Question, Disrupt, Transform: Challenging the Use of Literary Classics, PreK through YA

Educators, librarians and others dedicated to literacy  often find themselves standing at a crossroads between their memories of beloved books from their own childhoods, and the reality of the harmful language, themes and imagery those books may contain.   For many, it is difficult to accept that many “classic” books of the past may need to be critically re-evaluated before being given to today’s young readers. 


On March 2nd, we endeavored to explore this growing unease surrounding “classic” literature by inviting seven passionate and visionary literacy and literature experts to engage in conversation about the power books hold in the lives of young people, and to guide us towards embracing literature as a look towards building a better future.



The day began with our first keynote conversation between literacy expert and advocate Dr. Alfred Tatum and literacy reform leader Cornelius Minor.  Their shared passion for guiding young people towards becoming engaged and action-focused readers and writers was clear as they challenged each other and attendees with probing questions interlaced with thought-provoking anecdotes and plenty of humor.  Dr. Tatum and Cornelius’ honest, thoughtful responses laid a foundation of respect and safety that led to a question and answer session in which attendees felt safe to ask deep questions and to embrace new knowledge and ideas.


We moved on to a practioner’s panel moderated by Research Librarian and blogger Edi Campbell.   Our panel included Cornelius Minor, Kimiko Pettis and Jessica Lifshitz.  Through Edi’s carefully considered questions, panelists shared their  personal and professional  experiences using—or being required to use-- “classic literature”.  They also discussed the ways they restructured their teaching and curricula to confront dated and damaging text and to adopt alternate selections to empower their young readers.





The morning ended with Dr. Robert Moorehead giving a  brief “big picture” talk about the social, political and historical context of works of  “classic” literature.  His talk also encouraged attendees to consider the role of whiteness and systemic racism when encountering racist/prejudiced language and themes in older books they may still be required to use. 


Four roundtable sessions followed in the afternoon.  Attendees each chose one roundtable to join.  Facilitators in each room guided and encouraged conversation with our keynote speakers and panelists joining in as well.   The roundtable themes included:


            -Problematic Text…Now what?

            -How do I Face Whiteness and White Fragility?

            -How do I Maintain a culturally Responsive


            -What Should I Do?: Practical Scenarios


The day wrapped up with our second keynote conversation between inclusive educator and researcher Kass Minor and poet, writer, and Creative Writing professor and educator Naomi Shihab Nye.   The ensuing conversation grew into a bridge between the educational facets of literacy and literature, and the creative, with the overarching focus always returning to the most important part of literacy:  the reader.  

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Our event concluded with a poetry reading by Naomi.


The challenge of navigating the use of problematic “classic” literature has sparked much emotional and professional  debate and division among educators, literacy experts and parents of young readers.  For an event such as ours, with the focus trained directly upon the challenges of “classic” literature, one might have expected this controversy to  appear.  Instead, attendees were invited into a safe space where they could consider the lived professional experiences of our speakers, ask honest, difficult questions and feel free to engage in discussion and debate. 


Thus once again we find ourselves where we have been after many of our previous institutes:  reflecting upon the community-building power of creating safe, collaborative spaces where people can learn, share ideas and engage in meaningful discussion.  The literacy work that we do in all our varied capacities with young people directly touches the future that we all share.  It is this future that we look towards when we examine writing from the past and recognize the flaws and potential for damage that can be contained within the words.    It is our continuing hope to keep on creating times and spaces where educators, librarians, creators and literacy workers can come together to examine where we’ve been, recognize where we are and meet the challenges we face in guiding  our young people towards the future. 


Indivisible 10 Years Later: The Conversation Continues

Ten years ago, on June 20th, 2007, the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books presented an institute entitled “INDIVISIBLE: Teaching for Social Justice through Literature for Children and Adolescents”.  

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The full day event featured talks, workshops and seminars by notable experts in the fields of education,  librarianship and social justice. Topics spanning issues of poverty, gender identity, sexual orientation, civil rights and racism were all explored through the lens of children’s and adolescent books.


As the ten year anniversary of the original “Indivisible” event drew near, we reflected upon some somber realities—that as a nation and a world we still wrestled with the same social justice issues and  that we were still striving for respect and equality.

Thus we commemorated our continuing commitment to social justice  with this year’s  October 14th institute: “Indivisible 10 Years Later: Conversations in Social Justice Through Children’s and Adolescent Literature”.  

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Our day opened with a riveting and starkly honest conversation between our keynote “conversationalists” award-winning author Kwame Alexander and literacy reform leader Cornelius Minor.   

Together they set a challenging and action-oriented tone for our 100+ attendees that resonated throughout the day.   They also laid the groundwork for our overall focus on engaging with the day’s issues through active conversation rather than classic lecture-style, maintaining a shared commitment to creating a safe space together where honest questions and sharing could take place.  

