Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.
Center for Inquiry School 2 librarian Kathleen Rauth packs her library with diverse books.
That’s because growing up in a white, middle-class family, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Rauth said.
But Rauth quickly learned through her teaching experiences that she needed to be more culturally aware, she said, and she set out to recognize her white privilege and understand the impact of race and poverty in education.
“One of the things that really helped sharpen my perspective is reading authors of color write about their experiences in the education system, and getting their perspective of what it’s like to be in the ‘minority,’” Rauth said. “Because I didn’t have to think about that.”
Rauth recently won the 2018 Outstanding School Librarian Award from the Indiana Library Federation. She was Indianapolis Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year in 2018.
She talked to Chalkbeat about how she chooses books to teach students about people from different backgrounds, and why she’s not afraid to get rid of classic books in the library.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
It’s cliche, but I actually always wanted to be a teacher. In kindergarten, I came dressed as a teacher for career day. My mom’s a teacher, although she wasn’t teaching when I was a kid; she took time off.
The only time I changed that was when I was in college. For a short time, I was in theater, and I thought, well, I’ll be an actress instead. But then I learned there was something called creative drama, which is the fusion of teaching and theater. I was able to put that together, and I started as a creative drama teacher for about 15 years. We used traditional theater techniques and approaches to facilitate interpersonal communication, group skills, and what would now be called social-emotional domain work. We weren’t really putting on plays, although we would do some with an education focus.
How do you get to know your students?
I see the kids basically only once or sometimes twice a week, so it is a bit challenging. But I see them over time, from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade, so those relationships can develop over time.
A lot of it has to do with casual conversations when I’m helping them check out books or I see them in the hallway, talking about books and talking about life. I try to engage them within the library, but also outside the library so that I can get a sense of their larger life.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
With my fourth grade, I spend the entire year around the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. We look at diversity in all aspects, and we start by doing a collection analysis. We look at the collection and the national statistics around diversity in books. We start talking about why those statistics are so bad, and then also what’s the value of everyone having access to diverse texts. We start looking at culture and community through nonfiction.
From there we move on to my favorite part of it: We do a quite lengthy study over three or four months looking at immigration and refugee narratives, with the intent of having them understand what it’s like to be a refugee, especially what it’s like to be a refugee child who comes to another country and has to adjust to that. We learn what kids in other places of the world are experiencing, and how we can be helpful to kids who are coming into our community from refugee situations.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
Everything that goes on in the community affects what goes on in your class. Certainly as an International Baccalaureate school with a focus on global awareness and a connection to our global community, we spend a lot of time talking about issues such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ issues. We have LGBTQ teachers and parents so we have a pretty inclusive community here. I strive to make sure my narratives are including that and kids are comfortable sharing anything they want to share with me in terms of any aspect of difference.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
As part of a larger unit in fifth grade, students have to pick a cause that they’re interested in and do a project related to that. One of the groups selected LGBTQ rights as their cause. I purchased some additional resources, did some digging around, and got some contacts for them. When they did their presentation, which is a big community event at a local YMCA, one of the parents stopped me and said, “I just wanted to let you know what a difference it made for my son that you found those additional resources. It made him feel more open.”
That student and five other kids stopped by after-school when I was shelving books. They said, “Hey, Ms. Rauth.” I said, “Hey.”
After a pause, the student said, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m gay.”
“I’m not,” one of the other kids said. The next one said, “I don’t really know.” The other two said, “We don’t know, either.” I said, “Well, you’re 10, so it’s OK that you don’t know yet.”
And they said, “OK, bye!”
The fact that they were comfortable with me, and they knew that was a place where the conversation was OK, that was huge to me. They know that there isn’t really any topic or discussion that we can’t have at some level here, which is really important because a lot of kids don’t feel comfortable.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
That really goes back to the concept of white privilege. I knew that other people’s lives were different from mine, but I didn’t have a real understanding of what that meant, and I didn’t have any real understanding of the depths of racism in the United States, how much that permeates, and how much privilege I’ve been given as a white woman.
I wasn’t clueless, but I was relatively clueless. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. It was a wake-up call for me to start in Chicago and realize that my families and my students and everyone else were really coming from another place. That had a profound impact on how they were able to interact with me, and I needed to get a much bigger bag of skills to meet their needs.
But those connections are important. It’s those connections where I can say to a kid, hey, I’ve got books that would be great for you. This one’s about an African-American girl who reminds me of you. She might say, “I love it. Do you have another one?”
I’ve had so many experiences as a librarian where I’ve been able to dig and find that book who changes a reluctant reader into a reader. I want to keep feeding that and building that, and know that I had a role in helping change students’ perceptions of themselves as readers.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
It’s kind of sad, but I read almost 90 percent books for kids. I did buy Michelle Obama’s autobiography, so I am giving myself that.
When I tell people I’m a librarian, they always ask, “What books do you recommend?” And I say, “Nothing, unless you’re between the ages of 5 and 12.” I feel like when I retire, that’s when I’ll get to read. But until then, I really don’t have the time.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
One piece of advice was right when I was doing my student teaching a long time ago. I went in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sure that I was going to connect with everybody. Of course, I did not. There were a couple of kids who were very attached to their homeroom teacher and were very resentful of me taking over that. I’d go home crying and ask my supervising teacher, “What am I doing wrong?”
She said, “You’re not doing anything wrong. Here’s the deal: Not every kid is going to like you. You’re going to teach every kid, and you have to do that. But if you go into it thinking every kid is going to like you, that’s not going to happen. You strive for that, but don’t become discouraged.”
In those moments when it’s not going so great, so many times I’ve thought back to that conversation. I think, tomorrow, I’ll come back and find another way to approach it. She gave me the knowledge that you don’t ever give up, but it might not be the first, second, or third time before it happens.
The second piece of advice is from one of my professors who suggested I switch over to doing libraries. I was talking about collection development — it is really much more complex than most people might think. What do you buy, what do you not buy, what do you keep or not keep, how do you develop something that is a living organism?
She said that a school library is not a historical archive. You don’t have to keep books that kids are not reading unless there’s a compelling reason. I need to have kids reading! She freed me from, “It’s a classic, I don’t want to get rid of it.”
We’re not a public library. We’re a school library that is helping kids grow as readers with both an academic approach and an independent reading approach. I might not consider a book to be great literature, but for some kids, it’s going to be the entry into reading. That advice from her was really powerful for me, because it enabled me to say, “All right, you might be a good book, but you’re going.”