New education course promotes anti-racism principles through literacy

January 19, 2023

Kara Breen poses with a selection of books from her new anti-racism literature course

A young student quietly sits at her desk in class and opens a book. Instantly the walls dissolve, and she is transported to another place, another time, without ever leaving her seat. Through the written word, she can experience a life very different from her own. That is the power of reading.

Through literature, readers can enter the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, socioeconomic status or age. With the launch of a new course this semester, Kara Breen, Sixth-Year Diploma ’17, hopes to harness the empathy-building capacity of literature and use it as a tool in the fight against racism and bias. 

“We know from the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop that books can serve as mirrors and windows; we can see a reflection of our own identities. Or we can see out into the world and learn about identities, places and experiences that are unlike our own,” said Breen, Quinnipiac adjunct professor of education and Hamden Public Schools literacy specialist.

“Becoming intentional about selecting books for students ensures a rise in engagement, which is the goal of any educator. More importantly, it ensures that students and teachers can see themselves in the literature they are reading and learn about others.”

Through the School of Education’s new course, ED 252 Anti-racism and Anti-bias through the Lens of Empathy: Broadening Perspectives Through Literature Written for Children and Young Adults, participants will study literature through the lens of empathy while also considering identity, diversity, justice and action. Offered for the first time in Spring 2023, class registration is open for interested participants.

“The course will begin with introspective work around personal identities because who we are impacts how we engage with texts,” said Breen. “We will study books with a critical lens and analyze perspective and bias to contextualize the experiences of others in the hopes that we will become more empathetic. It is my hope that students who are engaging with this work will have opportunities to see the world through more diverse perspectives.”

Breen sees the course as twofold. Future educators will have the unique opportunity to learn about the identities of others while simultaneously helping them to see the world through the eyes of their future students.

“There is such power in literature – it can move us, make us feel and experience things that we might not otherwise. It can change us, make us feel closer to ourselves and others,” said Christina Pavlak, director of the Master of Arts in Teaching program. “If you know your students, you can choose books that will help them see the world differently or see themselves in new ways. Teachers are changemakers in many ways and to get to be a part of this profession is a gift.”

The ability to utilize literature to challenge racist or biased views also mirrors the School of Education’s mission to empower its graduates to affect change within themselves and others to move toward a more just and equitable society.

“Our School of Education has a social justice mission,” said Pavlak. “We aim to prepare teachers who are not only excellent but also serve as learners and leaders. And that means they are committed to inclusivity in all its forms. Teacher candidates’ dispositions are as important to us as their pedagogical and content knowledge. I believe deeply that to reach our students effectively as learners, we need to know them as people. My hope is that future teachers will bring this into their practice, as well.”

While it is offered through the School of Education, the course is open to undergraduate students who share an interest in studying how literature can be a tool for anti-racism and anti-bias advocacy.

“The English 101 course called Introduction to Academic Reading and Writing is a prerequisite, but otherwise it is open,” said Pavlak. “This class is for anyone at QU, it’s not limited to those in the education field. In fact, I wish I could take it.”

During the class, students will examine a wide variety of works such as “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, “Melissa” by Alex Gino, “Out of My Mind” by Sharon Draper, “Front Desk” by Kelly Yang, “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone, “Merci Suárez Changes Gears” by Meg Medina and “Amal Unbound” by Aisha Saeed.

As the architect of the course design, Breen drew from her experiences as a literacy specialist for Hamden Public Schools where she led fundraising initiatives to include books in the curriculum that explore issues that are potentially relevant to students’ lives.

“Much of my work is ensuring that students and teachers have access to high-quality curricular materials, including literature selection,” said Breen. “Some years back, I began to focus heavily on the texts that students across Hamden were reading. It was very important to me that the books available to children would not only work with the standards being taught in each unit but would also serve a purpose as it relates to the identities of members of each school community.”

Breen credits Hamden Public Schools for their support of the movement by budgeting money each year for the purchase of diverse literature that reflects their school populations as well as for their efforts to provide professional learning around these important topics. Breen also collaborated with Donors Choose, a nonprofit that gives teachers the opportunity to create crowd-funded projects. In total, she has acquired over $20,000 in high-quality texts and other resources. As a Donors Choose ambassador, she also serves as a panelist at events related to equity and racial justice. The combined experience compelled her to design an anti-racism and literature course for future educators.

“I began to think about how the work we had done in Hamden could translate to a university setting, and I realized that stories are often the thread that connects all humans. Whether we are thinking about books, television shows, or movies, people from all walks of life can connect over stories that inspire,” said Breen. “Future teachers in our Quinnipiac community would greatly benefit from this course as it provides a unique opportunity to learn about the identities of others while simultaneously helping to see the world through the eyes of their future students.”

Through her work, Breen has observed that literature designed for children and young adults is also a great model for fostering empathy among college students.

“Books designed for children are very accessible while also incredibly powerful. There is nothing quite like a beautifully crafted picture book or a coming-of-age story that showcases vulnerabilities that can be related to identity,” explained Breen. “The ultimate goal is to foster more empathetic educators in the hopes that it will, in turn, create safer spaces for children down the line. We want all students to feel that their individualism is celebrated at school.”

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