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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Representation Matters in Classroom Libraries

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 24, 2020 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What books have resonated most with your students, and why do you think that has been the case?

Literacy instruction is obviously pretty critical in schools—in many ways, everybody is a reading teacher. One “tool” in all our “toolboxes” is to help students find books that capture their attention, that resonate with their lives. This series will explore what books teachers have often found to be student favorites.

Today, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, Sarah Said, Jennifer Orr, and Tatiana Esteban share their experiences. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sarah, Jennifer, and Sarah on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Representation in classroom libraries

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a national-board-certified teacher and the 2011 Folsom Cordova Unified school district Teacher of the Year. Sarah currently teaches 5th grade in Rancho Cordova, Calif., and serves on the Washington Unified school district board in West Sacramento, where she lives with her husband and two young children—a 3rd grader and kindergartner:

Any given year, I teach a classroom of students who speak more languages than I can count on my fingers. Having grown up in a predominately English-speaking community, I am incredibly grateful for all that my students teach me on a regular basis about their worlds.

Thanks to a strong credential program, I entered the teaching force knowing the importance of filling my room with diverse images and having students see themselves represented in the curriculum. I worked hard to make this pedagogy a reality. My students and I read The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Lupita Manana, powerful stories of the struggles that African Americans in the 1960s faced, as well as the challenges of a young Latina who crossed the border illegally. I also brought in biographies of individuals like Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Delores Huerta. Hours were spent planning rich activities, such as analyzing Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” I thought I was doing pretty well!

After a few years, I started to ask myself why every individual we studied in the curriculum, or book we read with a person of color, centered on overcoming prejudice. While it’s of course important to study history and acknowledge the struggles of our past and present, what message was I sending my students when such a heavy focus was put on prejudice against people of color? When we read books with white main characters, we read about “regular” kids coming of age. I started to look closely at my classroom library and realized I didn’t have a single book with an African American youth that didn’t center on slavery, racism, or playing football or basketball. I began searching the library and bookstores for books about “regular” kids who represented the diverse group of students I taught and found a gap in literature and access. Over the years, as I deliberately seek out books, I have noticed a shift with more female protagonists as well as people of color, children with various abilities, and LGBTQ families.

I give my students time in class to independently read and I conference with them on their choices. Although I allow for choice during this time, I do require my students to read multiple genres, as well as books with protagonists that do not look like them or share their backgrounds. As critical as it is for students to see models that represent them, it’s important for students in the majority to see models that don’t. My classes respond well to this structure, and as one student said, “I didn’t like reading, but gradually this year I have started reading more and loved it. The freedom we have to read what we what, as long as we read different genres and perspectives, is something that surprised and helped me. I feel I have shown a lot of growth in reading and in learning about others.”

Among books that my students—both girls and boys—clearly relish is Proud, the biography of an African American, Muslim female athlete. While there are still gaps in my classroom library (for example, my Asian Pacific Islander and Russian students continue to be underrepresented), it has grown into a much more inclusive collection. My students and I talk about the lack of representation of some groups, and they know I expect some of them to one day publish some books!

My feelings about representation were recently reaffirmed. In my role as a school board trustee in the city where I live, I serve on a California School Board Association (CBSA) Equity Network. In that capacity, I worked with a colleague on the school board to create an equity plan that we took to high school students for their input. In this meeting, the students told us how frustrated they were by constantly hearing about people like them in roles of being oppressed. They wanted to celebrate the scientists, doctors, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs for the work they accomplished and have the “first xyz” be a footnote.

I encourage every teacher to go through your classroom library, look over the displays on the walls of your room, and see who you are representing. It’s important to teach our students the struggles in the current day and in history, but equally important is showing them models of everyday awesome folks who represent a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, as well as abilities and gender. We all will be better for it.

Using books to initiate discussions on “implicit biases, social justice, empathy”

Sarah Said is the director of language and equity programs at an EL (Expeditionary Learning) Education School in the Chicago suburbs. In her role, she oversees support programs for multilingual learners, works with others to create a community that fosters success for students from the diverse communities her school serves, helps strengthen school to community outreach, and coordinates Title I grants. In the past, she has been a director of ELL, dean, and curriculum coordinator. In addition to her role in her building, she is a contributor for ELL Confianza and has written a variety of blog posts. She is a member of the #ELLChat and #ELLchat_bkClub where she helps advocate for multilingual learners. Follow her on Twitter at @MrsSaid:

I love books! They scale my walls at home. When I worked with students, I always brought my enthusiasm to the classroom—particularly about books. One of my favorite books to bring to the classroom is called Like No Other, by Una LaMarche. This book tells the story of a teenage Hasidic Jewish girl who meets a teenage Haitain boy in an elevator when they are trapped there in a rare New York hurricane. Living on the opposite sides of a street and never meeting in Brooklyn, they fall in love. I’m normally not into love stories or romances, but this book is deeper than a love story.

