Differentiated instruction (DI) is a way of planning for teaching and learning. Educators who differentiate instruction advocate for beginning where students are; they are proactive about designing learning experiences so that content can be learned in multiple ways (Tomlinson 2001). Some learners come to school with advanced skills while others come with inadequate preparation. Some come with open minds while others come from more closed-minded environments. More and more learners are diagnosed with various learning disabilities; some have physical disabilities that require individual accommodations. More and more students attend school as second language learners and come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Students’ learning needs are ever more diverse. A one-size-fits-all approach is not effective in today’s classrooms and libraries.
School librarians who honor, support, and advocate for this diversity have many ways to contribute to differentiating instruction in order to meet students’ diverse needs. Collection development and resource integration into the classroom curriculum are ways that librarians can build a firm foundation for DI because the materials students use to access and learn content are essential DI components. Instructional resources must motivate students—make them curious about an idea or problem so they want to know more. Readers must be able to relate to the content and “see” how it is relevant to their experiences. They must use their own or build their background knowledge to begin adding to, modifying, or replacing what they already knew about a concept or dilemma.
Mirrors, Windows, and Doors
Rudine Sims Bishop wrote that “if literature is a mirror that reflects human life, then all children who read or who are read to need to see themselves as part of that humanity” (1993, 43). Offering materials in which students can “see” themselves in the texts they read is one way to differentiate resources. In addition, literature and texts can also serve as windows into the lives of those who have different cultures, abilities, or sexual orientations than the readers themselves. Taken together, mirrors and windows can open doors to understanding. All children and youth deserve to read literature and texts that reflect the diversity of a global society.
“Culturally responsive collection development” is a term and strategy librarians apply to indicate that they build collections that reflect and support the cultural backgrounds of students. Several researchers have examined book collections to determine whether or not school library collections provided resources for specific groups of children and young adults. They have also looked closely at the stereotypes that are portrayed in certain types of literature and noted issues with appropriate and positive representation.
Seeing Themselves and Learning about “Others” in Print
Sandra Hughes-Hassell, Elizabeth Overberg, and Shannon Harris conducted an analysis of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ)-themed literature available to teens in 125 high school libraries in one southern U.S. state. The researchers used a core collection of 21 recommended titles to evaluate these collections. “Noticeable was the absence of nonfiction titles focused specifically on LGBTQ issues such as sexual health, bullying, or gay rights” (Hughes-Hassell, Overberg, and Harris 2013, 12). In addition to providing information for students’ personal use and raising social issues that could lead to critical discussions, these resources should be available to support the curriculum. (The state in which this study was conducted had adopted a comprehensive reproductive health and safety program that addresses contraception, safe sex, and healthy relationships.)
The researchers also noted a lack of biographies about LGBTQ individuals in these collections. Biographies are needed to provide role models expressly for LGBTQ students. They are also important as a means to inform heterosexual students of the accomplishments of notable LGBTQ people. Learning about themselves and about others is an essential aspect of adolescence and all students should be supported in their personal as well as academic growth.
Unfortunately, literature can also perpetuate stereotypes that undermine the goal of affirming and advocating for each person’s right to be diverse. Many librarians have purchased and promote graphic novels as important resources for visually oriented students as well as alternatives to other genres that may be less accessible or appealing to youth. Marilyn Irwin and Robin Moeller conducted two studies of how individuals with disabilities are portrayed in the “best” graphic novels as determined by librarians’ book reviews (2010) and on a graphic novel best-seller list (2012). In both cases, the depictions of characters with disabilities perpetuated negative stereotypes. It is true that such depictions, when duly noted, can be used to spark readers’ critical thinking and engender thoughtful discussions. At the same time, when librarians differentiate the library collection, they must weigh pros and cons and consider how the resulting diversity contributes positively to students’ social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Intercultural Understanding through Global Literature
School librarians must also consider that today’s learners are living in a global society that extends far beyond students’ personal and family cultures to a wider and more diverse world. In order to ensure that multiple voices and perspectives are represented in the resources the library provides, librarians can develop a collection that includes global literature. Global literature includes books set in non-U.S. cultures, or those written by immigrants about living in the U.S. or in their home countries, or those written by authors who live and work in the U.S. and another country. These resources can help readers connect with others who live within and beyond our country’s borders.
TheLongview Foundation grant-funded “Global Literacy Communities” project involved twenty-five pre-kindergarten to high school educator study groups from nineteen U.S. states that met regularly for one to three years to learn through global literature. In their study groups, educators used global literature to further develop their international understanding and strove for something more—intercultural understanding. Intercultural understanding “extends beyond nationality and politics to include informed problem solving and social action activities that necessitate an appreciation of the full range of issues, including the values and beliefs of everyone involved. Intercultural understanding creates the potential to move from curiosity about a culture to a deeper understanding of others that allows us to live and work together as global citizens” (Corapi and Short 2015, 4). The educators who participated in these study groups prepared themselves to authentically and accurately share global literature with children and youth.
Maximizing the Positive Impact of the Library Collection
When librarians practice progressive collection development, they have the potential to positively impact curriculum. However, they can guarantee that impact by co-planning and co-teaching in order to integrate library resources for the benefit of all students. When librarians take students’ home and individual cultures into account and use them as background knowledge in lesson design, they are maximizing opportunities for diverse resources to motivate students and support their learning. When librarians further develop their collections with global literature and integrate it into the classroom curriculum, they help prepare students to be thoughtful and successful global citizens.
Collaborating librarians cannot overestimate the importance of their work as literacy stewards who provide the resource foundation for DI. With their knowledge of literature, librarians can support teachers’ teaching and help motivate students to engage in deep and meaningful learning. Providing multiple resources that serve as mirrors and windows can make DI a reality. Diverse resources are an essential first step in opening doors for all students to succeed.
Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Multicultural Literature for Children: Making Informed Choices.” In Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8, edited by Violet J. Harris, 37-54. Christopher Gordon, 1993.
Corapi, Susan, and Kathy G. Short. “Exploring International and Intercultural Understanding through Global Literature.” Longview Foundation, Worlds of Words. 2015. http://wowlit.org/Documents/InterculturalUnderstanding.pdf
Hughes-Hassell, Sandra, Elizabeth Overberg, and Shannon Harris. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ)-Themed Literature for Teens: Are School Libraries Providing Adequate Collections?” School Library Research 16 (2013): 1-18.
Irwin, Marilyn, and Robin Moeller. “Seeing Different: Portrayals of Disability in Young Adult Graphic Novels.” School Library Research 13 (2010): 1-13. http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/slr/vol13/SLR_SeeingDifferent.pdf
Moeller, Robin, and Marilyn Irwin. “Seeing the Same: Follow-Up Study on the Portrayals of Disability in Graphic Novels Read by Young Adults.” School Library Research 15 (2012): 1-16. http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/slr/vol15/SLR_SeeingtheSame_V15.pdf
Moreillon, Judi. “Intercultural Understanding through Global Literature.” Building a Culture of Collaboration® (blog). http://buildingacultureofcollaboration.edublogs.org/2015/11/30/intercultural-understanding-through-global-literature/ (accessed February 17, 2017).
Tomlinson, Carol Ann. How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Association for Curriculum Supervision and Development, 2001.