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North Kansas City Schools Are Getting More Diverse Books Because Representation Matters

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Crestview Elementary third grader Hana Ismail with her favorite books from the library in her classroom.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Crestview Elementary third grader Hana Ismail is reading two books she picked out from her classroom library that feature Pakistani protagonists.

“Four Feet, Two Sandals,” by Karen Lynn Williams and illustrated by Khadra Mohammed, tells the story of two girls who meet in a refugee camp. “Malala’s Magic Pencil,” by Malala Yousafzai, is about the young Nobel laureate, with illustrations by Kerascoët.

“I get to pick out all my favorite books,” Hana said. “They’re really fun to read for me, and they give me more information about everything.”

Hana’s favorite books to read have characters that look like her, part of a push in the North Kansas City Schools to get more education materials that reflect that the diversity of the student population.

Diverse education materials

When teachers at Crestview took an inventory of the books in their classroom libraries, there weren’t that many titles that represented the student population, one of the most diverse in the state of Missouri.

“We cannot change the demand for these types of books unless we demand the change,” said assistant principal Vincent Potts. “We have to say to those we're doing business with, this is what our student population needs, this is what they deserve, can you fulfill that need?”

Potts said when the first shipment of books came in after North Kansas City Schools reached an agreement with its supplier, kids were really excited.

“They were ready. They were just craving books that represented them, that were different, that were new and exciting,” Potts said.

Potts could relate. He was in elementary school when Marvel started releasing comic books for Black History Month. The black protagonists made him fall in love with reading.

Cultural knowledge

There's mounting evidence that it’s actually easier for kids to learn to read when they have access to books that reflect their cultural knowledge.

Dorinda Carter Andrews researches culturally relevant teaching practices at Michigan State University.

“Having children’s literature that actually uses names they’re used to hearing in their community, that depicts spaces they’re used to seeing in their community, even including storylines that they experience in their community, help them light up and get excited about reading,” she says.

When the characters and situations are familiar, students can spend more time on the words.

But it’s equally important for white students to read books with diverse characters, Potts says. It’s one of the ways they learn empathy.

“We're coming up on Dr King's holiday here,” Potts says, “and he had a statement just to paraphrase, that people don't get along because they fear one another and they fear one another because they don't know one another.”

Here are some of Crestview students’ favorite books.

Tennie Shaw, 5th grade

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Crestview Elementary fifth grader Tennie Shaw with her favorite books from the library in her classroom.

What Tennie is reading: “Dancing in the Wings,” by performer Debbie Allen, loosely based on her own experiences as a black dancer, will illustrations by Kadir Nelson.

“I want to dance like her,” Tennie said.

Aland Saedun, 4th grade

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Crestview Elementary fourth grader Aland Saedun with his favorite book from the library in his classroom.

What Aland is reading: “One Green Apple,” by Eve Bunting, will illustrations by Ted Lewin.

“It’s about a Muslim girl who just came to America and had no friends in school until one girl came up to her and tried to translate what she’s saying to her,” Aland said.

Deng Agau Deng, 4th grade

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Crestview Elementary fourth grader Deng Deng with his favorite book from the library in his classroom.

What Deng is reading: “My Name Is Sangoel,” by Karen Lynn Williams, with illustrations by Khadra Mohammed.

“It’s about a character that just came from Africa and everyone is saying his name wrong,” Deng said. “Me and Sangoel connect because we are from the same tribe, we speak the same language, and we call an airplane the same thing, a sky boat.”

Vincent Potts, Assistant Principal

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Crestview Elementary Assistant Principal Vincent Pott loves the book "Crown," by local author Derrick Barnes.

What Vincent is reading: “Crown,” by local author Derrick Barnes, with illustrations by Gordon C. James.

“I connected with the characters because I still go to the barbershop I went to growing up, 7 Oaks Barber Shop on 39th Street,” he said. “That is the place where I saw black men who came from different backgrounds – professionals and judges, police officers – and it’s a community centerpiece.”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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