Breakout sessions followed next, offering attendees six different sessions to attend, each led by a leader in education, librarianship and/or social justice:


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Laura Beltchenko-Educating the Whole Child: Utilizing Multicultural and Culturally Diverse Children’s Picture Books to Support Cognitive and Affective Development of Elementary Students
Betsy Bird-Finding Religion in Books for Kids: Collection Management and Spiritual Diversity
Amina Chaudrhi-Multiracial Stories: Windows, Mirrors and Gaps in Children’s Literature 
Elisa Gall-Interrogating Whiteness
Ronell Whitaker & Eric Kallenborn-Diversity in Comics
Brian Wilson-Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

Using children’s and adolescent literature as the lens through which the various breakout session topics were viewed, attendees were able to dive deeper into specific facets of social justice, engage in conversation and embrace the inherent challenges and points of vulnerability.  

At lunch break attendees were treated to a Skype visit by poet Janet Wong, who shared her own perspectives on social justice followed by a reading of several of her poems. 



 The afternoon panel, “Reading, Responding and Resisting: Anti-Racist Advocacy in the World of Education, Librarianship and Children’s & YA Literature” narrowed our focus more closely upon the benefits, challenges and set-backs in wielding literature as an agent for change.  Mediated by Deerfield Public Librarian and “Reading While White” contributor Elisa Gall, our panel offered diverse perspectives and a breadth of experience and knowledge including Research Librarian and blogger Edi Campbell, Associate Professor in MLIS and author Sarah Park Dahlen and Boston University children’s literature lecturer and researcher Laura Jiménez. 

Together they informed and challenged our attendees across a broad range of social justice issues, drawing powerful example from their own experiences and across the breadth of  children’s  and adolescent  literature.



We began the day committed to using conversation as the primary vehicle for engaging with social justice issues and children’s and adolescent literature.   Sparked and modeled by our keynote conversationalists Kwame and Cornelius, our attendees took up the challenge and in doing so, became agents of their own learning.  At each break time and through lunch attendees could be heard actively discussing social justice topics raised by speakers and breakout session leaders.  Many attendees actively sought out speakers for further clarification or simply discussion.   

At the close of the event attendees were invited to take a moment to share, if they chose, their thoughts about the day.  A number of attendees volunteered, and offered not only their thanks, but also carefully considered insights and suggestions for moving forward.  This same thoughtful—and thought-provoking—commentary continued on the feedback attendees shared with us in the post-event questionnaire.  Attendee responses  spanned a range of topics and ideas, such as:


“I took away the notion that we should prioritize children's safety within a classroom (not just physical but emotional safety) and that if students are having behavioral issues in a class, we should be asking different questions. Not ‘what is wrong with these students?’ but rather, 'What is going on in the school or class that is leading to students having trouble engaging?’”


“One thing that the diverse children's literature panel said stood out: ‘Listen to us’ when they say that a book or its characters are not accurately presenting a cultural perspective. It is important to look to people from the culture and believe them when they say it is not an accurate representation.”


“Gave me ideas for how my library can support social justice work in classrooms; the panels inspired me and gave me courage to continue this work in a hostile environment.”


“It exceeded my expectations by challenging my thinking and providing me with sources to help me explain what I learned.”


“I needed to know that I am not alone in this work. “


Herein lies the deeper value in engaging with issues in social justice that affect our lives so deeply:   in creating a safe space to share our wisdom and  ideas as well as our weaknesses and uncertainties we are creating communities of trust and honesty.   There is nothing easy about guiding our young people towards a better future, nor towards educating ourselves  away from stereotypes, prejudice and intolerance.  It is our hope to offer more events and spaces of learning and sharing such as this, where educators, librarians and anyone committed to guiding young people can gather to find ways to use the power of our stories to teach and inspire.

Social Media Institute 2016: I Tweeted, I Tumbled, I Taught



Social Media is increasingly the communication lifeblood among educators, librarians and creators passionate about children, their literature, and their education.  To address the growing power and influence of social media, the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books kicked off 2016 with its annual CTCB Institute with a focus on Social Media. This event, sponsored in part by the Pajeau Foundation and in partnership with SCBWI and SCIRA, brought together nine diverse and dedicated voices all speaking to the power and problems in our online lives.


The event opened with a comprehensive and frequently hilarious keynote talk by Julie Danielson, creator of the “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast” blog.  Julie offered our 60+ attendees a glimpse at the relatively brief and frequently bumpy history of social media among educators, librarians and creators. She then shared her personal highs and lows along her own social media path.


Following Julie, our first panelists addressed our morning theme, “Social Media as a Creative Force.”  The three-member morning panel—teacher and prolific blogger Colby Sharp, teacher, blogger and recipient of the Apple Distinguished Educator’s Award Mike Lewis, and Evanston Library Collection Development Manager, author and blogger Betsy Bird—was mediated by Andrew Medlar, President of the Association of Library Services for Children, a division of the American Library Association and Assistant Chief of the Chicago Public Library. Colby and Mike each shared examples of how they use social media in their own classrooms to connect their students with larger themes as well as with authors and illustrators—as Mike described it, “revealing the inner workings of the world of books”.  Betsy expanded the talk to encompass the scope and depth of using social media in a library setting as well as the rewards and challenges of striking the balance between personal and professional life in the online public eye.

