Today in the United States, 25 percent of children under age 5 are Hispanic; by 2050, that percentage will be almost 40 percent.
In 2011, for the first time, Hispanics became the majority of public school students in Texas.
In the 2010-2011 statistics for California, Hispanic or Latino students make up 51% of those attending K-12 public schools, with White (non-Hispanic) coming in at 27% and African Americans at 7%. The Los Angeles Unified School District is made up of 73% Hispanic students and 10% African American students.
While the number of Hispanic, and other “minority” students is rising rapidly, where are the books to help them learn?
From The New York Times:
Hispanic students now make up nearly a quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, and are the fastest-growing segment of the school population. Yet nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers. (Dora the Explorer, who began as a cartoon character, is an outlier.)
Education experts and teachers who work with large Latino populations say that the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements like character motivation.
This lack of familiar images will be much more than an obstacle to understanding story elements. When kids can’t relate in any way to the books they are reading, they lose interest and become disengaged. They begin to see how their language and culture are not valued by the school. This can lead to feelings of shame about who they are, or to anger that they are required to suppress who they are, and adopt the “majority” culture.
Young people need to be able to see themselves in good literature.
I grew up in the UK reading history books that rarely mentioned women. I knew I loved history, and yet I found nothing to engage me in those deadly texts and always did poorly in history class. That was before the birth of herstory, although many history textbooks nowadays still feature a preponderance of men.
And then there’s the issue of dolls.
From The New York Times:
The reality is that most dolls made today are still white, despite the fact that racial and ethnic minorities now make up 43 percent of the country’s population under 20 (and even more in New York City). Yes, doll manufacturers started diversifying their doll lines decades ago. While early “black” Barbies were essentially Barbie dipped in color, Mattel has done a better job with increasing the colors of its doll palette. In recent years, the success of Dora the Explorer has helped bump the Hispanic presence in the doll market. And the popular American Girl line introduced a variety of ethnic dolls a few years ago.
But in spite of the existence of these diverse dolls, it’s still really hard to actually find one in a store.
As a high school English teacher, I worked hard to persuade my department to get rid of some of the DWM (dead white males) and include such firsts as Sandra Cisneros’s “Mango Street,” Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club,” and Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”
Now it is vital that younger children of all cultures also have the opportunity to see themselves in literature: not the creation of token minority kids in a white story, but real literature reflecting their lives.
As Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at Chicago’s Erikson Institute told The New York Times:
“Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives.”
The racial and ethnic composition of students enrolled in public schools was just 58 percent White in the 2007-2008 school year, the latest year for which figures are available.
With that figure predicted to decrease rapidly over the next decade, it’s past time for educators to come up with reading texts that reflect the reality of American schools today.
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