LAPEL — Last school year when Kannadie Heck, Samson Gilbert and Wyatt Funk visited the shared media center at Lapel’s elementary and middle schools to augment their reading skills, almost none of the materials were written by or featured people of color or the things important to them.
But librarian Heather Rusche was able to change that this school year through an $860 grant from Indiana Humanities and funded by the Lilly Endowment that allowed her to diversify the schools’ collection to include more Black and brown authors and main characters.
“This grant has definitely allowed us to expand and update our collection,” she said. “In applying for the grant, one goal was for all kids to know they are represented, acknowledged and welcomed at Lapel Elementary School and Lapel Middle School, as well as broadening the horizons of all students to acknowledge there are kids who may look different than they do, but we are all one race of human beings.”
According to the Indiana Department of Education, of the 709 students at Lapel’s elementary school, only a little more than 1% each identify as Black or Hispanic, while 3.2% identify as multiracial, which also could include these demographics. Of the middle school’s 328 students, .9% identify as Black, 2.4% identify as Hispanic,5.2% identify as multiracial and .3% identify as Asian.
But having diverse books and other resources even in schools where a vast majority of students are white is important to broadening the horizons of relatively sheltered students, especially following the nationwide protests regarding police brutality against people of color over the summer, Rusche and other educators said.
The Rev. Libby Manning, a regular presence at Frankton-Lapel Community Schools’ Board of Trustees monthly meetings, became aware of the grant opportunity and encouraged Rusche to apply for the grant.
“I am a Lutheran pastor in Lapel, and as a pastor, I care about the flourishing of our community in all its aspects.,” she said. “I care that our community reflects God’s hope of justice and equality for all, so I stay attentive to the systemic racism in our area, and do what I can to combat it.”
Treva Bostic, director of multicultural education and behavioral services at Anderson Community Schools, which has a much higher minority population than Frankton-Lapel, said it’s important for all students, regardless of background, to have access to culturally responsive materials. However, she said, about 75% of children’s books focus exclusively on white characters.
“Cultivating inclusion and understanding around multicultural education and taking culturally responsive approach to teaching benefits all students, staff and our larger community,” she said. “There is valuable insight when students learn about cultures other than their own. It helps students to develop critical thinking skills, an ability to respect other cultures, and even an ability to show empathy.”
Bostic stressed that diversity pertains not only to race but also to different religion, economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity and language backgrounds.
All students should be able to see themselves and their peers reflected in the stories read and discussed in the classroom, Bostic said.
“When students do not see themselves in literature or in the history books, they may feel marginalized and even invisible,” she said. “For students of color, in particular, having access to books that positively reflect their own ethnicity can play an essential role in building a positive sense of identity and good self-esteem.”
When possible, Bostic said, reading materials can be augmented with actual or virtual field trips and other activities.
“Field trips to places of local and national interest are great ways to really see multiculturalism in action,” she said. “If students cannot physically visit museums, government facilities, monuments or historical markers, many places now offer virtual tours that are student-centered.”
Teachers also can deepen the reading experience from the classroom with games and genealogical exercises.
“I think it is imperative to help all students learn about their ancestors and the origins of when their families first arrived in the United States and how they arrived here,” she said. “Sometimes an exercise like this helps to illuminate the complexity of American history and culture while also encouraging all students to show and tell the class about their heritage.”