Grade 6 Language Arts Fosters Empathy Through Literature: The Great ASH Book Diversity Audit
The Grade 6 students from the Language Arts class recently made important additions to their classroom library through an initiative led by their teacher, Ms. Nale: ‘The Great ASH Book Diversity Audit’. Aimed at fostering more inclusive learning experiences, the students audited over 250 books from their class library. They requested the purchase of new books that represented not only the diversity within their school but also the broader world.
This project was part of a unit called Exploring Diversity in Literature. Understanding diversity in literature and recognizing the importance of diverse books in fostering empathy and kindness were key components. These elements were integrated as students developed persuasive writing skills, taking the form of essays advocating for the inclusion of more diverse books in their library.
The students immersed themselves into the topic of diversity by exploring the concept of Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Doors. This is based on the idea that literature transforms the human experience and reflects it back to us. In that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences. It is then that reading becomes a means of self-affirmation, as readers often seek their mirrors in books. But when children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, it can indicate something powerful about how they are valued in society. In this context, ‘mirrors’ are elements by which readers could identify themselves such as nationalities, gender, sexuality, heritage, language, ethnicity, disabilities, neurodiversity, and much more.
Using the demographics of the entire Middle School division as a reference, the students evaluated their library's collection. Although students with American nationality were still prominent (30%), a wide range of nationalities and home languages were represented in the Middle School. However, the audit revealed that almost 60% of the book authors were from the United States, and 85% were from English-speaking countries. Furthermore, 31% of the protagonists were from English-speaking countries. The students also considered other criteria such as gender identities and ethnicities of both authors and protagonists, as well as publishing dates and literary genres. They found that most of their book collection was published between 2000 and 2013.
These findings motivated the students to further investigate the topic of diversity and take action by researching and recommending new books to be added to the Grade 6 collection through persuasive essays. The students focused on various identities in their arguments; some chose their own nationalities and ethnicities, while others concentrated on different identities or publishing dates. For example, Faye advocated for more books written by or featuring protagonists from the Middle East: “There will be appreciation and understanding for more lifestyles, and self-confidence may rise (in Middle Eastern students) because they see themselves in books. Diversity affects the leaders of the world, and therefore also the leaders of ASH.” Noura made a case for more books representing Asian cultures: “There were only two Asian authors in our Language Arts library. We need more books written by Asian authors because it’s important to represent Asian students and make them feel included in our community.”
The student recommendations for new books covered a diverse range of identities and backgrounds. Among the recommended books were Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge, When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, and The Many Masks of Andy Zhou by Jack Cheng.
To celebrate the culmination of this profound project, the students invited parents and other members of the ASH community to present their new books. Ms. Nale had a special surprise in store; she reached out to the authors of the recommended books and shared their messages with the students:
“I’m thrilled to hear that Sugar Town Queens has a place in your library. I love reading books that are set in places I’ve never been to and with characters whose lives are different from mine. Reading helps us build bridges with people all around the world.” - Malla Nunn, Sugar Town Queens
“I definitely appreciate your including my book Cast Away in your collection. In a world of many problems, it’s good to remember small things we can do ourselves to feel better about our contributions. I agree that most libraries could benefit by including more books by Arab or Arab-American (Arab-Dutch, Arab-Canadian, etc.) authors. Why not? It’s a big part of the world.” - Naomi Shihab Nye, Cast Away
The Great ASH Book Diversity Audit empowered Grade 6 students to expand and make their class library more inclusive; reflecting diverse identities and experiences. Through persuasive essays and deep exploration of literature, they advocated for books that mirror their community and the broader world. With plans for this project to continue in other classes in the future, it served to not only enrich their library but also foster empathy, understanding, and a stronger sense of belonging among students.
“This is why students have to be taught this concept (diversity), so our world can embrace our individuality. Everyone is human and has differences - this is something that has to be cherished.” - Dante, Grade 6