Skip to main content

Putting Diverse Books into Practice

Kim Parker, co-founder of #Disrupttexts, suggests ways in which educators can incorporate diverse books into their curriculum — and how parents can be supportive allies in the process.
Kim Parker
Dr. Kim Parker, #Disrupttexts

The books children read in the classroom today look a lot like they did decades ago. Kim Parker, co-founder of #Disrupttexts, wants to change that. In this Harvard EdCast, she addresses the challenges facing educators trying to diversify books in their classroom. With diverse books regularly appearing on the American Library Association's most challenged and banned books in libraries and schools, Parker discusses this and our inability to move beyond the literary canon. She offers ideas for educators trying to take steps to incorporate diverse books in their practice and how parents can be supportive allies in the process.


Jill Anderson:   I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

The books children read today in school look a lot like they did decades ago, a lot of classic books featuring white characters. Kim Parker wants to change that. She's cofounder of Disrupt Texts, a movement that helps teachers figure out how to get more diverse books in their classroom. We spoke about why it's so hard for educators to change up books and why so many of the American Library Association's most-challenged books are diverse. I asked why challenged books like the bestseller, The Hate U Give, which deals with timely issues about race and police brutality, are still being challenged in 2019.

Kim Parker: I think so much of sort of banned and challenged books is about people's desire to preserve what they might think is quality literature or good literature, or something that's not going to necessarily be evocative. Just, I'm sort of mystified that The Hate U Give is on a list. Knowing that whenever I've put it in front of any sort of young person or grown up, even working with pre-service teachers, they are moved in ways that they've not necessarily been moved by other canonical texts, for example. I just think it's part of a movement that retreat actually from books that could actually change us in ways that we need to be changed.

Jill Anderson: Right. The Hate U Give is a great example. That book feels like it should be required reading for everybody. I'm sure there's people who might disagree with me on that, but it's very powerful.

Kim Parker: Sure, sure. Yeah, and it is showing up more and more on core text lists.

Jill Anderson: Right. We seem comfortable about giving people books about white people for white people by white people, but when we shift that, we're really uncomfortable pushing forward books that are outside of that.

Kim Parker: Yeah, and I think that there are a couple of factors at play. First of all, is just the sheer number of books for white children that are being published on any given year. The Center for Children's Books releases those statistics and then Dr. Sarah Parkdalen has come up with that really great image of the number of books written for white children and then the ones for children of color. It's just such a disparity.

Kim Parker: On the flip side of the coin though, for people who are not white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, to see ourselves reflected in books in these powerful ways matters. For many of us working in classrooms where most of our children are children of color, if not all, those books matter. For those of us who are in those situations, then we're very much about it's time, it's overdue, it's been overdue, and that the more that we say these books are here, their quality, they're excellent, all children deserve. Then that changes the narrative.

Jill Anderson: When you have your demographics shifting so much, how do we really confront this as educators?

Kim Parker: First, it's getting rid of our own biases about what great literature is. I think that that's just such a moving target. Then also, thinking about what are kids reading? Who are the young people in our classrooms, and I'll speak mostly about high school students, since that's a group I work with mostly. They're not necessarily coming to reading through canonical text, right? Usually by the time I get them, they hate reading and it's because they have had books, largely canonical books on your list and other lists that have never really offered them a way in. The question becomes do we care about the book or do we care about the reader? Our work is with the reader moving instruction and practice in ways that really give young people reading lives.

If we start to think about that, like what are the best books at the moment that actually speak to young people? Where are the books that they see themselves reflected in powerful ways. Which are the books, too, that are beautifully written. Some people hold biases about young adult fiction and young adult literature for example, about it not being quality literature. I would say that we have some of our best writers writing for young people right now that we've ever had, and that those writers are writers of color is even more powerful. I think we need to change, again, the conversation about who are we teaching, what do they need, and what texts are going to give us the most immediate impact.

