Education Opinion

Room to Read, or Happy Belated Navajo Sovereignty Day!

By Jessica Shyu — May 16, 2013 2 min read
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To my Native American colleagues,

While our American school system’s history books, teaching curricula and role models are still spectacularly under representing the stories of our Native communities, I’d like you to know that in a little school in the outskirts of a small town in the mountains of Yunnan Province, China, the children are reading at least one book about Native Americans. Not joking.

Imagine my joy and surprise to see this book (which I totally had in my own classroom) in Chinese prominently displayed on a bookshelf at Fengxiang Middle School a couple months ago when I was visiting classrooms of our Teach For China teachers.

Our Teaching Fellows there had set up a beautiful library by writing grants for book donations, lobbying their school to use the spare room that’s smaller than my walk-in closet in DC (really), and setting up a comfortable, safe space for students to browse and read. The kids manage the sunny little library on their own, there’s poetry on the walls and wooden benches to sit on.

I remember being a first-semester teacher and begging my students to listen and not roll around on the ground during reading class. But once I pulled my first-year teacher self together after a glorious winter break filled with deep reflection, and a respectable amount of backwards planning and alcohol, I organized my classroom library. Like most teachers in under-resourced schools, we didn’t have access to good books, so I mass emailed everyone in my address book, and the books came pouring in. We received more than 2,000 over two years (to be fair, at least 50 of them were my former roommate’s collection of Harlequin Romance novels--those got donated to the teacher’s lounge and then were snatched up like that.)

Once our library was leveled and set up, my students’ interest in reading spiked - because now we had Hi-Lo books on Sharks and baseball, Captain Underpants, Charles Dickens (abridged but still great), and yes, a couple books about Native Americans. It took a lot more than a library for me to learn how to teach phonics and guided reading the year, but having a space to showcase the great literature of the world (I’m talking about Captain Underpants, obviously) was a good place to start.

Like my kids in under-resourced communities in the United States (especially rural ones), nearly all of our students in rural China have little to no access to their own books, let alone fun, age-appropriate literature from around the world. This one library on the foothills of the little mountainous town included Steve Jobs’ biography, a picture book on Jeremy Lin and many, many, many comic books. It’s a small world after all.

Last note: I’d be remiss to give this entry the title I did without linking to “Room to Read,” an awesome non-profit that focuses on literacy and gender equality in Asia and Africa.

The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.