Standing Up by Standing Out

In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton takes place in Atlanta, Georgia in 1958. After the death of her father, Ruth Robb moves from New York City to Atlanta with her little sister, Natalie, and her mom, Alice. Atlanta is where Alice grew up and “came out” (in the debutante sense, that is). Alice left Atlanta to attend Sarah Lawrence in New York and ended up converting to Judaism to marry a Jewish man and raise her daughters as Jews. Ruth, upon arriving in Atlanta as a junior in high school, is immediately encouraged by her grandmother to get involved in pre-debutante activities. In order for this to happen, she will have to conceal her faith.

In the meantime, Ruth’s mom still wants them to be active in the Jewish community and joins the local temple which is actively engaged in the Civil Rights struggle for African Americans. If Ruth wants to attend deb preparation meetings, she will also be required to attend Shabbat services. Keeping these two parts of her life separate becomes more difficult when Ruth begins to date Davis Jefferson (not Jefferson Davis, but also a clear indication of his family’s views on Civil Rights and Jewish people).

This book, written in Ruth’s voice, does a wonderful job of conveying the challenges of trying to fit in when you know that your truth is a more powerful tool for justice. Sometimes long term happiness takes a back seat to immediate satisfaction and Ruth discovers which she would prefer throughout the course of this story. While In the Neighborhood of Truth is Ruth’s story, and told from Ruth’s perspective, Davis also has a story to tell. His might be even more important for teens to read and consider because it deals with the difficulty of confronting one’s own complicity in acts of injustice. This is a book about a city 60 years in the past, but it is also timeless in its depiction of ethical dilemmas that continue to affect all of us today.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 1: I have a positive view of myself, including an awareness of and comfort with my membership in multiple groups in society.

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and that this is true for other people too.

Identity 4: I express pride and confidence in my identity without perceiving or treating anyone else as inferior.

Justice 12: I can recognize, describe and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.3- Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

The Violence Inside

Oftentimes, when we discuss homophobia and hate crimes, we are talking about heterosexual individuals who hate and/or attack, members of the LGBTQ community. In Deposing Nathan by Zack Smedley, a different narrative unfolds, and this one seems equally important to include in discussions of homophobia. In this book, it is a member of the LGBTQ community who feels such internalized hatred that he lashes out at the person he loves most.

Nate has lived with his dad and his aunt since he lost his mom at a very young age. He is respectful, has a deep connection to his Christian faith, and does well in school. However, the book opens with Nate being questioned at a deposition where he is describing the events of the night when he was stabbed by his best friend, Cam. It turns out that Nate does not blame Cam entirely for this act and that the stabbing was preceded by Nate horribly beating Cam. The reasons for this become clearer as the book progresses.

We know that the rates of homelessness and suicide among teens belonging to the LGBTQ community are significantly higher than for teens who do not. These are topics that are not uncommon in young adult literature addressing this identity group. The externalized violence in Deposing Nathan is rooted in the same hatred that causes young adults to be thrown out of their homes and to take their own lives.

In schools, we need to show students that they are appreciated and accepted for who they are regardless of how they might be treated at home or in their religious communities. Educators need to watch for signs that students might be hurting themselves or others. Deposing Nathan is also a reminder to students and educators that healthy relationships can be very complex, whether they be familial, platonic, or romantic. What teens (and adults) interpret as love can be accompanied by hate. When that is the case, sometimes an outside intervention is needed.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 1: I have a positive view of myself, including an awareness of and comfort with my membership in multiple groups in society.

Identity 4: I express pride and confidence in my identity without perceiving or treating anyone else as inferior.

Diversity 10: I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.

Common Core Standards:

RL.1- Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

RL.6- Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

No Longer Hidden Away

Bayard Rustin worked with A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator John Lewis, and many other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. However, his own role as a major leader in this movement was often kept secret from the public because of his sexual orientation. Bayard never wanted to hide who he was from the people who were most important to him and he also wanted to do as much as he could to promote equality for all human beings. Unfortunately, because he lived openly, his contributions often went unseen and unacknowledged by history. At least until recently.

Troublemaker for Justice by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long, is an exceptionally well written biography of Bayard Rustin for young adults. It covers his childhood with his grandparents, his teenage years when he really started to encounter and stand up against segregation, and his adult years which were full of activism and courage. Bayard was the driving force behind some critical aspects of the Civil Rights Movement including integrated bus trips, Dr. King’s embrace of a philosophy of nonviolence, and the March on Washington. Still, his involvement and impact were hidden away from the public for many, many years.