Teaching using this book in an 8th grade setting in the inner city of Chicago in a neighborhood with mostly students of Hispanic descent, I and the class made parallels to race relations in our community. It led to very engaging conversations in the classroom. The book takes place 20 years after the New York community was impacted by the Crown Heights riots in the early 1990s. The riot took place in Brooklyn, N.Y., after two young black children were struck by a car driven by someone from the Jewish community. Black residents retaliated, and it caused tense race relations in that section of Brooklyn.

With tense race relations, Devorah and Jaxon, the “star-crossed lovers” in Like No Other, must have a secret relationship that is hidden from her family and community. The book alternates perspectives between chapters, and readers learn about the mindsets of both communities. Students really empathize with both characters, and it leads to great analysis, discussion, and activity in the classroom.

When I used this book for instruction, we had strong impactful Socratic seminars that led to students having discussions about implicit biases, social justice, empathy, race relations in America, and civil rights, along with rebellion, family structures, and cultural norms at home. This book was a great starting point for students to think about social action and justice for action-research projects that they later completed to support their own communities.


Jennifer Orr is a national-board-certified elementary teacher in the suburbs of Washington. She is a mother of two and an obsessive buyer of children’s books:

I changed schools for the 2019-20 school year, and it was daunting. One of the greatest challenges was moving my classroom library. (When packing it, my daughters often label boxes with snarky comments, like, “more books, of course” or “classroom library, what else would it be” when they help me.) My students helped sort it on the last day of the previous school year. In spite of the fact that they’d been using that classroom library all year and that they had organized it and set it up in the fall, they were floored by the number of books. I believe strongly in having many, many books available for students.

Some books resonate for very personal reasons with students. Some books speak to universal truths. Some books are the perfect fit for the age at which they are aimed. All these things can factor in to books being super popular.

One of the things I have learned through many years of teaching and many years of sharing books with students is that my feelings about a book can make a significant difference in how well it is received. (This is true for many things beyond books and is something that occasionally keeps me up at night, as having that much influence on young people’s lives is quite a responsibility.)

Knowing this means that I need to be very thoughtful about the books I highlight. I know that if I read a book aloud, and I read many, that my students are far more likely to reread it, read other books in the series, and read other books by that author. This is true for picture book read-alouds but especially for longer read-alouds. I work to be sure I am offering them a wide range of genres, both fiction and nonfiction as well as a variety of both. I want to be sure I am reading male and female authors of many different ethnicities and experiences. My reading aloud a book can open up a world for my students, and I want to open as many worlds as possible.

In addition to the books I read aloud, I also book talk several books every week. My goals here include introducing my students to books that will help them become better readers as well as books that will help them become lifelong readers. Still, within those parameters, I work to share books that are diverse. I include books at varying reading levels, in varying styles (plenty of graphic novels), and covering many topics and genres.

These choices, of books to read aloud and books to book talk, are especially critical at the start of the school year. The books I place in front of my students when they are just getting to know me will determine how well they will trust my recommendations throughout the rest of the year. I have to start with books that will hook them quickly and hold on to them. If I can do that, pull them in from the beginning, we’ll be able to find many books that resonate all year.

Similar characters & challenges to overcome

Tatiana Esteban, M.A. Ed., has taught ELL, gifted, and special education students in various classroom settings since 2007. Currently, she is embarking on a new curricular adventure as a phonics interventionist at Gulliver Academy, an independent school in Miami, while continuing to grow her knowledge base in her passion of curriculum and instruction design and implementation:

I find that books that resonate the most with children have two components: a character who is similar to them in some way and who has a difficult or compelling challenge to overcome.

Teaching mostly 5th grade over the past six years, I found there are a couple of books that stand out. One of those books is WONDER by R.J. Palacio. In a world where conversations about bullying in schools and kindness are both becoming more prevalent and increasingly more necessary, this book opens the door to these conversations with older elementary students. Fifth graders can easily relate to having first-day jitters and are open to hearing a story from multiple accounts; however, while some may be able to connect with the main character because they have been singled out for being different from their peers, many of them have never imagined living a life like Auggie’s. This book serves as both a mirror (because we’ve all had to do something hard for the first time ever) and a window (because many of us do not feel or are not so physically different as our peers) into the world of middle schoolers.

Another book that my students have connected with is Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Year after year, my students get lost in this story about friendship and bravery overcoming fear and hate. They find themselves both enraged by the injustices described and enthralled by the lengths that people are willing to go to help those they care about. One of the scenes that always resonates with them is when AnneMarie rips the Star of David necklace off Ellen’s neck just before the Nazi soldiers burst in on their sleepover. Many of them also connect with being the older sibling (AnneMarie) who gets easily annoyed by their younger and more naive sibling (Kirsty), but through our class discussions begin to feel for Kirsty because she is so blissfully unaware of what the soldiers represent and how they have changed their childhoods. These themes of bravery and loyalty resonate strongly with our 10- and 11-year-olds who are finding their place in the world and becoming more aware of global issues.

Thanks to Sarah, Jennifer, Sarah, and Tatiana for their contributions!

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