As more and more people begin to talk about the need for diversity in our classroom curricula and literature, we must remember that diversity can’t exist just for diversity’s sake. Conversations in our classrooms around diversity can intentionally or unintentionally lead to the perpetuation of stereotypes and labels. As Colleen pointed out in last week’s post identity is complex. She asks an important question: How does one meaningfully capture the range of cultural practices, traditions, languages, religions, geography, race, and ethnicity – just to name a few – of those who identify as Latinx? While we want to teach about the multitude of cultures, ethnicities, and races that make up our classroom, our nation, and our world, we also want to make sure that we are providing the space for our students to express and identity both their cultural background and their own uniqueness.
One way to accomplish this is to build a strong classroom community. It won’t happen overnight, but in the long run it’s always worth the time and effort. Lee and Low Books just shared a free unit on “Building Classroom Community Unit for Kindergarten.” Based on eight different read-aloud books, the lessons provide in-depth literacy engagement while also encouraging students to connect through sharing about themselves and learning about others. The lessons can be easily adapted for older children as well.
The LAII also has a curriculum unit on “Educating Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.” These lessons focus on teaching younger students about race, culture, difference, acceptance, and respect, all things that can contribute to a stronger classroom community.
The literature we use in our classrooms is such an important tool for ensuring that we provide portrayals of identity that show how complex it really is. Keira mentioned in her Sobre Septiembre post that as we highlight Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re also looking to diversify and expand beyond the stereotypical or superficial conversations that can be associated with any heritage month.
With this in mind, in today’s En la Clase, I’m sharing some ideas on how to use the children’s book Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro with your students. This bilingual book was written by Juan Felipe Herrera, the 2015-2016 US Poet Laureate, and illustrated by Honorio Robledo Tapia. It was published a number of years ago, but I just came across it a few weeks ago. In case it’s new to you as well, here’s a short description:
“What happens when a small girl suddenly starts turning green, as green as a cilantro leaf, and grows to be fifty feet tall? She becomes Super Cilantro Girl, and can overcome all obstacles, that’s what! Esmeralda Sinfronteras is the winning super-hero in this effervescent tale about a child who flies huge distances and scales tall walls in order to rescue her mom. Award-winning writer Juan Felipe Herrera taps into the wellsprings of his imagination to address and transform the concerns many first-generation children have about national borders and immigrant status. Honorio Robledo Tapia has created brilliant images and landscapes that will delight all children.”
Not only is it a book that I think students will really enjoy, but it provides a number of opportunities for discussing themes relevant to identity and community. When we talk about the purpose of diverse literature, we highlight the ways in which literature is like a door, a window, or a mirror. It can allow students to see a world different than their own, provide them some way to experience it, and/or act as a mirror in which they see their own reflection. Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro can provide all of this. For students who have experienced what it’s like to have families separated by borders and immigration, the book will speak to all of the emotions they’ve felt as they’ve worried about far-away family members. For those who’ve never experienced this, the book allows them to begin to think about what this may be like, providing the means to understand a different point of view and practice the skill of empathy.
All of this is done through the story of a young girl who becomes her own superhero. Comic books have been critiqued for their largely white, male protagonists, but in this one, our superhero is a young Mexican American girl whose superpower comes from a plant indigenous to Mexico. This undoes so many stereotypes, and it’s essential that these aspects of the book be discussed with students.
Too often literature portrays children as if they have no agency or power. Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro reinforces the idea of student agency and empowerment, and shows how Esmeralda creates something beautiful with her power when she transforms the border.
While the book can obviously be used in a unit exploring immigration or the U.S-Mexico border, I think it’s also a perfect book for exploring identity and diversity. . .and what student doesn’t want to turn themselves into a superhero?
After reading and discussing the book, ask students to think about the kind of superhero they would want to be. Esmeralda’s transformation is triggered by her mother’s situation. Encourage students to think about an issue or situation they wish they had a superpower to fix. In many superhero stories, the superpower comes from a scientific lab or something otherworldly, but Esmeralda’s comes from an everyday plant. What commonplace item from their own lives could give them a superpower? Give students time to brainstorm and discuss their ideas with a partner, small group, or the whole class. Then, have each student create an illustration of himself or herself as a superhero. This could even be a fun twist on the self-portraits we often have students do at the beginning of the year for Open House displays. Once they’ve created their visual representation, ask them to write their own superhero story based on the theme or problem they brainstormed earlier. If time allows, students can create their own comic book or graphic novel.
If you get the chance to do this with your students, I would LOVE to see their superheroes! I know I’ve only scratched the surface of what could be done with this book. If you’ve read the book or used it in your classroom, I’d love to hear your thoughts (and so would our other teacher readers). Just leave a comment down below.
For other suggestions on great children’s literature that explores identity, check out Colleen’s Reading Roundup of 10 Books with Diverse Latinx Perspectives and Alice’s İMira, Look! posts highlighting Pura Belpré winners.