Voices from PEN/Faulkner Interns: Alice Tsai

We continue our spotlight on the wonderful interns we worked with this spring with an essay by our Research and Evaluation intern, Alice Tsai. You can also read Natalie Davis’ two essays, on her BookTube channel and becoming a Twihard.

As the population of the United States becomes increasingly diverse, it is important that students are in classrooms that are culturally responsive in nature. But what exactly is a culturally responsive classroom? 

A culturally responsive classroom can consist of different components, but the focus should be on helping build connections between student experiences outside of school to classroom content so that students can succeed socially and academically. When students feel their identity is represented in the classroom, they can have higher self-esteem, better social-emotional functioning, and increased classroom engagement, all of which are key components for motivation and academic success. A culturally responsive classroom ensures that the diverse perspectives of all students are represented in learning. This not only includes racial and ethnic diversity, but also cultural identity, gender, class, and other identities. 

A key component of having a culturally responsive classroom is to expose students to multicultural literature. It is important that students can see themselves reflected in the books that they read. When people see themselves in books, they are able to connect with the story and gain a greater understanding of themselves and others. Representative stories help students affirm their own identities, allowing them to feel valid and valued. The book becomes more meaningful to them. 

Likewise, students will be able to learn about other cultures, helping them empathize with other communities by relating to the characters in diverse stories. Not only do diverse stories help students with building an understanding of themselves and others, they assist with getting students interested in reading. When students can identify with the characters in a book, their attention becomes captured by the story. 

Think back to your own childhood. Many of those classic stories that you remember so fondly were centered around a narrative with a white protagonist and characters. Do not get me wrong, there are a few multicultural books that have managed to break into the standard set of stories many children are familiar with, such as Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears. However, there cannot just be that one token multicultural book, or even a handful of books, that tell the story of any demographic group. As Chimamanda Adichie says in her well-known TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story,

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

A single story has the power to perpetuate stereotypes that can be damaging. Children can feel disconnected from their own culture and society because they do not connect with the stereotypical narrative the single story presents. However, with a diverse range of multicultural stories, students can see that there is more than one story and envision a reality outside of the stereotypical norm. Stories have the power to validate a child’s identity and to inspire them to pursue their dreams. Characters that students are able to connect to can help prompt students to step outside of the stereotypes that society has boxed them into.

So teachers, take care to include a wide range of representation of characters in the stories you keep in your classroom. Parents, encourage your children to read different kinds of books with diverse characters. And for yourself, be open minded about the books that you read and surround yourself with. Try something new. There is always more than one story.

Alice Tsai was our Spring 2020 Research and Evaluation intern. If you’re interested in becoming a Research and Evaluation Intern with PEN/Faulkner, our Fall 2020 application for virtual internships is now open