Teaching Tough Topics: How do I use children’s literature to build a deeper understanding of social justice, equity, and diversity?

By Larry Swartz

Image of the book cover beside a photo of a bookshelf and opened book on a table.

Most adults can remember what the arrival of the mobile TV-VCR units into their classroom meant. Something in the outside world was happening so important that it had to be seen immediately. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the 11th of September terrorist attacks—curriculum and regular teaching was put on hold for news that was about to alter our world.

These interruptions are inevitable and prove that no classroom is sequestered from the world. And they raise difficult questions in the classroom that shout to be answered. In Teaching Difficult Topics, Larry Swartz recalls the news of the death of one of his grade 4 students, killed aboard Air India flight 182. Walking from the principal’s office to his classroom, Swartz thought about how his class would process the news. Swartz turned to Susan Varley’s picture book Badger’s Parting Gifts, which he took from the shelf, gathered his students on the carpet and they read. Later they wrote letters and drew pictures remembering their old classmate to be given to her parents. Swartz believes literature does not deliver us away from reality but trains us for it, gives us metaphors and examples for readers to live by.

Teaching Tough Topics is Swartz’s guide to preparing students for the inequities and pain they will endure beyond the classroom, or even within it, despite a teacher’s best efforts. In each chapter, covering topics including racism, disability, poverty, genocide, bullying and death, Swartz deals with his subject methodically. Each chapter includes a primer, a perspective from a guest author, sample lessons, accurate vocabulary, and a list of appropriate fiction and nonfiction books, for all ages.

Swartz has written a capable manual that teaches understanding tough topics and options for taking actions and imagining with students a more just and kind world. Swartz’s book is for the educator who is proactive and thoughtful about their students’ social and psychological needs.

About Simon Banderob
Simon Banderob is an occasional teacher in District 14, Kawartha Pine Ridge.

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