Building Cultural Competence through Reading Diverse Books

A few years ago a conversation started in my library that was prompted by a student reading Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. The student in question identified as a person of color, but in our extremely homogeneous community she was typically the only black person in the room. The student was grappling with her identity and exploring the reality of what it means to be black in America. Our conversation evolved and turned into an exploration of the microaggressions that students of color face every day. Other students and educators gradually joined in our discussion. These students expressed that they wished their teachers were more aware of their experiences as members of marginalized communities. Eventually this led to a group of students working together to create a Student Diversity Panel. 

On the last teacher work day of the school year, this group of around 6 students shared their stories with the faculty and staff of my school. It was an eye-opening experience for many and a powerful moment for our students and our school. I wanted to use this momentum to further our school community’s understanding and acceptance of diverse communities. I decided to modify a reading challenge I came across on a Facebook group for the school’s faculty (I’m sorry I don’t remember the name associated with the original post to give credit, but if you’re out there, thank you). 

I created a Diversity Reading Challenge in BINGO format for my fellow educators. Each square offered one or more book options that teachers could select. The middle square was open to any YA book that featured diversity of any kind. I included books for teens, books for adults, and even a few middle grade options. There were fiction titles, biographies, memoirs, narrative nonfiction, and professional reading for educators.

Participating teachers were asked to respond in writing about how their reading would impact their teaching and/or how they interact with their students. I offered two hours of professional development for each title read, up to 10 hours total. Completing a BINGO card was not required, but doing so would enter the teacher into a drawing to win a grand prize. Teachers were also required to participate in a one-hour “debriefing” roundtable discussion about their reading. 

I have offered this program for the past two summers, and each year I have had several faculty and staff participate. The feedback has been wonderful. Teachers reported not only really enjoying the books they had read, but also developing a deeper understanding of our students from marginalized communities. One teacher was so moved by her reading that she decided to require her sociology students to read a YA fiction book as a semester project (more on that in a future post). 

One of my colleagues and I recently presented at our state library association’s conference on this program, which led to some great discussion. See our full presentation at


Author: Brandi Hartsell

Brandi Hartsell is the school librarian at Halls High School in Knoxville, TN. She was awarded Teacher of the Year at HHS in 2021. Brandi was also recognized alongside colleagues as recipients of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL) Teacher Collaboration Award in 2019 and 2021. She has served (and continues to serve) in many leadership roles within TASL. Brandi has presented professional development sessions for TASL, Halls High School, and Knox County Schools. Brandi loves sharing ideas and brainstorming…also cats…and true crime. Follow her on Instagram @hhslibrarytn.

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

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1 reply

  1. Brandi, thank you for this post. I have already talked to some students, and we are going to replicate this 2nd semester in our school. Thank you for graciously sharing your labor and resources.

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