Jill Anderson: That brings me to some of your work with Disrupt Texts. Tell me a little bit more about cofounding that and the mission behind it.
Kim Parker: So Tricia Ebarvia and I were fellows with the Heinemann Publishing Company and we were presenting something about Disrupt Texts in its early form. We found out that Julia and Lorena were also doing the work, so we all pulled our, we had said, you know, strength in numbers here, and we're doing the same work. From that developed a mission statement. Really, the goal is to help teachers and other educators think about how do you move from sort of doing those old tried and true things that you thought were best for children to really disrupting your curriculum, your practices, your beliefs. Because it really does start with beliefs. Like, what do you believe about literature? What do you believe about children? What do you believe about what they need?

Jill Anderson: I was looking at Twitter. There's a lot of great information under the Disrupt Texts hashtag. A lot of amazing work, teachers helping each other, supplying ways that they're doing things in their classroom, giving tips to other teachers. It was really amazing to see that.

Kim Parker: Great.

Jill Anderson: One of the things I encountered in researching this topic and talking to teachers was that diverse books are maybe being added in on supplemental reading lists, on summer reading lists, or maybe we have them in our library, but no one's using them. I'm wondering what you think is the biggest roadblock to integrating these books and making them really part of the curriculum?

Kim Parker: I think that we could say we're doing diversity, we're teaching diverse books if we have them on a list, or if we have them for summer reading, or if we have them in these additive measures, but it doesn't change anything. Kids are sort of more isolated than they have ever been in terms of white children being with white children, kids of color being with kids of color, so they have no way really to sort of move out of those experiences easily. Books offer that ability. What I think gets in everyone's way are internal beliefs about one race and racism and all of these other things, and also about what we think is a quality book. And so, all of those sort of get compacted into one list, or one add on, or one we'll do it maybe next year, and nothing ever changes.

Really, to move curriculum to ground practices in diverse texts is different, and that's the work we're after. Because if you teach, what is that, like Toni Morrison says, sort of like what moves at the margins. Like, if you move the margin to the center, that really changes your practice and it changes how you're interacting with young people. It changes how you think about equity and how you think about justice. I think that what we are finding too, and I probably no shocker, so many people are hesitant to really look at their own internal beliefs. What we do see from people who are changing are they're looking at themselves and then they're starting to work outwards.

Jill Anderson: Right. You know that you bring up an interesting point because you can introduce books and do more harm than good.

Kim Parker: Absolutely.

Jill Anderson: You mentioned teachers, educators working on themselves as being a good place to start, but if an educator is listening and they're thinking, we have nothing in my classroom, in my curriculum that represents any diversity, and however you want to define that, where's a good place to start?

Kim Parker: We are all in places with history. I mean, it's always really important to think about whose land are we on. This is where Dr. Debbie Reese is incredible for thinking about Native Americans and Native Americans literature for children, right? That's your starting place, always, like where are you in that capacity in that context. Then that will lead you to thinking about how do you study that place, that local context.

I mean, people do it by month, which I think is problematic in so many respects, too. Once you think about your own privileges and who are in your circles in your networks, that gives you some places to start. Because if you've read all white male authors and your entire career, who's missing, right? Whose voices would you like to have heard? Who do you need to hear at the moment? Then read those people. Because you can do harm by just being like, "This is our black text or this is our text about X or Y or Z."

I try to think about my own gaps, really, when I'm going into anything about what I don't know. I try to fill those gaps and then always know that I'm going to have to unlearn. I'm going to have to sort of have this triangulation about what I thought I know, what I'm learning, what's wrong, what needs to be fixed, remedied, and then to keep going. Because before I put anything in front of kids, right, I need to know it myself.

Jill Anderson: I heard a little bit about not totally dumping the classics in the trash, because there is valuable stuff in there. What is your take on can we take these classics and teach them in a new way that may reach a diverse classroom?

