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West Jordan Journal

Diversity in literature a potential answer for minority students, antidote to racism

Jun 30, 2020 01:55PM ● By Jet Burnham

Many books that teach cultural empathy are not approved for use in the school classrooms. (Photo courtesy of Tara Pearce)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Of the 700 books on the approved booklist for middle schoolers and high schoolers in Jordan District, only 8% are written by authors of color.

“All of the books tend to cater toward a certain type of student,” said West Jordan Middle School literacy specialist and language arts teacher Tara Pearce. She is pushing for a booklist that reflects the minority students who make up 25% of the district demographic.

“Stories change people's lives,” Pearce said. “And having a role model that you can actually identify with also changes lives. I just want all of my students to have a really great mix of role models of characters or people that they can look up to, to help to find who they want to be.”

The lack of diverse books is a stumbling block to literacy for students who don't fit into a traditional white American family mold, said Pearce.

“Students can read at a higher level and read and comprehend at deeper levels when the book is engaging to them, when it's interesting and relevant to them,” Pearce said. “My goal is to find real-world, relevant texts for my low readers. 

The problem is, these books often contain profanity or sensitive subjects that raise red flags with the booklist approval committee. Pearce respects that many parents don’t want their students exposed to that kind of content but believes those books should be available as an option to those with differing values. She wants parents to trust teachers to handle the sensitive topics responsibly and not as an excuse to push their own personal or political agendas.

“I'm not trying to push sketchy books on some sweet little girl,” she said. “My goal is to be able to give some books to kids that actually do talk like that and look like that.”

She also believes diversity in literature benefits all students.

“It's good for all students to have perspectives outside of their own—that's how we learn,” she said.

Herriman High School AP English teacher Whitney Borup agrees.

“I teach that every writer comes from a political point of view,” she said. “And so, to have this reading list that we have that is dominated by white voices is, I think, really problematic.”

She points to the example of “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, which has been studied by high school students for decades.

“That's the way that we've often been introducing students to issues of race in America, but that's written by a white woman,” Borup said. “They never get a book in high school that's written by a black writer on the same issues. And so, they get a really skewed kind of one-voice perspective.”

To get a new book added to the district booklist, a teacher submits a request to the committee, which reviews it and votes to approve or reject the book. Pearce regularly submits requests; the majority are rejected.

Borup served on the committee for two years and said, in general, the committee tries to be open-minded. However, she said the teachers and parent representatives from each school that served on the committee with her represented the same majority community. She said they rely on teachers to bring alternative books to their attention, but not enough of these types of books are being submitted for review.

Pearce continues to encourage her colleagues to submit books that reflect diversity. She also encouraged a Latinx parent to represent WJMS on the booklist committee this year and hopes her presence will provide an enriching perspective.

Pearce believes there is also a need for books representing different cultures, backgrounds, religions, sexual orientations, etc. This diversity in literature is imperative for developing empathy for those who are different and for creating a culture where everyone feels safe and accepted.

Fortunately, at WJMS, Pearce’s students have access to books not on the booklist—not in the classroom but in the after-school meetings of The Empathy Project. With the full support of administration and parents, students read and discuss books about topics such as discrimination, poverty and gender identity. Parents are required to sign off on every topic and every book category before their student participates. Trained teachers lead the discussions, often with contributions from community leaders, such as Lex Scott from the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, who met with the group earlier this year.

“We felt like it was our duty to give a place for discussion about topics that really heavily affect their school experience and their lives,” said WJMS Principal Dixe Garrison.

As educators realize the need to teach empathy to combat bullying, suicide and racism, the Empathy Project has gained international attention. Pearce, Garrison and their colleagues have presented to packed rooms at numerous conferences around the country. Many educators have requested the Empathy Project booklist and curriculum.

This spring, Pearce was invited to India to teach a weeklong empathy training at a school in Mumbai. While there, Pearce visited Raj Ghat, a memorial for Gandhi, where she was again inspired by his call to "be the change you wish to see in the world." It reminded her of her role as a student advocate.

“It is my job to value my students for what they bring to our community,” she said. “It's my job to make sure they are represented in our community and that they have voices that are heard in our community.”