Conversations in the Classroom | #OwnVoices: Three Takes

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable when discussing #OwnVoices books with kids, advises this school librarian.
Elisa_Gall_head2The first time I remember my students bringing #OwnVoices up in the classroom was before Corinne Duyvis developed the hashtag, so the children didn’t use those words exactly. Third graders were examining the Coretta Scott King Award criteria—which states that for a book to be eligible it must be written or illustrated by a person who is African American. A few students declared, “That isn’t fair!” I took a breath and considered the children in the space and the mix of our group’s different intersectional identities (my own included). As a white educator with a diverse but majority white class, the moment made me uncomfortable. Still, I knew that engaging in conversations about identity and justice is how students build up the stamina to keep having them—and ever more difficult ones—as they grow. Here are things I have found helpful to reflect on as I’ve led and participated in discussions about #OwnVoices and other topics with young people in my library classroom over the years.

Also read:

Imagine Yourself a Young Reader in the Margins

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, assistant professor, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

Collection Development: Reflecting Our Communities

Christine Scheper, children’s materials specialist, Queens (NY) Library

Hold up the mirror. I must constantly work to better understand my own complex identity, and what that means in my life and in my classroom. I need to keep developing knowledge and skills to ensure that I’m not centering myself or unintentionally making students feel “othered” or further marginalized. Through reading books, attending workshops, following diversity and equity activists on social media, inviting others to learn with me, and more, I push myself to keep reflecting on what me being the teacher means for my students, especially if and when I’m not an #OwnTeacher. This learning is my responsibility and it never stops. Set norms. Norms, or agreed-upon expectations for behavior and participation, can structure conversations and keep debates focused. Ask students for suggestions for group norms at the beginning of a discussion. Document them and make them visible. Point to them if conversations go off track, or create additional norms if needs arise. One that is popular in my community is to “share the air,” also known as “three before me.” If, after talking, a person waits until three other participants have spoken before contributing again, more people have a chance to communicate their ideas. Another common norm is to only speak from the “I” perspective, which allows students to work to understand that no identity or experience is monolithic. Creating and committing to norms can keep participants accountable and conversations productive. Fairness routines. Research from Project Zero at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education shows that thinking routines are procedures that, when used habitually, can support student learning by providing structures for a particular type of thinking process. When students in my class questioned the Coretta Scott King Award criteria, I invited them to participate in a fairness routine called “Tug of War.” I set butcher paper on the ground, drawing a long line across it. One end represented the opinion that the eligibility rule was fair, whereas the other end represented the viewpoint that it was unfair. Regardless of their own opinions, students identified factors supporting and challenging each point of view using sticky notes to document as many ideas as they could, and placed them in the locations along the line matching the different viewpoints. Students read their factors and generated a list of “What if?” questions before considering whether or not their own opinions were strengthened or changed as a result of the routine. Their questions, which were candid (“What if the best book couldn’t win?”), far-reaching (“What if racism ended?”), and altogether varied, served as evidence of deep reflection and perspective taking. More information about thinking routines can be found on the Project Zero site. Start from a common place. Frameworks already exist for having conversations and evaluating texts critically. For example, studying authorship is one piece of the anti-bias lens for evaluating children’s books by Louise Derman-Sparks (found on the Teaching for Change website). Examining books through all of the elements of an anti-bias lens will help readers analyze, better understand, and form opinions about what they read. Shared vocabulary and context allow people entering conversations to have some common ground from the start. For readers identifying with and learning from #OwnVoices books and authors, conversations about them are empowering and life-changing. Discussions about #OwnVoices can vary and needn’t be seen as difficult outright. My third graders’ discussion about the award criteria revolved around fairness. However, I imagine the conversation might have evolved differently if the topic were an #OwnVoices identity other than race, different children had been in the room, or African American children were in the majority of our group that day. Regardless of the topic, I do know that whenever questions arise, they present challenging and exciting learning opportunities. For me, this is about being open to learning from feedback and sitting with ambiguity. Not knowing everything can be scary, but embracing a growth mindset and getting comfortable being uncomfortable is what opens the door for inquiry and authentic learning for all members of a classroom community—the teacher included.
Elisa_Gall_head_shotElisa Gall is director of library services at an independent school in Chicago.   Save
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If a person can make the kind of references that I did to the differences in achievement among different racial, ethnic, and other groups in America, it is hard to fathom that that person is claiming "race to be meaningless," or that the person is not seeing race. Our difference is in the way we see the import of race in the ascertainment of something of quality, or the core logic of an argument. You believe that race determines how we define such qualities as excellence, good, and evil. What is high quality from the point of view of every white person, you would argue, is different from what is high quality from the point of view of every African-American person, though white people range in their points of view from Carly Fiorina to Hillary Clinton (or the late Howard Zinn), and African-Americans from Angie Thomas to Clarence Thomas. I understand your argument. I really do. I could articulate it as well as you can. But I still think your third graders have it right. A great book is a great book, and the identity markers of an author are relevant only after considering the quality of her or his work.