Walter Naegle was Bayard’s partner from 1977 until Bayard’s death in 1987. In 2013, Naegle accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama on Bayard’s behalf. Bayard was truly an extraordinary person. He never stopped working towards a more just world even when his contributions were ignored or erased by others. Troublemaker for Justice is a book that belongs in every middle and high school library biography section and students researching the Civil Rights Movement should always be presented with materials that acknowledge his contributions. Bayard Rustin dedicated his life to the pursuit of equality and his is a name that should stand out in United States history.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Justice 13: I am aware that biased words and behaviors and unjust practices, laws and institutions limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their identity groups.

Justice 14: I know that all people (including myself) have certain advantages and disadvantages in society based on who they are and where they were born.

Justice 15: I know about some of the people, groups and events in social justice history and about the beliefs and ideas that influenced them.

Common Core Standards:

RI.2- Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.

RI.3- Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events (e.g., through comparisons, analogies, or categories).

RI.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.

RI.9- Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.

Not Alone

Lynne Kelly dedicates her book, Song for a Whale, to everyone who’s ever felt alone. This is the perfect way to introduce a story that highlights the experiences of an underrepresented group, while also reflecting the thoughts of children from every background. Kelly’s book centers around Iris who is twelve and the only Deaf student in her school. While Iris has a sign language interpreter with her all of the time, she still feels incredibly disconnected from her teachers and fellow students. When Iris finds out about Blue 55, a whale whose song is at too high a frequency for other whales to understand, she can completely relate. Iris becomes determined to help Blue 55 to make connections.

In Song for a Whale readers are introduced to a young woman who is Deaf, but Iris is so strong and resourceful that the only people who seem to have a disability are those who treat her differently or seek not to communicate with her at all. Iris is an engineering genius and the creativity she shows throughout the book is limitless. Her intensity and commitment to her cause are also truly admirable.

Iris’ story will appeal to a wide audience and might even inspire some budding marine biologists or STEM trailblazers. We have all felt alone at one time or another, but there are some students for whom this feeling is constant. As educators we need to make sure that we identify these students and do all that we can to connect them to others who share their interests. Everyone needs to know that they are not alone. Even whales.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Action 20: I will work with my friends and family to make our school and community fair for everyone, and we will work hard and cooperate in order to achieve our goals.

Common Core Standards:

RL.1- Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

RL.3- Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

RL.6- Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.

W.2- Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

 

 

Picturing Home

Home is a bit of an abstract concept. While the dictionary defines home as the place where someone lives, people have been expanding that definition for many years. We have all read things or said things such as: home is where the heart is, home away from home, or home is the people who love you. At the end of the school day, we say, “It’s time to go home.” But what if “home” is where students have been all day. School can be a home for many students, others have multiple homes, and some aren’t quite sure where home is yet. There might be as many definitions of home as there are people.

In Jasmine Warga’s, Other Words for Home, Jude is coming to terms with the idea of having more than one home. Syria was her first home and it was full of people and experiences that she loved. When her brother joins the resistance against Assad’s government, Jude and her mother travel to the United States to live with an uncle, leaving her brother and father behind. At first, her uncle’s house and the United States do not feel like home to Jude. Her cousin isn’t particularly welcoming and, while Jude learned English in Syria, she is not entirely comfortable with the language.

This novel in verse chronicles Jude’s journey to find home. It certainly isn’t an easy task and home ends up being more about Jude herself than about any one place. As the school year is just starting and students are getting used to new classrooms and people, Other Words for Home might be the perfect book to share in middle grade classrooms.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2-Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

RL.3- Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).

RL.5- Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.

 

Safe Spaces

As the new school year begins, I want to emphasize the crucial role that schools and classrooms can play as safe spaces where students can be themselves. Most students, hopefully, go home to families where they are accepted, but we know that this is not true for every child. In I Wish You All the Best, Mason Deaver introduces us to Ben, who is an extraordinary artist, caring friend, loving sibling, and who happens to be nonbinary. When Ben is kicked out of home they move in with their sister, Hannah, who has been estranged from her family for many years. Hannah is married to Thomas who is a teacher at the nearby high school. While Ben does not come out to anyone else at school, knowing that Thomas is aware of Ben’s truth and that he accepts it makes an enormous difference.

