Selecting Culturally Relevant Texts

Culturally relevant educators acknowledge and appreciate children’s home cultures and validate every student’s experience by seizing opportunities to strengthen the connection between home and school while building better school culture.

Building a Better School Culture

This can be challenging for teachers who find themselves restricted by curriculum and materials that broadly mirror the experience, values, and perspectives of the dominant culture.  As a result, far too many students are rarely if ever exposed to content in which they can see themselves, their families, their cultures, or experiences.

Educators can remedy this by being more intentional in their selection of the literature they read to students, put on display, or place in their classroom libraries.

Some of the more notable benefits of exposing students to culturally relevant literature are…

  • Creating a safe, inclusive, and respectful learning environment.
  • Establishing and deepening sense of belonging.
  • Building awareness, acceptance and appreciation of self and others.
  • Increasing interest, motivation and time on task.
  • Strengthening students’ racial and ethnic identities.
  • Developing an appreciation for others’ strengths, and building empathy.
  • Raising critical consciousness within the classroom community.
  • Providing educational equity.
  • Improving academic achievement.
  • Overall better school culture

Selecting Culturally Relevant Texts 

Simply because a book includes or features diverse characters or covers content or cultures outside the mainstream does not make it culturally relevant.  It is important to be conscious and critical in your approach in order to ensure you are exposing your students to literature that appropriately portrays and validates their own and others cultures, perspectives and experiences.  

So where to begin?  How does one classify literature as culturally relevant?  Are there any guidelines an educator can follow to help inform their text selections? 

A broad overview of literature on cultural relevance and culturally relevant texts surfaces some key identifiers that support the classification of a text as culturally relevant:

  • Information, language use (dialogue and dialect) and storyline are authentic to the culture depicted
  • Story events are realistic, relatable and resist stereotyping or romanticizing, holding true to the portrayed culture’s experience
  • Characters, content and message is asset based
  • Cultural identities, values and experiences represented are validated

Keep in mind that these are simply guidelines to support your analysis of a text.  Selecting literature in which students can see themselves and make meaningful connections demands more than any guidelines can offer.  It’s by taking an interest in and striving to grow your understanding of your students, their cultures and day to day realities that will most effectively inform your decisions.  

Sharing below a few of my most recent likes that represent a varying range of life experiences and meet the identification requirements of being authentic, realistic and relatable; upholding an asset based ideology; and seeking to reach,  educate and/or validate readers.  

Please contribute any additional book recommendations in the comment section below.  I  have kept my selections limited and focus on elementary level texts and would love your help expanding the list across grade levels.   

Important Note: Growing your awareness of what classifies as culturally relevant literature is just the beginning.  Ultimately it’s how you introduce, present and/or use these texts or others during instruction that will be the determining factor as to whether your students are validated, uplifted, and empowered.  

Last Stop on Market Street

Grade Level: PreK-K

“Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don’t own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them.” [Penguin Random House]

  • Winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal
  • A 2016 Caldecott Honor Book
  • A 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
  • New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2015
  • Wall Street Journal Best Children’s Book of 2015

An Ode to the Fresh Cut

Grade Level: PreK-3

“Rhythmic text describes the feeling of a young African American boy as he gets a ‘fresh cut’ and how a trip to the barbershop changes the way he feels about the world and in turn how the world perceives him. While a trip the barbershop is the main story line, the themes of confidence-building, self-esteem, and joy of young black boys are the important takeaways.”  [School Library Journal Review]

  • Winner of the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers
  • A Newbery Honor Book
  • A Caldecott Honor Book
  • A Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book
  • A Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
  • An Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award Book
  • An Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Honor Book
  • A Society of Illustrators Gold Medal Book

Julián Is a Mermaid

Grade Level: PreK-3

“While riding the subway home from the pool with his abuela one day, Julián notices three women spectacularly dressed up. Their hair billows in brilliant hues, their dresses end in fishtails, and their joy fills the train car. When Julián gets home, daydreaming of the magic he’s seen, all he can think about is dressing up just like the ladies in his own fabulous mermaid costume: a butter-yellow curtain for his tail, the fronds of a potted fern for his headdress. But what will Abuela think about the mess he makes — and even more importantly, what will she think about how Julián sees himself?” [Penguin Random House]

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez 

Grade Level: 3-5

“A lyrical portrait of a glorious early boyhood on [Cesar Chavez’s] family’s Arizona ranch opens the sympathetic narrative and explains that drought forced the family off their land in 1937 and consigned them to the grueling life of itinerant manual farm labor. Krull selects details that the target audience will readily understand; for example, she notes that Chavez attended 35 schools (he left after eighth grade) and that a teacher once hung a sign on him that read “I am a clown. I speak Spanish.” The author also stresses Chavez’s struggles to overcome extreme shyness and his commitment to nonviolent means of protest, demonstrating the latter in a climactic account of the landmark farm workers’ strike and protest march led by Chavez in 1965. Debut illustrator Morales’s mixed-media, full-bleed art taps into folkloric qualities that enhance the humanity of the characters. Using the bright colors of Mexican art, she skews the landscapes to reflect the characters’ emotions.”  [Publishers Weekly]

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx

(English with Spanish)

Grade Level: PreK-3

“The inspiring and timely story of Sonia Sotomayor, who rose up from a childhood of poverty and prejudice to become the first Latino to be nominated to the US Supreme Court.

Before Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took her seat in our nation’s highest court, she was just a little girl in the South Bronx. Justice Sotomayor didn’t have a lot growing up, but she had what she needed — her mother’s love, a will to learn, and her own determination. With bravery she became the person she wanted to be. With hard work she succeeded. With little sunlight and only a modest plot from which to grow, Justice Sotomayor bloomed for the whole world to see.” [Simon & Schuster]

By Richard Frank, Managing Associate, Partnership Manager, CT3
Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families, and properly addressing important issues in the classroom and school.
Category: Culture, Education, Teaching