Windows and Mirrors

At Gateway, we know reading can be intrinsically fun and rewarding, an essential behavior for imagination, connection, and communication, and a path towards learning and success across all academic areas. By the end of 8th grade, children are expected to read a million words a year, and that’s why we have classroom read alouds, novel studies, independent reading projects and ask children (and families) to read at home every night of the year.

This week is Read Across America Week, a beloved program launched in 1998 by the National Education Association to celebrate and promote reading by children and teens. Read Across America featured the work of Dr. Seuss for its first two decades, but as the anti-blackness, anti-Asian, and other racist sentiments in his work were examined in academic research and reputable journalism outlets, Read Across America is now featuring other authors. Dr. Seuss’s estate recognized this as well and has recently concluded that some of the titles should not be republished. I can still feel my own profound disappointment, embarrassment, sadness, and eventual resolve as I looked back at books I had known and loved, and saw with a new understanding that what I had blithely overlooked was both very hurtful to people about whom I deeply care, and carried some messages I could not condone.

Read Across America has pivoted to include and promote a more diverse range of books. People are still free to read Dr. Seuss if they choose, but there’s a world of other authors waiting to be discovered. As the NEA website notes, “Students need books that provide both windows and mirrors if we are going to create more readers, writers, and people who feel included and recognized, and who understand that the world is far richer than just their experiences alone.” The idea of books as windows and mirrors was popularized by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita at Ohio State University and winner of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement given by the American Library Association. In Dr. Bishop’s words, 

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

At Gateway School, we recognize that an education rich in the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is essential for students to thrive in a multicultural world because it provides those windows and mirrors that illuminate our understanding of each other and ourselves in the context of the larger human experience. We believe that this work is a necessity and that it is not optional as we move towards Cultural Proficiency, a model for shifting the culture of a school through individual transformation and organizational change. Our goal is to promote the viewpoint that cultural difference is an asset to be cultivated and celebrated.

Last month was Black History Month, and our DEI efforts led to an added emphasis on acknowledging the lives and experiences of Black Americans (though this is part of Gateway’s curriculum throughout the year). In 2nd grade, students learned about Dr. Mae Jemison, the engineer, physician, and astronaut who became the first Black woman to travel into space and also discovered that the true story of when Rosa Parks sat down on the bus is not that she was simply tired, but an intentional, planned, and coordinated act of resistance. In 4th grade, students worked on mini-biographies and presentations to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of Black Americans, while in Middle School students read poetry from a range of Black authors such as Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni while beginning to learn about historical elements such as the slave trade, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights movement. 

For many years, Gateway’s curriculum has sought to give windows into the lives of those marginalized by traditional American history — black and brown people, children and enslaved, indigenous and immigrant. The critical step is to move from learning to action — that is, to decide that we have the power to push for justice. Last month, we saw this when our 7th and 8th graders’ Humanities project was to first learn about the proposed mine at the Amah Mutsen’s sacred Juristac site in Gilroy (which threatens both ancestral lands as well as a delicate ecosystem for multiple federally endangered species), and then to undertake a Letter to the Editor writing campaign — which led to students being published in The Gilroy Gazette and other outlets.

March is Women’s History Month. On Monday morning I saw a tweet by @sheathescholar that had me thinking all day: a challenge “to center women who are often erased — Indigenous, trans, undocumented, masculine-of-center, queer, disabled, poor, fat, loud, dark-skinned, house-less, elderly, neurodivergent, Muslim — women who deserve their roses, too.”  Perhaps, as you ponder which new books to share with your children this month, you may find A Mighty Girl’s booklist on social issues helpful as you open new windows and mirrors for your children.

Warmly,

Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School