The afternoon panel tackled the challenging theme of “Managing Internet Culture,” a topic mediated by Dean Rob Muller, Dean of the National College of Education, National Louis University.  Our panelists represented diverse approaches to this theme:  Chicago attorney Darcy Proctor, Associate Superintendent Laura Beltchenko, Research Librarian and blogger Edi Campbell and William Teale, University of Illinois at Chicago University Scholar /Director of the UIC Center for Literacy and incoming president of the International Literacy Association. Our attendees were taken on a journey that encompassed a multitude of challenges related to using social media: from legal concerns for educators and school districts to integrating social media into teacher training and preparation programs, and from ethical and social responsibility in social media for marginalized people to the changing face of professional organizations in the internet age.  

Each panel was followed by breakout sessions, where attendees divided into smaller groups with individual panelists and CTCB mediators. These breakout sessions proved to be valuable opportunities for attendees to connect with panelists and other attendees, by exchanging ideas in a relaxed format.  

Attendees were also treated to two lunch time speakers thanks entirely to social media and Skype. As attendees relaxed and enjoyed lunch, Chicago school librarians and CTCB Friends Board Members Patrick Gall and Elisa Gall interviewed the creator of the “Let’s Get Busy” Podcast Phil Bildner.    Panelist Betsy Bird then  dug deeper into the role of social media for creators with author Matthew Winner, adding new perspectives to our day’s discoveries.


At the end of the day, however, what did attendees and panelists take away from this day, so full of divergent and at times conflicting perspectives on social media?   The feedback was as consistent as it was promising—that social media has far more potential to expand and deepen learning, librarianship and creating than many of those in attendance thought possible.  Attendees, panelists and CTCB members made their way from today’s event actively engaged in conversation, still exchanging ideas long after the microphones and projectors had been turned off.  



by Christina Moorehead

SCBWI Author/Illustrator Showcase

On Saturday, September 27th, 2014, the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books, in partnership with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Illinois Chapter, and SCIRA (The Suburban Council of the International Reading Association), presented our 5th annual Local Author/Illustrator Showcase for the 2014-15 school year.


Our morning session included author/illustrator visits with the following guests: Suzanne SladeW. Nikola-Lisa (Gyroscope Books), Natasha Tarpley, Laurie LawlorMiriam Busch, Jim AylesworthLarry DayRachel WilsonAmi PolonskyBrianna DuMontLori Degman, Laura Montenegro, Jude Mandell, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Chris Rylander, Nancy Stevenson, Marlene Targ Brill, Scott Gustafson, Fern Schumer, Cindy Kenney



Our afternoon session featured an additional professional development opportunity, a conversation with a local author/illustrator, a keynote by W. Nikola-Lisa, intimate Writer’s Workshop breakouts with SCBWI authors:


  • Suzanne Slade: Practical Ways to Inspire Students to Read & Write about STEM Topics - (true confessions of an engineer who hated writing, now turned children's author who LOVES writing!)
  • Natasha Tarpley: What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity
  • Laurie Lawlor: Teaching Writing to Students (Common Core Curriculum Focus Workshop)

Institute: Teaching Through Informational Texts

On Saturday, April 12, 2014, the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books, in partnership with the ESL STEM Success Grant and the Suburban Council of IRA (SCIRA), hosted an exciting full-day nonfiction institute entitled “Teaching Through informational Texts.” The event was made possible by a generous grant from the Pajeau Foundation. 

Teachers, librarians, administrators and reading specialists alike gathered for an engaging and interactive day to learn from featured academic, Dr. Marc Aronson (historian, author, editor), as well as other keynote speakers from various backgrounds: Laura Beltchenko (Literacy and Common Core Consultant), Judith Fradin (author), Nick Glass (founder of, Susan Dove Lempke (Booklist, Hornbook reviewer of children’s nonfiction), and Toby Rajput (CTCB librarian, 2012 Sibert Committee Member). 

The Center for Teaching through Children’s Books achieved its proposal to the Pajeau Foundation: to offer an institute that focuses on Informational Books and Common Core – relevant topics that have become more integrated into today’s youth education. From discovering new ways to build Common Core connections, to tutorials about innovative online text analysis tools, the day was undeniably insightful and inspiring. One attendee commented, “I couldn't have improved [the institute]. I don't think anyone will walk out of here the same person they were when they walked in today.” Indeed, the support, knowledge and enthusiasm from our attendees, speakers, and staff made the day a true success. 

The institute likewise gave us the opportunity to hand out evaluative surveys: to explore ways that we can attract a more diversified audience and to dig deeper into areas of interest for future events. Of those surveyed, our needs assessment revealed that a majority of people would like to see more coursework offered on interpreting the Common Core State Standards, topical nonfiction, and Children’s Literature (specifically Picture Books). Other noteworthy discoveries included a strong desire towards sessions that focus on utilizing international books in the classroom, and digital diversity with children’s books. 

The institute and its survey results made CTCB’s collaborative mission, which is our dedication to excellence in teaching with quality literature for children and adolescents, even clearer, as well as its relevance with children’s literacy today.