By Krystal L. Thompkins | Originally published in the Back-to-School 2019 issue of AC&E.
Literacy Leadership Matters
Leadership matters! This phrase now permeates the educational landscape; yet, few people understand what this phrase means. True leadership requires vision and the ability to usher others into sharing in that vision of success. As the leader of the reading department within Portsmouth Public Schools in Portsmouth, Virginia, I envision all students reaching their full potential. To do this, students must read on grade level by the beginning of third grade. If they do not, chances for academic success and beyond are greatly diminished. So the question becomes, how do literacy leaders change the trajectory of student achievement? The answers are found in the pages of books. Especially when these leaders champion the need for schools to select books where story characters look like the readers.
It’s not always black or white
Racial identity is a social construct. When I think about my biracial nephew, I often worry about how he will be perceived in the world. Although my nephew is smart, polite, confident, and witty, I believe he has struggled to find his place. Is he black enough to be considered black? Or is he white enough to be considered white? Even though his family is loving and accepting, each of us clearly identifies with one racial group; either black or white. We are not forced to explain the differences in our hair texture, skin tone, or parents. People look at us and immediately place us in one category; black or white. For my nephew, his physical appearance to some is racially ambiguous, raising questions about his ethnicity. How then do students like my nephew find their place in America’s classrooms when they do not fit easily into identifiable categories? Hence, the need for all students to see themselves in literature. When students see images of themselves and read about characters with similar experiences, they are affirmed and validated. In addition, this affirmation helps to create a learning environment conducive to learning and academic success.
As I reflect on my public education, I remember rarely seeing characters that looked like me in the books I read. Although I loved reading about the adventures of Ramona and Beezus, I often wonder if my comprehension, fluency and vocabulary skills would have been enhanced if I had access to more books where the characters reflected my experiences as a student of color. Studies show that academic achievement increases when students see themselves reflected in literature. Moreover, offering students a myriad of classroom literature opens the door for conversations about diversity; thereby increasing achievement for all students.
As the district leader of reading education, I trained my staff to recognize the value and need for literacy resources that mirror students in our classrooms. As such, my office purchased a variety of books for schools featuring characters from multiple ethnicities, different religions, social issues, and home structures. It is our collective belief that all students deserve to see themselves on the pages of the books they read. By doing so, the message is clear that all students truly do matter!
Shifting the Paradigm
If diverse representation in literature is critical to the academic success of students, how might schools shift their classrooms and even school libraries to places where all students feel valued? One way for this transformation to occur is for administrators to organize literacy walk-throughs looking specifically for books that reflect the school and classroom community. By conducting walk-throughs, building and district level stakeholders can determine if various literature resources are available for student use. If not, this data can support the need for more financial resources allocated to buy books and other reading materials truly reflective of an inclusive environment.
As the country becomes more sundry, a diverse student population already exists within schools. As such, school officials must work to make sure that students not only see themselves as part of the school but reflected in the school’s culture, especially in the books they read. Furthermore, racial variances should be celebrated, acknowledged and affirmed if we want to create an inclusive environment where all students have an equal opportunity to learn and thrive. Without diverse classroom literature, schools become complicit in promoting social injustice and intolerance. Therefore, it is our moral obligation as educators to eradicate injustices in the school setting. As a result, we promote the true vision of inclusion, equity, and fairness for all.
Krystal L. Thompkins is a distinguished educator with 25 years of experience at the school, district and state levels. She now serves as the English and reading coordinator with Portsmouth Public Schools in Portsmouth, Virginia. She received her Bachelor of Science, Master of Science in Education and Education Specialist degree in administration and supervision from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She also has more leadership training through the BB&T Leadership Institute for Education Leaders. As a well-respected educator, Ms. Thompkins has worked with several districts and schools and is known for her knowledge of curriculum and instruction and data-driven decision-making.