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What's a sub to do? Supporting diversity in someone else's classroom

by Jill Macchiaverna, substitute teacher

Substitute teachers are in a unique position to spend time in a variety of schools with a wide range of demographics. Most of the time, subs don’t know what to expect on new assignments. Will there be a detailed lesson plan? Will I know which students have special needs and how to address their needs? What is the regular teacher like? What kind of learning environment are the students used to?

When subbing in elementary schools, I have had the most success preparing as if there would be no lesson plan, and that I would have an entire day to fill on my wits alone (this almost never really happens, but I like to be ready). I fill a bag with mindfulness activities for kids (that I’m comfortable leading) and age-appropriate books to read aloud. Not just any age-appropriate books though. Books that students can engage with critically. Books that give us a lot to talk about. Diverse books. Books that “don’t make difference invisible, but rather explore what differences make a difference.” (Harste & Leland, 2000)

When you find yourself with 20 minutes to fill, read those books! Some small victories:

I read Drawn Together by Minh Lê and Dan Santat to a second grade class. The face lit up on the little boy sitting right in front of me when I noted the grandfather in the story is Vietnamese. “What?! I’m Vietnamese! My family is Vietnamese!” It was obviously the first time he had ever seen his culture represented in children’s literature. As we got further into the book, the boy said, “I should ask my dad to teach me to speak Vietnamese!”

I read My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña to a fourth grade class with an English Language Learner who speaks Spanish at home. It was the first time I saw that student smile all day. He heard the Spanish words and would look around to see if his classmates understood what they meant, excited to help translate if they couldn’t tell right away from the pictures and the story. I had a repeat of this same exact reaction from a boy in a second grade class when I read The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy and Eugene Yelchin. This second grader had been pretty obnoxious and interruptive at earlier points in the day, (right up to even when I had started reading the book!) but when he heard the language he hears at home every day and had an opportunity to teach his classmates about it, he was a model student.

Children are very good at picking up on which cultures are valued. It’s so important for every child to have chances to see themself and their culture represented in a realistic, positive way, as opposed to negative stereotyping. Representation matters. There’s an incredible workshop series on teaching diverse literature from Annenberg Learner. Workshop 8 showcases a class that talks about the portrayal of Native Americans in literature and photography. One little girl’s observation blew my mind with its wisdom, “If people only see images of Native Americans from the past, they'll think that's what they're still like or that there aren't any anymore.” (Annenberg Learner, 2005) Stereotypes absolutely have the effect of trapping a culture in time and reducing it.

Even if the class is entirely made up of White students, diverse books are incredibly important windows into other cultures. “Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. … They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. … If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world--a dangerous ethnocentrism.” (Sims Bishop, 1990) These words were written 30 years ago. We’re seeing the effects of a lack of diverse books in schools in today’s political and civil unrest.

The thought of bringing diverse material into the classroom makes some teachers nervous (subs or not). Remember that many things that are ‘diverse’ in teachers’ eyes are just plain old daily life for a lot of children. Don’t announce the diversity of a book before reading it to the students. It’s just an interesting book. Let the students surprise you with their observations. Let them ask their classmates questions. As teachers, we can make sure the discussion stays civil without policing student thoughts. The ideas they come up with after hearing an interesting book are the products of their own developing critical thinking skills and should be supported, whether we see them every day or not.

Here’s a great website for finding diverse books to bring to your next class:


Stewart, W. (2017). Mindful kids: 50 mindfulness activities for kindness, focus and calm. ISBN-10 : 9781782853275, ISBN-13 : 978-1782853275.

Harste, J.C., Leland, C.H. (2000). Critical literacy: Enlarging the space of the possible. Primary Voices K-6. Volume 9, Number 2. Pp.3-7.

Lê, M., Santat, D. (2018). Drawn together. Disney Hyperion.

Quintero, I., Peña, Z. (2019). My papi has a motorcycle. Scholastic Inc.

Deedy, C.A., Yelchin, E. (2017). The rooster who would not be quiet. Scholastic Press.

Annenberg Learner. (2005). Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades. Thirteen/WNET, New York. ISBN: 1-57680-770-3. Retrieved in September 2020 from Annenberg Learner:

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and using books for the classroom, Vol. 6, No. 3, Summer 1990.

We Need Diverse Books. (2020). Where to find diverse books. Retrieved on November 20, 2020, from WNDB:

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