This article appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the Erikson on Children newsletter, under the headline “Urban Children’s Literature Project brings reading home.” More from this issue

“Hearthstones” and “gullies” are in short supply in most cities, but you’d never know that from looking through the shelves of a classroom library. Moreover, a search through the pages of the children’s books found there would turn up surprisingly few corner stores or subway platforms. What’s the value to young readers of characters who look like them and settings that are familiar?

Girl reading

This academic year, assistant professor Jane Fleming began providing a different kind of literacy training at two Chicago Public Schools, Erie Elementary Charter School and Fulton Elementary School. The training is to help teachers develop culturally responsive classroom libraries, something that Fleming believes may be critical for student’s academic success.

“Students in urban schools shouldn’t read only books about kids in the city, but these books should be part of their reading,” says Fleming. “Books need be a mirror and a window: a mirror so the students can see themselves, their families, and their communities and feel valued and included in literature, and a window to the larger world so they can learn about many different things.”

Tools for creating culturally relevant classroom libraries

To help teachers evaluate the quality and relevance of books in their current collection, Fleming uses a rating scale she and colleagues at the University of Missouri-St. Louis developed (see sidebar for some sample criteria). She also works with teachers to evaluate the effectiveness of their classroom libraries, using a checklist of criteria ranging from elements of the physical environment to the collection’s content, organization, and management.

The scale and checklist are part of the Urban Children’s Literature Project, begun in 2008. Working in the St. Louis public schools, Fleming had been struck by the discrepancy between the everyday experience of the city’s young children and the world they encountered in books. She wondered if this lack of contextual relevance in the curriculum contributed to frustration and loss of interest in reading at a critical time in children’s development as readers.

Fleming and her colleagues developed and used these evaluation tools with a group of preschool to fourth grade teachers at high-need schools in St. Louis. Regular in-class coaching and an online professional learning community ensured ongoing support and accountability among the teachers.

Preliminary data from the project suggests that Fleming is on to something: Many teachers saw their students’ interest in reading blossom. In addition, the third-graders made substantial gains on the Missouri state assessment.

Fleming is currently seeking funding for additional research on the effectiveness of the project. In the meantime, she hopes to develop a yearlong series of professional development sessions on literacy for Erikson’s New Schools Project. With nearly 25 percent of public elementary schools in Chicago lacking a school library, effective, culturally responsive classroom libraries are more important than ever for students’ academic success.