I Wish You All the Best is a love story in every sense of the word. It tackles the true meaning of unconditional love and what can happen when, all of a sudden, conditions seem to appear. Hannah and Thomas show Ben what familial love should be. They are also tremendous examples for readers of what it looks like to be accepting of a difference that we do not completely understand. They make mistakes, they ask questions, and they constantly try to learn and improve. Finally, there is Nathan, who becomes Ben’s romantic love interest. Ben struggles to understand their feelings for Nathan and deals with anxiety over how Nathan will react when he finds out that Ben is nonbinary.

Deaver made an excellent choice to write this book from Ben’s perspective. Deaver is a nonbinary author and therefore is able to write this story using a first person point of view, which gives the reader a different experience than reading about a nonbinary supporting character in a book written by a cisgender author. Obviously, this book is not a reflection of every nonbinary person, but it is an entry point for understanding some of their experiences. I have written about the importance of using students’ correct pronouns and this book is a wonderful testament to why that is so crucial in schools. I recently misgendered someone on Twitter and a reader was kind enough to correct me so that I was able to apologize and make changes to my post. Reading I Wish You All the Best helped me to realize that mistakes can be made and will make me more conscious of pronouns in the future. Using this book in classrooms can help to make schools safer spaces for all students.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 1: I have a positive view of myself, including an awareness of and comfort with my membership in multiple groups in society.

Diversity 6: I interact comfortably and respectfully with all people, whether they are similar to or different from me.

Diversity 7: I have the language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including myself) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Define “From”

Chants of, “send her back,” accusations of “invasions” and “infestations,” have all become a part of our political narrative. While none of this is new, the outspoken and “everyday” nature of these messages seems significant. Children hear this language and see its effects on a daily basis. While some of it might be difficult for them to understand, they are probably able to identify the intent behind these messages.

The picture book Where Are You From? written by Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jaime Kim, starts with a little girl being asked where she is from. She responds, “I am from here, from today, same as everyone else.” This answer is apparently not satisfactory and her inquisitors ask, “No, where are you really from?”

The little girl asks her abuelo and he gives her many answers to this question– none of which include the name of a specific place. It turns out that the little girl’s family can be traced back to all kinds of places and people. Gauchos who grazed cattle, mountains which were home to wild animals, beaches where hurricanes roared, and women who searched for missing relatives after conflicts. Finally, he says, she comes from his heart, and the love of all of the generations that came before her. Isn’t that where we all want to come from?

How does one answer the question, “Where are you from?”? That might depend on the intent behind the question. Is it being asked because the questioner wants to know where we grew up or because they do not believe we look like we “belong”? We should all have the opportunity to share and learn about our ancestry, but I hope one day that we all can answer, “I am from here, from today, same as everyone else” and that this will be accepted. In the end, it is the absolute truth.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of me- but that I am always ALL me.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.

RL.4- Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.

RL.7- Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.

 

Essential Conversations

A recent article in the journal Language Arts addressed the importance of sharing children’s books about death and grief in elementary classrooms (Husbye, Buchholz, Powell, & Zanden, July 2019). Often, as educators, we like to have a deep understanding of topics that we are going to discuss with our students. Death is one issue that we are not able to completely understand, as no one is able to provide us with a first person perspective of the experience or what comes after. Death and grief are not easy for anyone to talk about, but since they affect everyone, they are essential topics of conversation.

While the article in Language Arts was specifically about picture books, there are also many juvenile fiction titles that include death or grief. One such title is Pie in the Sky, by Remy Lai. In this illustrated novel, we are introduced to Jingwen, who has just immigrated to Australia. He makes this transition with his mom and his little brother, but without his father who died in a car crash. Jingwen remembers spending hours on the weekends with his father planning for the cake shop they would open in Australia. It would be called Pie in the Sky and would serve only the most special cakes, ones that they baked together on the weekends.

Jingwen struggles in school when he arrives in Australia because he doesn’t speak English. It sounds like an alien language and this is depicted in Lai’s remarkable illustrations. The only thing that brings him comfort is baking the Pie in the Sky cakes with his little brother when his mom is at work. She has forbidden them from going anywhere near the stove, but Jingwen comes up with a plan that will allow them to continue baking without telling the worst kind of lies, which his father defined as, “those that will benefit oneself but will hurt others.”

