Diversity Through Literature

Earlier this month, primary school students gathered in the library to read “I Am Every Good Thing” by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, an empowering book that celebrates Black boys. Afterward, our students discussed the importance of self-love. This affirming experience was one of the many ways Harlem Academy celebrates diversity through literature – not just during Black History Month but all year long.

Representation matters. That is why our students are exposed early and often to books by and about people of color. In the primary grades, read-aloud books such as “Hair Love” by Matthew A. Cherry and “Alma and How She Got Her Name” by Juana Martinez-Neal bring appreciation for our identities and respect for our differences to the forefront. 

In elementary school, the literature focuses on weightier issues of race, class, and privilege. By fourth and fifth grade, students are reading more complex titles including “Harbor Me” by Jacqueline Woodson, which explores a group of children creating a safe space to share their problems and “The Parker Inheritance” by Varian Johnson about a young girl discovering her family’s past in the Jim Crow South.

Bringing Books to Life

Some teachers use related activities to make the plot leap off the page, including fourth grade teacher Jasmine Ahmed. Her class is currently reading “Clayton Byrd Goes Underground” by Rita Williams-Garcia, a novel about a young boy’s relationship with his grandfather, a blues musician. 

To help her students experience the power of the blues, Ms. Ahmed plays different artists for a few minutes at the start of class. “We listen to a couple of blues songs and then I ask how they feel. What mood does the music put them in?” It enables her students to feel an even stronger connection to the book’s characters and to gain an appreciation for a musical genre steeped in Black culture. 
Finding Their Voice

In middle school, students are introduced to literary analysis and use it as a means to examine everything from novels to memoirs to poetry more deeply. As they delve into works by authors of color such as “My Family Divided” by Diane Guerrero, “Bronx Masquerade” by Nikki Grimes, “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, and “We Are Not Yet Equal” by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden, middle schoolers are encouraged to reflect on who they are, develop their voice, and share their own stories.  

Diverse texts aren’t just a mainstay of English class, however. They extend to history as well. This spring, for example, eighth graders will explore the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed using her recent memoir “On Juneteenth” as a starting point. “We’ll read excerpts of the book aloud and also watch some of Gordon-Reed’s interviews to gain an understanding of her life story and how it has affected her work,” explains middle school history teacher William Beller. 

Rich, in-depth class discussions are sure to follow – and that’s the point. “We bring a high level of intention, thought, and meaning to how we celebrate people of color,” says Assistant Head of School LaShonda Davis. “Students see themselves represented in these books, and the topics covered are relevant and connected to their lived experiences.”
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Harlem Academy is an independent school (grades K-8) that drives equity of opportunity for promising students, guiding them to thrive at the highest academic levels and one day make a mark on the world.