Kim Parker: I'm not going to be one that's going to say we should get rid of the classics. In terms of kids of color who are behind and are not getting lots of exposure to that form of cultural capital, then they need to have that opportunity. So what I would suggest, and I think what I've done that works, is to teach them in conversation with more contemporary texts. So, how do these issues come up as presented in this book and then how are they presented in another book that might be a YA book, it might be a book of poetry, might be something else. Then they're always in conversation, right? Like English teaching at its best is putting all texts in conversation with others.

Jill Anderson: Have you encountered a lot of questions from educators about getting pushback from administrators and how do you deal with that?

Kim Parker: Yeah, we've gotten some pushback, and I think it's because when people wake up or they decide they want to do it, they want to really disrupt texts, we do a lot of encouraging. We do a lot of strategy helping for people who want to think about that. We do a lot of also pulling in other organizations. CTE, the National Council of Teachers of English has been really great about its position statements, it's anti-racism committee, other places that help teachers. Because I do think that if it's a teacher who is sort of doing that work on their own in their school, it's hard and it can be lonely and it can be dispiriting. We do lots of that as much as we can. Also what is really powerful that's been coming out are people who were saying, "This is how I'm disrupting texts in my classroom," so we're building a community. It's other people who were doing the work every day in their classrooms.

Jill Anderson: Is there something that parents and guardians can be doing to help facilitate some movement in their child's classroom?

Kim Parker: Parents can be really, really powerful. Parent caregivers can be really important. Because when the syllabi, for example, high school syllabi come home, if the books on that list, for example, for an English class, are the same books that you caregiver have read 20 years ago, then that's a conversation with the teacher. It's well within anyone's best interest to say, "Can you just help me to understand what's going on with the texts? How do you plan to use them?" Because they could have books on the syllabus and then have other texts that then will make it a robust discussion that bridges past to present. Who knows? How can parents be helpful to teachers? Maybe that's getting them books. If you're in a bookstore and you see something that is relevant, or is a gap that's missing, or is a resource even and you're on good relationships with the teacher or the department, whomever in the school, then you share that. Right?

Then I would just wouldn't stop. I would just be consistent. Because parents, right, first teachers for their kids, and if you know that something's going on and your child is missing out, then I would speak up. Because I know that even my own classroom of kids, you miss things, and I always would appreciate a parent who would say, you know, "Hey, have you thought about this? Or I read this really great book." Or they would bring me books even, because for the most part they were always coming from a place of I want this classroom to be better. I'm not concerned just about my child, but about the classroom community. I think that's what parents can do, right? They have a lot of power.

And also not to shut things down, right? If they see a diverse techs being taught, to trust that the teacher might know what they're doing and to ask, right, before jumping to any sort of conclusion, to have a conversation. Because if that teacher knows what they're doing, and hopefully they do, there's a rationale for the book, there's a rationale for what they want to get out of it, what they want students to get out of it, it's been a very well thought of about how they're going to teach it. And then you let them do it.

Jill Anderson: Quick last question. I want to put you on the spot. What is one book that you think should be added to this school curriculum that is not universally there?

Kim Parker: On the Come Up by Angie Thomson is really important. I loved her first one, right? I loved The Hate U Give. But I think On the Come Up was a different sort of book for understanding black girlhood, for understanding mother-daughter relationships, for understanding poverty, for understanding black families, and it's all of the things that are vilified and stereotyped often. I read that this summer with a range of kids mostly of color, and for them to locate in that book was so incredibly And then I could imagine, too, students who are not ones of color will get a really interesting and important experience about a windows with no mirror and a sliding glass door because they'll be able to challenge some of their own taken for granted notions about blackness and challenge their own anti-blackness. And so any moment I think that we can get young people to do that is really, really powerful.

Jill Anderson: Kim Parker is the cofounder of Disrupt Texts. She's also an assistant director of teacher training at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a researcher, she studies the literacy practices of black boys.

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

Related Articles