Poems as Windows and Mirrors

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Mural at the Park View Community Center, Warder St. and Otis Pl., NW, Washington, D.C. Carol M. Highsmith, 2010.

Mural at the Park View Community Center, Warder St. and Otis Pl., NW, Washington, D.C. Carol M. Highsmith, 2010.

In the school library world we frequently discuss how books can serve as mirrors and windows for our students.

Books, poems, and other literary works that are mirrors help students to connect with themselves. Seeing their own stories, emotions, and experiences reflected in literature helps them understand the significance of those things and feel perhaps more comfortable in the world of poetry and reading.

In an article titled “Reflections on the Development of African American Children’s Literature” (Journal of Children’s Literature, Fall 2012), Rudine Sims Bishop discusses the importance of providing children with books that serve as mirrors:

[I believe] that children have a right to books that reflect their own images and books that open less familiar worlds to them. . . . Some critics argue that children do not necessarily need to see their physical selves reflected in books as long as the characters are believable and the story rings true. It is true, of course, that good literature reaches across cultural and ethnic borders to touch us all as humans; in the right light, a window can also be a mirror. I argue, however, that for those children who historically had been ignored—or worse, ridiculed—in children’s books, seeing themselves portrayed visually and textually as realistically human was essential to letting them know that they are valued in the social context in which they are growing up.

These words are important to remember whenever we select material to offer our students. We may need to seek diverse writers telling the stories of a wide variety of individuals rather than using work readily available to us that may not reflect the experiences of our students.

Books or poems that are windows help students connect with lives unlike their own. Recognizing the importance of books as windows, earlier this year Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, launched “Reading Without Walls.” This initiative challenges children to read books that are windows, that introduce them to worlds outside their comfort zone. Commenting on the project and on the importance of books as windows, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said: “Books can be windows on other places, experiences and cultures. The National Ambassador program, through its current ambassador, is encouraging readers to leave their comfort zone to experience worlds unlike their own.”

While a book or poem can serve as either a window or a mirror, it’s important to realize that, sometimes, it can serve as both. Young adult author and editor David Levithan emphasizes this fact, and the limits of the window/mirror metaphor, in a June 2016 School Library Journal interview:

I really believed for a while in the mirror/window distinction. And while I think it’s valuable and I don’t think it’s wrong to use that, I think there is a danger in saying that some books are windows and some books are mirrors, because that totally negates the fact that the best mirror in understanding yourself is a window into other people.

I think that’s what we’re working toward: that understanding others helps you understand yourself and understanding yourself will certainly help you understand others. . . . Diversity is an incredibly intricate and multifaceted issue, and our challenge is to be as intricate and multifaceted as we can.

Windows and mirrors aside, Levithan is asking us to see our students as multilayered people with many interests and experiences.

Each poem we bring to our students will resonate with someone sitting in the room. Offer poetry from authors around the nation and the world. Choose authors who wrote before any of us were alive and authors who are currently writing. Choose authors from the cultures represented in the school and choose authors whose cultures are unknown to students. Choose authors whose faces look like those of your students and choose authors whose faces look different from anyone your students know. Choose poems about love and war and nature and society and mental illness and family and friends. Choose poems in a variety of formats as well as no particular format. Choose far and wide to engage your students with words and ideas they recognize from their own lives as well as those they do not. Immerse students in all that poets have to say about the human experience.

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