The Greatest Gift: facilitating an inclusive approach to reading for pleasure
Part of how we prepare our undergraduate trainee teachers is to empower them to confidently choose a children’s book that will engage, challenge and inspire the children in their class.
The important work carried out by the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) in conjunction with the Open University has clearly given teacher educators the message that teachers must have a good knowledge of children’s literature. This will then enable them to choose appropriate books which will connect with the children in their classes (Cremin et al, 2009). The English team in the primary education department have made this a core element of our modules as evidenced through the Teachers as Readers’ groups we have run over the past year.
The coronavirus pandemic resulted in our third-year English module being redesigned. This was an opportunity to strengthen our message to students that text selection is key to engaging children with reading and creating readers for life. It also was an opportunity to use the research I had carried out in preparation for writing my literature review as part of my doctoral research. The research completed by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) which was published in their 2019 Reflecting Realities report (CLPE, 2020) was also an inspiration for change. Alongside the killing of George Floyd in the summer with the subsequent demands for a more inclusive and diverse curriculum, prompted our focus in the English module on using children’s books that represent BAME children.
We used the Reflecting Realities report (CLPE, 2020) with our students to highlight the issue that very few children’s books (5%) have a BAME main character whilst BAME children make up 33.5% of the school population. This shocking statistic was then underpinned with post-colonial literary theory. We discussed the impact of the cannons of colonial children’s literature such as The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson and how we could have critical conversations with children about the historical context in which these books were written. Stanley Fish’s notion of boutique multiculturalism (Fish, 1997) was introduced, so that students were aware of the tokenistic nature of some children’s books that claim to represent a multicultural readership. We discussed the concept of neo-colonialism in literature and whether the text represents BAME characters as ‘other’ to the norm (the white western European characters and their culture) which need to be assimilated into the norm. As a result, the students became more critical in their appraisal and selection of texts.
Students had the option for their assignment of choosing a children’s book suitable for a Year 6 class and justifying their selection with reference to the criteria for evaluating whether their book represented BAME people as laid out in the CLPE’s Reflecting Realities report (2020) and post-colonialism literary theory. They considered whether the characters in their book were fully drawn out and authentically represented, whether the book challenged misconceptions and racial tropes or whether it supported the reader in identifying some of the social injustices that certain racial groups may face within our society. We looked in particular at a couple of recently published books, the first one being the award-winning High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson. This is a good old fashioned mystery story featuring two black girls living in inner London. It normalises race and places them firmly as key protagonists in the narrative thereby meeting the criteria outlined above. Other books we discussed were Refugees by Brian Bilston, a wonderful and thought-provoking poem on attitudes towards refugees, The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson, a non-fiction book about key figures in black history. Finally, we discussed Coming to England by Floella Benjamin, a biographical account of her emigration from Trinidad to England in the 1950s and the prejudice that she faced in London.
Many of our students researched further than these suggestions and have chosen some truly inspiring books. They then planned a three-week ‘Scheme of Work’ with their chosen text at its heart, using their creativity to produce inspiring and engaging lessons for all children. Having looked at the submitted assignments, the students have really risen to the challenge of justifying their choice of text through inclusive literary theory. Some of the schemes of work based around their book choice are truly inspiring and embody the creative ethos that the English department focus on instilling into our students. The teaching profession and pupils will benefit from their criticality and thoughtfulness in choosing children’s literature that promotes the diversity in our society and enables all children to see themselves in the books found in schools. This in turn will hopefully allow more of our children to have access to the most important gift of all – the joy of reading for the rest of their lives.
Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (2020) CLPE’s Reflecting Realities - Survey of Ethnic Representation within UK Children’s Literature [Online]. Available from: <https://clpe.org.uk/publications-and-bookpacks/reflecting-realities> [Accessed 31st December 2020].
Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F., Powell, S. & Safford, K. (2009) Teachers as readers: building communities of readers. Literacy, 43(1), pp. 11 – 19.
Fish, S. (1997) Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech. Critical Inquiry, 23(2), pp.378-395.