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Workshop School students review culturally relevant books

Students recommend books that speak to their own experiences.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For a class project, Workshop School teachers Kathleen Melville and Swetha Narasimhan asked their 9th-grade students to study the importance of culturally relevant children’s literature by reading an essay by Walter Dean Myers and reflecting on their own experiences with books. On a trip to the Free Library, each student selected a culturally relevant children’s book to review and share with a small group of 1st graders at Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia. Then they wrote and illustrated children’s books that are culturally relevant to their 1st-grade partners. Here are two student book reviews from that project. You can read two other book reviews from these students here and here.

Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan with Roslyn M. Jordan
Review by Shaquian Francis

The book Salt in His Shoes, by Deloris Jordan with Roslyn M. Jordan, takes me back to my first time playing basketball. It reminds me of how a lot of the kids I grew up with played basketball every day. Most books show things like superheroes or other things that can’t happen in real life, but this book shows how an African American boy works hard to be the best in his sport. This is important because the library doesn’t have many books about African American boys, and this book could inspire African American boys to work hard to become the best in whatever they do. This book is culturally relevant to me because I am also a black boy who works hard at basketball.

This book is about Michael Jordan when he was growing up and how he would always lose to people who were taller than him. He wanted to be taller. He stressed about it until his mom told him “salt and pray.” She put salt in his shoes and prayed over him while he was asleep. That didn’t make him any taller, so he started to lose confidence. His dad told him that it’s not about being tall. He said, “Being taller may help you play a little better, but not as much as practice, determination, and giving your best will.” So Michael practiced and practiced, and he ended up becoming the best player in the NBA.

This is relevant to me because I also struggled to get better at basketball. One day in the summer four years ago, I asked my uncle to bring me to the park. When we went to the park, I started running to go on the swings, but he said, “No swings today. We’re playing basketball.” He gave me the ball and told me to shoot. So I shot and shot and shot and could not make even one. I kept air-balling and air-balling until he told me to step up. But I was still terrible. Since my house is a very competitive household just like Michael Jordan’s, my uncle started talking smack, saying I was a bum. So I got mad and went back to the park every day in the summer and kept playing till I was shooting threes like no tomorrow. Now I play for different teams, including West Philadelphia High’s basketball team. Just like Michael Jordan, I had someone to push me to work hard and get better.

When I read this book to my 1st-grade partner at Lea, even he felt like he could relate to the story. He said he was short and not very good at basketball. He said he is going to put salt in his shoes to help him grow taller. I am making a book for him about a kid in West Philly who works hard, never gives up, and improves himself. I think my partner is going to love it.

That is why this book Salt in His Shoes is relevant to me and why there should be more books like this. I’m black, and so is my 1st-grade partner. We deserve to see kids like us in the books we read. This book also shows that you have to work hard for anything you want and that nothing comes easy. If you go inside a library, there are a lot of books that only show when someone became successful instead of showing what that person had to go through. This book is different.

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
Review by Kianna Robinson

When I read The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, I thought about the time I wanted to play with a girl two doors down and her mom set up a border between us so that we couldn’t talk. When I read this book, I realized it was the first kids’ book I had ever seen about racism. Where are the children’s books that deal with racism? A lot of people must think that kids are too young to learn about racism, but I disagree. I relate to this book because one of the main characters is a black girl who faces racism, just like me.

This book has two main characters, Clover and Annie. In the story, there is a wall separating the blacks and the whites. Clover and Annie wanted to play together, but they were not allowed to cross the wall. Toward the end, they decided they didn’t care what their parents said, and they became good friends.

This book is relevant to me because the girls end up going against what their mothers said and become friends, just like my neighbor and me. The characters in this book are female just like me. I can also relate to this book because my mom told me I couldn’t speak to certain people, and I still ended up doing it. I’m someone who tries to do what’s right even when other people disagree. That’s why this book stood out to me.

I read this book to my 1st-grade partner at Lea Elementary, who is also a female of color. When we talked about the story, my 1st-grade partner said, “That’s not fair.” She thought that what happened in the book was unfair, and it made her angry because the girls couldn’t play. Even though this book is about a difficult topic, my partner still liked it.

This book is easy to relate to because it’s about a life similar to an event that took place in my life. I found this to be one of the best books I read in a while and I don’t read that often. I think more kids of color would read a book if they can relate to it like I related to this one. If you’re a child of color and you wanted to do something good that everyone thought was wrong, then read this book.

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