A Conversation with Dr. Kimberly Parker on the Movement to Create More Readers

The #DisruptTexts cofounder shares how her childhood experiences shaped her identity as a reader and how she cultivates an enduring passion for reading among students.

Increasingly, educators are rethinking the books and stories that have been mainstays of school curriculum for years; and embracing the importance of offering a more diverse range of texts that can help students better understand themselves, other people, and the world around them.

One of the most powerful voices in the movement to create a more equitable and inclusive curriculum is #DisruptTexts cofounder and member of Facing History and Ourselves’ Board of Scholars, Dr. Kimberly Parker.

Dr, Parker and her cofounders have articulated four core principles for #DisruptTexts:

  1. Continuously interrogate our biases and how they inform our thinking.
  2. Center Black, Indigenous, and voices of color in literature.
  3. Apply a critical literacy lens to our teaching practices.
  4. Work in community with other antiracist educators, especially Black, Indigenous, and other educators of color.

In a recent conversation, Dr. Parker shared how her childhood experiences shaped her identity as a reader and discussed how she cultivates literacy communities where students can thrive and develop an enduring passion for reading.

How did your experiences as a young learner shape your approach to teaching?

I grew up on a farm in Kentucky, raised by my grandparents, who always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.

I came of age through books, really. There was no particular title, I think, that resonated, that sticks out as the text that sort of changed my life, or sort of made coming-of-age for me. But I think what did really make it was the experience of being able to read in all of these different ways. I was not limited by: “This is what you have to read.” I had grandparents who just said, “Read really all you want.”

And so I was able to follow my interests. I think that books find you when they need to, when you need them most.

When I became a teacher, I was really interested in why kids weren’t reading and came to understand that it’s because we don’t necessarily construct environments where they get to read what they want, where they see themselves reflected in the books, and where they have time to talk about it.

Over the years, what I’ve been doing is trying to really make my classroom into those spaces—and now, much more working with teachers to think about how you create those spaces, these intentional literacy communities where kids can thrive and really have great literacy lives.

What advice do you have for teachers and librarians who want to help young people have those “great literacy lives”?

I think choice is really important, particularly for kids who never get choices. What I know about working with young people, particularly Black and other kids of color, is that they don’t get a lot of choice. And so they’re reading sort of the same books all the time.

And I think that we need to think about who are the people we want them to be? I want them to be people who love reading. People are like, “You have an agenda.” I definitely have an agenda. My agenda is that I want kids to love reading. So, you can’t necessarily become a reader if you don’t have the time and space to read, and to not like books, to read things and be, like, “This isn’t for me. Let me pick something else.”

It’s just that. It’s the constant access to books. It’s the ability to see yourself reflected.

When they leave me, I want every child to have had a positive experience with literacy and to see themselves as readers, or to have reconnected to their reading lives. I think what we have to ask as teachers is if they’re not reading for us, then we have to figure out what’s going on there. I never blame the kids. Something has happened to them that makes reading not pleasurable. And so, I always think, I love that. I love a good challenge. I’m going to reconnect you, through books. I’m a book pusher.

Thanks in part to the work of #DisruptTexts, educators are increasingly thinking about how to look beyond the classics in their curriculum and broaden the texts they teach. Where should teachers start?

People are really thinking about, what does it mean to diversify one’s curriculum? I think that first, before we do that, we have to think about, what’s the internal work that we have to do? Because if we don’t do that work, even the most diverse texts can be damaging for kids. We have to start with ourselves. “What’s the work that I have to do? Why do I really want to put different books in kids’ hands? Am I ready? What’s the preparation I need?”

When I start with myself, I think first about, who are my students? And what do I need to know, one, to be culturally competent, myself, in my own blackness, and then also, to be culturally competent for them? Those are the big questions, too. And then I realize that if I don’t share the background with my students, then I’m going to have to figure that out, and that can be through reading, immersing myself in communities where I’m listening to them. Finding out who’s in the community.

I’ve been really fortunate over the years to live in the neighborhoods where I’ve taught for much of the time. Just by going to places, seeing their parents, all of those things, you’re getting a really solid understanding of, “Who are my kids when they’re not here?” And to think about, “Where are my own gaps?”

In terms of my own other opportunities, to really become more culturally competent, I have to think of those identity markers and where are the spaces where I need to do more reading. I’ve been really thinking about disability lately, because I think when we’re talking about intersectionality, for me that’s the one area I need to learn more about.


What are you looking forward to reading this summer? And what are a few summer book suggestions for SLJ readers?

I’m looking forward to rereading The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, because it is so delicious, and I want to remember how wonderful it is to reread something. Then, I’m hoping to readThe Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans and Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham. I recommend all of these to folks because we need to see Black people in all of our nuance, beauty, and power, and to experience the excellent writing here, too.

Laura Tavares is program director for organizational learning and thought leadership at Facing History and Ourselves, where she leads strategic partnerships, designs learning experiences for educators, and creates classroom resources.

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