One way Assistant Professor Erin Quast challenges teacher candidates is through a read aloud assignment with children’s picture books.

She adds a wrinkle by requiring the readers to select stories about characters whose backgrounds are different than their own. Those differences could be related to a variety of things, including race, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status. Meanwhile, the rest of the class is told to act like inquisitive second graders.

Quast recalls an instance where her candidate reached a part of a story where two male penguins form a relationship. To simulate what a resistive young listener might say, one of the pseudo-schoolchildren exclaimed “Oh, no!”

At that point, the teacher candidate stopped reading, turned to her professor, and admitted she was stumped as to how she should respond.

“The dialogue that follows reactions like these is how educators can connect the stories to their students’ lives in rich and meaningful ways,” she said.

Quast believes it’s not uncommon for aspiring or even practicing educators to view these moments as roadblocks to communicating a book’s message, rather than opportunities for transforming students’ thinking.

“We spend a lot of time researching and selecting the right books, and that is certainly important,” she said. “But, I would say what’s more important is the dialogue that we let students have around those texts, the questions we pose to them, and how we create space or do not create space to allow children to have different interpretations.”

For Quast, teachers are not to blame.

“Scholars have encouraged teachers to read diverse books, but they have not provided much support when it comes to facilitating transformation.”

That’s why Quast tackled the topic in her doctoral research. The work earned her second-place recognition from the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) Literature Special Interest Group (SIG) for the Shelby Wolf Outstanding Dissertation award.

“But so much transformation can happen when we diminish that hierarchy a little bit by saying ‘This is one voice, but what could be missing from here?’”

In that research, she observed four-year-old kindergarten classrooms as they participated in units on racial diversity.

Quast, who has experience teaching learners ages 3-18 in Washington, D.C. and Kenya, chose the early childhood settings for several reasons.

“At the early elementary level is where students first encounter topics about diversity in a school setting, and it’s also where they form a lot of their identities. I wanted to trace that development as it relates to literacy,” she said.

In addition, Quast specifically sought out educators who were eager to have conversations that could spark transformations in the ways they view and talk about their classmates. In her abbreviated submission to the AERA, she focused on one of the two teachers she collaborated with. That educator identified as white, as did approximately 60 percent of their students’ parents.

Quast’s approach was two-parted. She first observed and interviewed students to understand how they and their teachers were already constructing race in their daily interactions. As the racially diverse children’s books were introduced, she observed how discussions around the texts disrupted or perpetuated their previous way of interacting.

“I definitely saw that young children perceive race,” Quast said. “They not only have a perception of what race means in terms of how they think of themselves and the people around them, but they also use race in their daily social interactions.”

That finding echoed existing research on the topic for adults, teenagers, and upper elementary students.

But when it came to tracking transformational thinking, Quast saw little-to-no change in students’ perceptions of themselves and others.

“Many of the students repeated the central message of the books, saying that they were all different but equal,” she said. “But when they talked about how they perceived themselves and others, they repeated much of the same language they used before the unit.”

This included viewing non-white students as “other” and seeing their own ways of speaking as “normal.”

One student told Quast “The books told us that we are all different but also the same,” and after a brief pause continued with, “But we’re not all the same. We’re all white except for (student’s name).”

For the teacher’s part, she was encouraged by her students’ abilities to repeat the books’ central messages. But she also experienced a similar obstacle Quast’s teacher candidate did when it came to engaging students.

For example, some of the children questioned the books’ portrayals because they did not reflect what they experienced in their own lives.

“But when I went back and looked at the transcripts and my notes, I believe this reflected a little bit of uncomfortableness on the part of the teacher,” Quast said. “She was facilitating the conversation but not really opening it up. There were plenty of moments I identified where the kids were ready to jump in with their own ideas or thoughts.”

In addition to any trepidation the teacher was experiencing, the traditional hierarchical approach to interpreting texts in schools was also at play, explains Quast. Whether it’s a textbook or a fictional narrative, the author is usually viewed as the official voice. Meanwhile, students are just there to read it.

“But so much transformation can happen when we diminish that hierarchy a little bit by saying ‘This is one voice, but what could be missing from here?’”

Quast recognizes that leading this type of learning is more easily said than done, but is focused on setting up future educators for success in her courses. When it comes to book selection, she stresses the importance of layering texts with difference voices. She also requires candidates to interrogate and lesson plan for the predictable and unpredictable directions young students may take conversations about those narratives.

The next step for the award-winning teacher educator is to develop field-tested best practices by continuing her collaboration with elementary educators. The goal is to support teachers with approaches that will lead students to having more flexible, informed understandings of the world as they formulate their identities through literacy practices and social interactions in schools.

“There’s a tension created when children have a deeper understanding of racial differences than we want to believe, at times,” she said. “But children are actively making meaning from books, and we need to honor that by allowing them to lead us.”