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Elementary school books rarely describe subjects and authors of color, New York study finds


When Irving Torres was 8, he wanted to dress up as Human Torch, his favorite Marvel superhero. He went to his local barber in Queens, New York, and as he shaved the sides of his head, he realized.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t be him, because I’m not white,’” Torres told NBC News.

So he disguised himself as a ninja.

Now 22, the administrative assistant of the famous Public Theater in New York understands “how fucked up it was.”

“In my mind, it wasn’t impossible for me to have superpowers, but I didn’t think I could be the Human Torch because of my appearance,” he said. “There was no place for me in the comics, so I couldn’t dress like a comic book character.”

While comics, literature and films have made strides in reflecting the diversity of the country, a new report has found that this is not the case with books used in elementary school classrooms. from New York.

Although 85% of the city’s public school students are Latin American, black and Asian, “authors of books in commonly used elementary school curricula are, on average, 84% white – a more appropriate percentage for Bismarck. , North Dakota (82% white) or Dubuque, Iowa (80% white) than New York, ”according to the study, “Chronic Absence: The Exclusion of People of Color from New York Elementary School Curriculum.” ”

Researchers from the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice and the NYU Metropolitan Center for Equity and the Transformation of Schools examined 700 books in 10 English Language Arts (ELA) programs and book lists commonly used in the city’s public schools, focusing on the ethnic origins of the authors and the characters printed on the covers of the books.

Of the 140 books on the city’s Ministry of Education “NYC reads 365 book list » in particular, eight are from black authors, six from Latino authors and seven from Asian authors. The lack of books written by authors of color is growing in importance “during a historical period when communities of color and immigrant communities are the target of political attacks,” according to the report.

Natasha Capers, the CEJ coordinator, was not necessarily surprised by the results, but found it curious that more books in the New York program feature animals as main characters than Latinos or Blacks.

“Books can shape how children see themselves, others and the world and how they will shape their identities,” Capers said. “When kids don’t see themselves represented by the curriculum, it sends them a message. “

The CEJ cited studies in Arizona, California, and other states that found academic benefits for culturally appropriate study programs (CRE). “Research shows that for students of color and white students, CRE decreases dropout rates and suspensions, and increases GPAs, student engagement, self-image, critical thinking skills and graduation rate, ”the report says.

Considering the benefits of this educational approach, the CEJ recommended that the city’s Department of Education create a more culturally appropriate curriculum.

“During a historic period when communities of color and immigrant communities have come under political attack, a culturally appropriate curriculum is essential,” the group wrote in its report.

Capers stressed that strengthening the program to reflect the nation’s diverse history goes beyond adding books on or by authors of color.

Capers, who attended New York City Public School, said that although she had had the opportunity to read many books about black people, those books “didn’t talk about who I was.”

“I never learned the story of [the black] diaspora or the history of Puerto Rico or Haiti, ”she said.

Capers as well as Torres recalled learning from the same cultural figures every year while missing other influential people, especially thinkers, writers and activists who have helped shape a more contemporary history.

“We talked about Martin Luther King every year. Maybe we would have a Sojourner Truth thrown in there. Every February we read a poem by Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, ”Capers told NBC News. “But there was no Ida Wells, no Zora Neale Hurston and no Nikki Giovanni.” Giovanni is one of the nation’s most acclaimed poets anhe recipient of numerous awards.

When Capers first read Giovanni “Ego tripping” poem in college, she said it “changed” her life.

Torres recalled that his classes did not reflect the multiplicity of countries and histories that define the Latin American experience.

“We are not represented at all,” he said. “The only Latinx character I remember hearing about was Cesar Chavez in college,” Torres said.

Although Torres, who is Ecuadorian-American, grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in New York City, he doesn’t recall much diversity in the books he read in elementary school.

“Maybe we had ‘Dora the Explorer?’ books in the classroom library? “, did he declare. “I just remember that all the characters in ‘The Boxcar Children’ books were white. Jack and Annie from the “Magic Tree House” series – which I loved – were white. ‘Goose bumps.’ Everyone was white in Goosebumps.

Currently, the DOE uses the English language education program of a number of companies including educational programs, according to the DOE, comply with the “Common Core Learning Standards“Established by the state. One of the learning goals for students in Kindergarten to Grade 5 is to “make cultural connections to the text and to themselves”.

As for the DOE’s own list of books, its website says it was “compiled by expert school librarians.”

The CEJ recommends that the Department of Education use curriculum and book companies whose material reflects student demographics in content and authorship and create an in-house English language education program.

“When a book mentions Africa as a catch-all and doesn’t describe it as an entire continent, that’s wrong,” Capers said. “Some parts of Africa are very different from each other, so these shouldn’t be the only books children read.

Danielle Filson, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education, agrees the curriculum should be more reflective of the student body.

“Our students should see themselves in the books they read and the lessons they are taught, and we prioritize a culturally appropriate curriculum that includes a wide range of voices,” Filson wrote in a statement to NBC News.

She added that the department had already invested $ 23 million to provide anti-bias and culturally sensitive training for all school staff and that it “would continue to work with the CEJ and other partners to leverage this. this progress “.

Aneth Naranjo, now a sophomore at John Jay College in Manhattan, attended Queens Public School. She said she learned in college what she was not exposed to in school. A graduate in Latin American studies, she meets one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda.

“I have never heard of any contributions from people of color,” Naranjo said. “How are you supposed to be motivated when all you are taught is that your people have been massively killed and colonized?”

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