Pie in the Sky is a book that has so much to share with its readers who are asked to step into the shoes of a boy who is not just moving to a new school or even a new country, but to a place where he cannot understand the language or customs of those around him. He is also dealing with the trauma of losing a parent. Jingwen has so much to overcome and he has to learn to trust those around him in order to move forward. This would be a great book to choose as a read aloud or for a novel study. There are so many complex issues to discuss and Lai addresses all of them with a deep sensitivity and a sense of humor that will appeal to young readers.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 6: I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Common Core Standards:

RL.1- Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

RL.2- Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

RL.3- Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).

RL.7- Make connections between the text of a story or drama and a visual or oral presentation of the text, identifying where each version reflects specific descriptions and directions in the text.

Reflecting the Passage of Time

Twenty years ago, Tricia Brown and Roy Corral interviewed children from seven Alaska Native cultures and produced the book Children of the Midnight Sun. Recognizing that cultures are constantly evolving and being influenced by global changes, Brown and Corral returned to create Children of the First People. They interviewed kids from the eight Alaska Native groups featured in their first book and the three groups that had not been included originally.

In Children of the First People, we are introduced to kids and families who have been shaped by their modern day experiences as well as the cultural traditions that they have inherited. They participate in many of the same activities as children worldwide such as playing video games and basketball. Many of them attend church services. One boy from the Iñupiat group is featured in social media videos that his mom produces. Some of them live in small towns and others live in big cities. Each child included in the book has different experiences and traditions and the author does a nice job of ensuring that none of the children are considered “cultural representatives” for their Alaska Native groups. Educators also need to make sure that students understand that each of these children is just one individual in a larger group and that they do not speak for the group as a whole.

Brown and Corral also describe the unique experiences of children within these Alaskan communities. Some of them live on islands that can only be reached by boats or small planes. While many of the kids eat hamburgers on occasion, some of them prefer dishes made of whale skin and blubber. This might be a point at which students in our classrooms bring up confusion or feelings of cultural superiority and it is important that teachers have these conversations with students. Asking students what they know about Native communities before reading and how their knowledge changes during and after reading is an important part of culturally responsive literacy practices.

Alaska Native people are a vital part of our national community. However, they are rarely part of our children’s literature. It is important to note that neither Brown nor Corral are Alaska Natives themselves, but the families and children within the book really do tell their own stories. I am hopeful that with books like this one and the PBS show Molly of Denali, children will take an interest in learning more about these cultural communities.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 6: I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.

Diversity 7: I have accurate, respectful words to describe how I am similar to and different from people who share my identities and those who have other identities.

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Common Core Standards:

W.8- Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information, and provide a list of sources.

SL.1.C- Pose and respond to specific questions to clarify or follow up on information, and make comments that contribute to the discussion and link to the remarks of others.

A Turning Point

I recognize that, given the time of year, I am a little late with this reflection on two books covering the Stonewall Uprising. However, just like Black history should not only be taught in February, LGBTQ+ history should not be taught solely in June. This is especially true because many schools across the country are not in session during Pride Month. So, instead of making excuses about my tardiness, I will encourage reading Stonewall and The Stonewall Riots at any time of year.

Stonewall by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Jamey Christoph, is a picture book written from the perspective of the building located at 51-53 Christopher Street. This is such a creative way to tell the story of the Stonewall Inn and its importance to the Gay Rights Movement. The text and illustrations work together beautifully to reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community within Greenwich Village before and during the uprising itself as well as the difficulties involved in expressing that diversity. The picture book is supported by supplemental materials including photographs, an interview with a Stonewall Uprising participant, and a resource list for further reading. This book is a perfect way to introduce LGBTQ+ history to a young audience.

A book meant for a slightly older demographic is The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman. This text is set up almost like a museum exhibit with 50 artifacts that tell the story of the Stonewall Inn and the history of the LGBTQ+ community in the United States. Pitman takes a wider look at what it was like to be part of this community over the course of the previous century especially in larger cities such as San Francisco and New York City. She considers the individual perspectives of gay men, transgender individuals, and lesbians who participated in events leading up to the Stonewall Uprising, the riots themselves, and in future advocacy within the Gay Rights Movement.

In 2016, Stonewall became the first National Monument dedicated to LGBT history. Hopefully, it will be the first of many. There is still a lot of progress to be made in this movement towards equality.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity Anchor Standard 7: Students will develop language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including themselves) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.

Diversity Anchor Standard 8: Students will respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and will exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.

Justice Anchor Standard 15: Students will identify figures, groups, events and a variety of strategies and philosophies relevant to the history of social justice around the world.

Common Core Standards:

RI.3- Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

RI.6- Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.