By Felicity LuHill
February 13, 2017
I’ve been tutoring for a long time, and I’ve come across a lot of different educational texts for young people.
Once, while I was tutoring out in California, I remember a white eighth grade boy making fun of people’s names used in the word problems of his math homework. The problems were created by his teacher who took the most popular names in the world and used a random generator to pick them. As a result, the names of the people crossed cultures, and proved to be unfamiliar and hard to pronounce for this particular student.
I thought that what the teacher did was brilliant. He found an unbiased way to make his work more inclusive. The only problem was that it was too late. This student was 13, old enough to look at the names in the homework, giggle, and say things like, “That’s so weird,” or “Who would have a name like that?” or “That just sounds wrong!” I was disappointed to see him react this way, but I was also aware that it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know anybody with the names he made fun of. He had never read texts that used these names. How could he know that they were common? How could he understand that real people had these names?
In addition to giving the people in his word problems diverse names, the teacher also had them all perform the same activity, namely, gardening. His problems had to do with measurements of soil and seed. I was impressed that he picked something so un-gendered, when lots of word problems have girls counting make up, boys counting footballs. It was a rare instance, in more ways than one.
In most cases, I have found educational texts to be extremely biased, reinforcing stereotypes. Once, I tutored a third grade girl on the gold rush. Her project was to create a fake diary on what her experience might be like if she were traveling west. There were prompts that guided her entries. One of the questions asked, “What did you decide to bring on your trip out west? What did you have to leave behind? What did your father leave behind? What did your mother decide she had to bring, that she couldn’t leave behind?” The question clearly implied that the kid’s mother had to be sentimental, that she ended up bringing something extremely impractical.
In this instance, my student didn’t notice. She decided to list something impractical that her mother and her father “couldn’t leave behind” (her mother, a rocking chair, her father, his violin). But later I saw it catching on. When her family had to pulley their wagon down the Sierra Nevada, the prompt indicated that it was her father and her father alone that did the heavy-lifting and the question asked, “How did you feel when your father pulleyed the wagon down the mountain? Were you scared? How did your mother feel?” She inevitably answered that her mother was scared. The answer was baked into the question. I was watching sexism develop right before my eyes! As someone with a very paranoid father and a very foolhardy mother, this question really bothered me. I know my mother would be the brave one in this scenario, while my father worried that the wagon would drop.
I can see society’s unhealthy ideas of race and gender sink in to my students. I find myself questioning my students all the time on the texts they have to read, making them consider whether the ideas set forth in the texts are standard. I urge you to do this as well. But questioning can only take a student so far. Students need to be witnessing different experiences, consuming things that will broaden their perspective. Choosing a wider range of names is a good start but more can be done. On the flip side, students need to be consuming things that are like their own experience. So much of the world doesn’t have sentimental, scared mothers. For those of us who don’t, we need texts that remind us we aren’t out of the ordinary.
When it’s good, reading can be both a window and a mirror. In this way, diverse children’s books are windows and mirrors. They allow us to see new things about others and ourselves. The trouble occurs when texts for early readers provide only one view, and it’s a mirror for only a select few. I’m well-aware that educational texts will not change over night (though I do laud that math teacher’s efforts), but in the mean time, I believe diverse children’s books is the key to breaking down the implicit bias that lives all around us, in educational texts and beyond.
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