In our quest to provide diverse and inclusive texts to our students, we must also be intentional about how we use texts that address social inequality issues. If we use our lessons to only focus on the characters or the craft, we miss an important opportunity to help them understand the world around them. When we lean into the complexity of a book, young people can be exposed to tough realities, with our support, before experiencing those issues in their own lives. We cannot prepare them for engaging in complex conversations if we avoid the tough stuff in our classrooms. Students, like everyone else, need to practice this skill. One clear way we can support them is by helping them learn to see the social context surrounding a story, whether that story is in a picture book or YA novel. To “zoom out” on any text, ask the following questions and collect resources (in collaboration with your team). Remember that not all resources need to be for students, but can be used to help educators deepen their understanding as they prepare for lessons on complex social inequality issues.
- What are basic terms/concepts relevant to this story that we all should understand first?
- What data/statistics should we know to really understand what’s happening in this story?
- Let’s think about what has happened in the past leading up to this story. What historical events do we think are important to know about for us to really understand what’s going on?
- Are there laws or policies relevant to this story that we should know about? Are there social movements that have focused on the issues in this story?
- Cultural beliefs are ideas or stereotypes that are commonly held in a community or society. What cultural beliefs should we be familiar with in order to truly understand the story?
Think of these resources like providing a map for students to navigate what they are reading and place the story in context.
In this book, August, a 10-year old boy with a genetic facial difference, enters school for the first time in fifth grade, after being homeschooled. He faces bullying and ostracization from some of the children and the adults, while also forming close relationships with new friends who help him navigate this new environment. While Wonder is not a “controversial” book per se, it covers complex topics that deserve a deeper dive. It is a feel-good story of friendship and resilience, but if those are the only themes we pull from it for our students, we are missing an important opportunity to introduce them to ableism, disability rights activism, or other engaging inequality topics. With a “zoomed out” approach, students can walk away with a much more nuanced lesson than simply “be nice to everyone.” Here is a model for how you might begin to collect resources based on the guiding questions above.
Terms and Statistics
The following are examples of the types of sources you would collect to lay the groundwork for your students–to make sure everyone has the same basic information and is speaking the same “language.”
Anti-Bias Education Glossary
These definitions are written for older youth to adult reading levels. Some include age-appropriate versions for younger ages.
Ableism: The marginalization and/or oppression of people who have disabilities, including temporary, developmental, physical, psychiatric and/or intellectual disabilities.
Disability: A mental or physical condition that restricts an individual’s ability to engage in one or more major life activities (e.g., seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, communicating, sensing, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, working or caring for oneself).
Marginalization: The treatment of a person, group or concept as secondary, unimportant, inferior or abnormal compared with those who hold more power in society.
Microaggressions: The everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that marginalized people experience in their day-to-day interactions. Microaggressions can appear to be compliments but often contain a hidden insult to the target group. Microaggressions are often outside the level of conscious awareness of the people who say them, which means they can be unintentional. Microaggressions may be communicated verbally and/or nonverbally.
People First: Acknowledging the personhood of individuals with disabilities before their disability (e.g., “people with disabilities”, “person who uses a wheelchair”, “person with cerebral palsy”, “person has a physical disability”, etc.).
Prejudice: A premature judgment or belief formed about a person, group or concept before gaining sufficient knowledge or by selectively disregarding facts.
Here’s What We Know About Disabled Students in the U.S.
Pew Research Center
Disabled students ages 3 to 21 are served under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees students with disabilities the right to free public education and appropriate special education services. Here is what the data shows about disabled students in the United States.
Historical, Political, and Cultural Context
Disability Rights Movement
ADL | Article
People with disabilities have had to battle against centuries of biased assumptions, harmful stereotypes and irrational fears. The stigmatization of disability resulted in the social and economic marginalization of generations of Americans with disabilities. The struggle for disability rights has followed a similar pattern to many other civil rights movements—challenging negative attitudes and stereotypes, rallying for political and institutional change, and lobbying for the self-determination of a minority community.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Netflix | Film
A group of teen campers are inspired to join the fight for disability civil rights.
ADA – Americans With Disabilities Act – Students
Britannica Kids | Encyclopedia
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is U.S. legislation that provides civil rights protection to individuals with physical or mental disabilities. It protects people with disabilities from discrimination in many areas, including employment, education, and public accommodations. It also mandates that buildings, public transportation systems, telecommunications systems, and other public services be made accessible to individuals with disabilities.
I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much
Stella Young | TED Talk
Stella Young is a comedian and journalist who happens to go about her day in a wheelchair — a fact that doesn’t, she’d like to make clear, automatically turn her into a noble inspiration to all humanity. In this very funny talk, Young breaks down society’s habit of turning disabled people into “inspiration porn.”
Medical Model vs. Social Model of Disability
Erin Human | Infographic
This infographic illustrates the idea that people are disabled by the lack of access and acceptance in their environment (the social model), not by the differences in their bodies or brains (the medical model).
- In the past, kids like August were kept out of regular schools. Disability activists and parents had to fight very hard for a very long time to get them included. Even today, kids with disabilities sometimes struggle to have equal access to school. August was homeschooled until the fifth grade because of his medical issues. Ask students why they think children with disabilities might not feel welcome in regular schools. Ask them to think about how schools could be designed differently to help students with disabilities have the same opportunities as other students (e.g., the buildings, the rules, the norms).
- “Othering” happens when we make someone from a marginalized group feel like they are strange or that they don’t belong. The kids made August feel “othered” by staring at him, avoiding him, and not wanting to touch him. August understands this, but he also wishes kids wouldn’t be so uncomfortable around him. Ask students why they think the other kids are so uncomfortable around August. How could we all, as a society, learn to be more comfortable with physical differences? Have a conversation with students about representation of people with physical differences in the media, in our schools, or in the government.
- Julian’s mom thinks that August doesn’t belong at Beecher Prep because it’s not an “inclusion school.” Explore the meaning of “inclusion school” with students. Julian’s mom tries to wield her power to get August out of the school. Help students think about how some parents have more power than others in schools and how that might impact the opportunities students have. “Zoom out” to help them think about how some people in our society have more power than others to make decisions that impact all of us.
- Even though August is happy to get the medal at the end of fifth grade, he recognizes that he is getting it mainly just for living his life with a disability. Ask your students to think about how it makes people with disabilities feel when nondisabled people are inspired by them in this way. Even though it seems positive, can they imagine why people with disabilities might not like it?