Posted : Jun 04, 2017 12:35

Elisa Gall

@Anonymous - I did not presume your racial identity - I stated that I don't know it because you haven't shared it. I think examining what me being white means in my society is important. My society is deeply divided by race yet many people claim race to be meaningless. This reminds me of questions I have heard before: "If we don't see race, how do we see racism? If we don't see the meaning race has in our society, how do we stop racism?"

Posted : May 20, 2017 11:43


It is always impressive when third graders exhibit more common sense than a teacher with a graduate school education. These students with their core questions about fairness understand implicitly that when it comes to artistic expression, and actually to most achievements, the identity qualities of the achiever are utterly irrelevant. Though these examples might be beyond their current comprehension, they would agree that it was not Van Gogh's neurodiversity that made Starry Night a genius painting, and that it would have been just as good if it had been painted by former President Bush; it is not Beethoven's non-ableist status when he composed his 9th Symphony opus 125 and it would have been just as good if composed by Cole Porter, Mozart, Roger Waters, or Beyonce; and that is irrelevant whether the author of MADAME BOVARY (or T.H.U.G., for that matter) is man, woman, neuter, black, white, or Korean. These things are interesting in the analysis of a great work, but the art must speak for itself. Kids know this in their gut from their own experience and purity of ethics, which is why they they were telling you that an award for the best book about the African-American experience should be the best book, not the best book on the subject by those with a certain genetic makeup. Much of the rest of the country knows it too. Those who don't might do well to listen to, and learn from, the kids.

Posted : May 05, 2017 09:16

Elisa Gall

There is much to unpack in this type of conversation, whether it be held in classrooms or on message boards. The way the thinking routine works is students attempt to brainstorm different opinions to try to understand where they are coming from - in this case, it led to deeper understanding of injustice in the world (and in publishing) & why the award eligibility is important. It didn't validate the criticism about eligibility; instead, the "what if" question about "best" led to even more thinking, conversation, and metacognition. To me, attempting to use the white default to define "fairness," "quality," "best," etc. is easier to do from a position of privilege. It's well understood that even young children are soaking in this culture which is sending them messages about superiority and inferiority at every step. I find it is my job as an educator and librarian to help children question these messages with thinking routines and discussions like the one I described. Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas's post got to the heart about why #OwnVoices books matter. I suggest you check it out if you haven't already and are interested in reading and reflecting more.

Posted : May 06, 2017 12:30


I did read and consider Dr. Thomas' post. It may appear to get to the bottom of the matter, but it is assumptive and ignores empirical evidence. That evidence is that there are many racial and ethnic groups in America that in general are doing far better economically and educationally than the average white person. Nigerian-Americans, Taiwanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Lebanese-Americans, just to start. If Thomas were correct, the children of these groups would similarly be suffering, but they are not. Surely there are exceptions, but exceptions are not a way to make policy. I may comment on this at her piece later. I also wonder why you would not validate the opinions of the "fairness" children in your classroom. There are many Americans who see it the same way they do. Some of them are even African-American (10% are Republicans) and Latino (30% are Republicans). Thank you for engaging. This is really interesting stuff. You're right, there's a lot to unpack with many valid points of view. That's why empirical evidence is so important. And no, I don't think that a perspective of whiteness has anything to do with why Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Van Gogh's Starry Night are so broadly seen as genius. Even in non-western countries.

Posted : May 06, 2017 08:01



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