Esther Cepeda: In reading, the experience counts
CHICAGO — It's "Too Many Tamales" season in selected classrooms across the country. The book, a contemporary classic written by Gary Soto and illustrated by Ed Martinez, tells the story of Maria, a young girl who loses her mother's diamond ring as she and her family prepare tamales for their big holiday feast.
I discovered it with my class of first-graders when I taught English-language learners in a local elementary school. Unfortunately, though every grade level in our school reads many of the same books to create a shared culture, only my class experienced "Too Many Tamales." As the holidays approached, the rest of the school read more "traditional" holiday books. Those students lost out.
Sort of like how my students would have missed out on most of the themes the rest of their grade was involved in had I not insisted that the bilingual students be included in the general curriculum. The "mainstream" teachers thought this was bizarre. "Why are you teaching your class about Flat Stanley, Junie B. Jones, Hanukkah and Chinese New Year?" they'd ask incredulously. As if Hispanic students couldn't possibly be expected to learn about the same topics as the other first-graders without a mountain of "culturally correct" learning materials.
And that's my beef with the handwringing and op-eds inspired by a recent Page One story in The New York Times, "For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing." The premise was that Hispanic students, who make up about a quarter of the public school population in America, are being short-changed because they don't "see" themselves in books written for young readers.
Well-meaning as this article was — who could possibly argue that all children shouldn't feel included in their school materials? — it rang alarms about some misguided yet prevailing attitudes in education when it comes to reading, diversity and inclusion, and minority students.
First, why aren't we equally worried that non-Hispanic students get little exposure to books written by Hispanic — or Asian, black and Native American — authors or including such characters? Aren't they as harmed by not reading the types of books the Times' article suggests Latino students need?
And why, exactly, is this notion that "cultural relevance" is the key to reading progress so prevalent, especially when the conversation centers on Hispanics, when there's really no evidence to support it?
As Brice Particelli, director of the Student Press Initiative at Teachers College, Columbia University, told me, "This problem is real — there is not a great enough diversity of texts in schools, and ethnicity is one of those pieces that's absolutely lacking.
"But it's misstated: The problem is not a lack of Latino texts in Latino classrooms, it's a lack of diversity — of culture, gender, ethnicity, economy, geography, genre, perspective and challenge to familiarity — in all books in all classrooms."
I contacted Particelli after reading his letter to the editor of the Times making the same point I feel so strongly about. "Suggesting the pairing of Latino characters to Latino students is deeply problematic," he said. "Further, posing the issue as one solely about ethnicity suggests that Latino readers need Latino writers more than white or Asian readers do. We all need a diversity of texts."
Other reactions have been just as strong. Some have been from Latino authors of children's books such as Maya Christina Smith-Gonzalez, who warns educators not to fall prey to the stereotyping that leads to an overabundance of "fiesta and tamale books."
I thought of this when I read a teeth-grinding quote from a teacher in the Times' article: "It would be more helpful as a teacher," she said, "to have these go-to books where I can say, 'I think you are going to like this book. This book reminds me of you.'"
If a teacher gave me a tamale book and said that to me, I'd be crushed. You see, as much as my parents enjoyed them (bought from a store on special occasions), I don't eat tamales and I've never even come close to making them. Frankly, I don't want anyone to look at me and think of ethnic food. We are all far more than pierogies, tacos or fried rice.
Losing valuables such as a ring, though — who hasn't done that? If a teacher tried to relate to me with a book about such a universal experience, it would be downright human. And isn't this how all children want to be treated?
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.