Why I Teach: Opening a Diverse World

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Each spring, at the start of baseball season, fourth-graders at my school connect with Shorty, a character from Ken Mochizuki’s book Baseball Saved Us. Shorty’s a Japanese-American child who plays baseball on a makeshift field in an internment camp during World War II. Mochizuki’s consummate read-aloud story encourages a fired-up discussion in the library. Students talk about the inequities and intolerances foisted on kids and adults alike. It’s the kind of lesson that I thoroughly enjoy teaching, year after year.

I have to admit that I must have the best job ever. As the teacher-librarian for a K-5 school, I spend three days a week teaching our students a variety of skills. They hear stories, learn to use the automated catalog and locate materials independently on the library’s shelves. Beginning in kindergarten, students work on focused research projects involving computerized and print resources. Collaborating with classroom teachers to create meaningful units of study across the curriculum is a welcome challenge. Recommending books to individual students, faculty and parents is great fun.

I feel strongly about including lessons and displays related to tolerance and diversity. For instance, each fall we celebrate Deaf Awareness Week by reading books about hearing-impaired individuals and learning a bit of sign language. Monthly library displays follow the NEA’s diversity calendar and include Hispanic Heritage, American Indian Heritage and Asian Pacific American Heritage months.

Lessons on banned books emphasize the need for tolerance specifically to fifth-graders, while folklore studies throughout the school community embrace the diversity of people worldwide. Our collection of biographies includes both picture books and chapter books that feature a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, while our general collection of fiction seeks to expose students to diverse types of people.  

We are fortunate to have a school committee devoted to appreciating diversity. It even provides small grants to promote diversity studies. The grants have allowed us to bring in Diane Ferlatte, a gifted local storyteller, who several times has regaled listeners with stories about slavery. We’ve hosted Frances Firebrace, who introduced our community to the aboriginal stories of the Australian Outback. We also hosted graphic novelist Oliver Chin, who shared a storyboarding workshop, and author Grace Lin, who discussed the process of writing and illustrating with students.

The community in which I teach has limited diversity among both students and faculty. So sharing these perspectives through the library seems doubly important. Recently, as our school was fundraising for a program in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to share Greg Mortenson’s picture book version of Three Cups of Tea, entitled Listen to the Wind, with all the classes. It was wondrous to see the students make a connection between the Pakistani children described in the book, the students in the program in Afghanistan and themselves. One second-grader finally announced, “I think that they are more the same as us than different!” And that confirms, in no uncertain terms, why I teach.

Ludmer is a teacher-librarian in Piedmont, Calif.