Looking for some ideas of texts that centre joy? Preview a few of these titles that might be used to frame the joy in identity:
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel
Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass
Black Boy Joy by Kwame Mbalia
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian