Why Diverse Books Matter, Especially During Distance Learning

Teachers tell us that one of their biggest needs in the classroom is for diverse books that are culturally relevant for their students. Especially given current events and the struggle to keep students engaged with distance learning, we wanted to highlight our vendor partnership with Lee & Low Books.

Lee & Low Books is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country, and one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the United States. Lee & Low is family-owned and independent, and their books have won major awards including the Coretta Scott King Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the NAACP Image Award, and many more.

Read our interview below with one teacher about why diverse books matter for her students.

If you would like to support diverse books for classrooms, please give to our Racial Equity in Schools Fund. Learn more here.

Educators: If you need diverse books or anything else for your students, learn more about our Teacher Program here.

AdoptAClassroom.org (AAC): Please tell us a bit about you: Where do you work? What grade levels do you teach? What are your students like?

Ina Pannell-St.Surin: My name is Ina Pannell-St.Surin, and I am a New York City public school special education teacher. I team-teach a fifth grade Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) class at P.S. 261K, in Brooklyn, New York. My students are from various races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, varying abilities, various economic levels, and my students come from both English dominant and English as a New Language (ENL) homes. P.S. 261 is located in a downtown Brooklyn neighborhood that is quickly seeing the signs of recent gentrification, yet the school remains diverse in student population and staff presently. A focus of the work we do as a school is equity, diversity and Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education (CRSE).

AAC: What made you want to become a teacher?

Ina: When I was a young girl growing up in the South Bronx, I remember how my first teacher, my mother, would structure my days, before I attended elementary school, with educational media. We had picture books of all sorts, records with music and signing, musical instruments, blocks, imaginative play toys, public and educational television programs, etc. It felt so enriching to be home amongst such vast opportunities to learn and grow. For outings, we went to our neighborhood playground, our local public library in The Bronx, to The Donnell Library in Manhattan and to Central Park’s merry-go-round and Children’s Zoo. Even after I started kindergarten, I still engaged in these activities with my younger brother, who was next to receive my mother’s magic, and my older siblings. Then when my younger cousins came along, my mother cared for them while her sister (my aunt) went to college, and the sharing and learning continued. It extended into my time after school and on weekends. I just could not get enough. 

When my mother took on a paying job outside of the home, my older sister continued to create these educational experiences after school and during summer months. I have such vivid, fond memories of these years of fun, exploration and engaging learning that when I went to college, I took these experiences with me, and I realized that I wanted more children to experience this happiness that I got to experience for so many years. So with the inspiration of my mother and sister, and other teachers who inspired me during my schooling, I became a teacher.

 AAC: Do you use books from Lee & Low in your classroom? Why? Have you seen any positive outcomes with your students since they’ve had access to the books?

Ina: Yes, I not only use Lee and Low books in my classroom, I seek them. I have seen students become amazed at reading books about people who look like them and have similar stories to tell, which is a mission at Lee and Low Books, Inc. The statements from students such as, “I want to learn more about my heritage,” or “I want to read more books,” is testimony to the acceptance they feel when our books provide validation for their humanity. The looks and smiles of interest, contentment and acceptance on the faces of my students justifies how affirming Lee and Low Books has been for them and me. 

In fact, one of my most poignant stories is of my former fourth grade student who was classified as selectively mute for most of his elementary school career, despite his parents’ rejection of this term and their plea that their son talks all the time at home. He was ‘’assessed” at below grade level in reading. When he came to my class, I noticed that he gravitated to the books about Black characters, such as him, and would often finish these picture and chapter books in a night or two. Lee and Low Books speaks truth to the mirrors and the windows that their books offer to all. 

My relationship with Lee and Low Books began in February 2018 when their staff presented at a workshop that I was attending through the Department of Education’s Expanded Success Initiative program. When they shared many of their titles, teacher study guides and services, I was instantly hooked. I decided to follow Lee and Low Books and all they have to offer in diverse literature. I met them at a time when my prior school was involved in an initiative to have every class reading diverse books about various topics (race, gender, culture, class, etc.) on a monthly basis. This book-of-the-month program, which we called “One School, One Book”, was shared in every ICT class and every Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) class in our school. In fact, we sometimes shared two different level books each month (one for early childhood and one for elementary), based on the complexity of the text. Before involving Lee and Low in our initiative, we spent many hours just vetting one title. So, I invited their staff to a One School, One Book Committee Meeting to share about Lee and Low and their diverse collection of books. By the end of the 2017-2018 school year, we knew that Lee and Low had just what we were looking for in our One School, One Book program.  

AAC: Why are diverse books important for your students of color? Why are they important for white students?

Ina: Being a woman of African and Native American heritage, it is very important for me to not only fill my classroom libraries with diverse books, but to also read aloud books about diverse people because my students of color rarely hear the stories of their/our people, who are major contributors to the history of this country and the world. Mainstream education is not as inclusive as it should be by design. To deny my students opportunities to hear the narratives of people of color (POC) and Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) is to decenter our stories. It also denies White students from learning all the wonderful, positive contributions people of color have made and continue to make in this country and the world. Having diverse books in schools leads to acceptance, empathy, cooperation, responsibility, and humanity. It sends the message that there is room for all of us in the world and that we all matter. 

AAC: How do you typically get funding for new books for your classroom?

Ina: In my prior school, we would get funding for books through the P.T.A (Parent Teacher Association). In fact, our One School, One Book program went from being an initiative started by a parent to get more diverse books into our classroom libraries to a program funded by the P.T.A. to a partnership with Lee and Low’s year-round support. We worked together on selecting monthly titles based on the monthly themes we suggested to them and on accessing their teacher guides for enhanced and cross-curricular instruction. Amazing!

In my new school, the P.T.A. and The Book Committee, which is composed of mostly parents and teachers, helps with providing new books in our classrooms. I also personally buy books for my classroom library. Upon starting my first year at my new school, I joined the book committee, who was doing some work with a Lee and Low author for a school visit before schools closed in March 2020. I have been raving about Lee and Low to the committee, my colleagues and my principal and hope to see and discover more ways that we can collaborate to get more Lee and Low Books into classroom libraries across the grades and expand our relationship with Lee and Low.

Note: Teachers can register their classrooms to receive funding for the supplies they need, like diverse books, on AdoptAClassroom.org. Learn more. 

AAC: As schools reopen or continue Distance Learning this fall, why are physical books still as important as digital books for your students?

Ina: As schools reopen or continue Distance Learning this fall, physical books are still very important because we cannot access all the wonderful collections of diverse books digitally that exist in physical form. I have tried for the past few months of Distance Learning to access some books, but I always found that I would get the quality of diverse books, such as Lee and Low provides, in physical print. As a result of physical books, I was still able to share fascinating stories via tape recordings of me reading physical books or by sharing them in video meetings, which my students requested that I do! I would end the day with the Read Aloud, as I read stories and poetry about differently-abled children, Malala Yousafsai, Puerto Rican children, Black children, The Young Lords, The Black Panthers, etc. — all of whom are inspiring my students, and their parents to say, “Mommy, I want to learn how to speak spanish,” or “My daughter wants to read more books about latinx culture,” and, from a White parent, “Thank you for sharing your perspective with us all.” 

In the words of Lee and Low, it is about “the mirrors and the windows” and, might I add, through which we hope leads to a love and acceptance of humanity in its finest.