Using Novels to Teach about Racial and Social Justice

blanche side eye

POP QUIZ! What is the purpose of education?

A. To give kids a solid foundation of academic skills

B. To help kids discover a lifelong love of learning

C. To help kids understand the injustices that negatively impact many groups of people in America

D. All of the above

Correct Answer: D, of course! Every teacher likes to say that we are preparing our students for the real world, but in my opinion, we’re not truly doing that until we help our kids recognize, analyze, and push back against the prejudices, inequalities, and racism that are very much alive and well in today’s society.

Now, this is a lofty goal, and one that sounds amazing but that can be hard to implement in an educational environment that is focused on test scores, passing percentages, reading levels, and about a million other data points. However, I am here to tell you that it can be done. It is possible for you to find time in your reading block to tackle these big issues that will ultimately make your students better people. Today’s blog post will give you three easy steps to help you use the class novels you are already reading to make your students more conscious of the injustices around them.

1. Choose a Good Book.


It sounds simple, but this is actually the MOST important part. A good book will do half of the work for you because it will give you examples of prejudice and racism that you can discuss as a class and connect to the real world. As the teacher, your first step is to evaluate what novels your class reads aloud together.

My class read the following books this year, in the order they are listed: Zane and the HurricaneA Long Walk to WaterThe CrossoverMaking Bombs for HitlerAmong the Hidden, and The War Below. We were able to connect all of them except The Crossover to examples of inequality and injustice. (If you have ideas for how we can do this with The Crossover, please let me know!) If you are a fourth, fifth, or sixth grade teacher, I highly recommend looking into these books, especially Zane and the Hurricane, to help you get started. Please note that we use these novels as true read alouds–students are not assigned to read any part of these novels outside of class time.

Questions to ask yourself during this step:

  • Who is represented in these books? If all of the main characters are white males, you are going to have some issues tying this book to racial and social justice. Try again. Just like you should be diverse in your classroom library selections, you should also be diverse in your read alouds. Choosing books with Black, Latinx, biracial, Asian, Native, or Indian characters will make it infinitely easier to link the book to real-world issues, and it’s just a good thing to do.
  • Who is not represented in these books? Think about whose stories you are not telling with your read aloud selections. Make plans to either change the books and/or identify other texts (articles, poems, short stories, etc.) that you can connect to the book to supplement the story. For example, the protagonist of Making Bombs for Hitler is not Jewish, so I also bring in poems about the Jewish experience and we read about young Jews who went into hiding. This helps make the reading more robust for the students and gives them a broader view of whatever issue you are learning about.
  • What real-world issues can I connect these books to? Choose books that can be connected to either historical or current examples of oppression, prejudice, inequality, etc. You will find that many historical issues can be tied to current events. For example, when we read Making Bombs for Hitler, we learn not only about the Holocaust, but also about Japanese internment and how immigrants and refugees are treated now (ever heard of the Muslim ban? Yeah, we talked about that). Events to consider reading about are: the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement (you can learn not just about how African-Americans were involved, but also Hispanics and Native Americans), Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and anything to do with refugees/ immigration.

2. Identify the Instances of Inequality/Injustice


This is where the work gets a little more complicated. You will not be able to effectively lead your students in conversations about inequality and prejudice if you don’t have a plan for when to bring those conversations up, and what you can connect it to in the real world.

First, actually read the book. Read it all the way through–before you read it with the kids–so that you get a sense of what real-world issues arise. Then, take to the Internet and do your own research about how that issue has played out in the real world. If you’re reading a historical fiction or biography text, there will likely be some information or additional resources in the author’s notes at the back of the book that can help you get started.

When I was getting ready to read Zane and the Hurricane with my kids, I identified the following opportunities in the book to discuss inequality and injustice:

  • “Finding” vs “looting,” or the different treatment of survivors based on their race. There is a part of the book where the main character (a biracial boy) and his two companions (two Black New Orleanians) wind up in a wealthy, white neighborhood that is dry and still has power. No one is coming out of their homes despite their cries for help, and when the characters finally do find someone, they are accused of looting and threatened at gunpoint.
  • Police treatment of survivors. There is another part of the book where the characters are trying to walk to a drier neighborhood, where they have a family member, but are kept out by policemen with guns. This is based on an actual event and was the perfect opportunity to make a real-world connection.
  • How class impacts storm preparation. The main character’s great-grandmother does not have a car or money for a bus, so she would have been stuck in New Orleans despite the mandatory evacuation order if she didn’t get a ride with her church’s pastor. We talked about what would prevent people from being able to leave their homes, and who gets left behind during storms.
  • Response of government officials and agencies. There are several moments in the book where the characters comment on or observe the lack of response from the Red Cross or other aid agencies. We compared this response to that of the Trump administration during Hurricane Maria and the Obama administration during Hurricane Sandy (by looking at infographics and charts) and talked about what factors could contribute to different response times, such as race of the victims, cost of cleanup, resources, and location of the storm.

3. Select Your Strategies

All of your preparation will be for naught unless you also have a plan for how you are going to get your students thinking, talking, and writing about these issues. Below I’ve outlined three of the strategies and activities I have used and had success with.

Anticipation Gallery Walks

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Students participating in a gallery walk before reading Among the Hidden

If you’re feeling overwhelmed about how to incorporate issues of race, class, and inequality into your novel study, I recommend starting with an anticipation gallery walk because it is low-prep and is a very easy segue into having these sorts of deeper conversations. The premise of this activity is simple but the impact is large. You come up with several statements that are vague, require kids to take a stand, and are connected somehow to the novel you will be reading. For example, when we read Zane and the Hurricane, the anticipation statements would be:

  • Racism does not exist anymore.
  • The police always help people who need it.
  • It’s okay to steal if you need it to survive.
  • Adults are smarter than children.
  • If someone helps you, you should help them back.
  • People are more important than things.

Post the statements around the room and have kids circulate, writing whether they agree or disagree and WHY. As they circulate, they should also read their classmates’ responses and can respond to those. Not only does this build excitement for the new novel and get them thinking critically about the important issues in the book, but it is also a great time to have discussions about some of the statements before you even start reading. In addition, this activity allows students to bring their own experiences and opinions into the classroom, which is always important!

Screen Shot 2018-07-27 at 2.51.41 PMAn example response from our gallery walk before reading Making Bombs for Hitler. The statement was “Everyone deserves to be treated equally, regardless of where they are from.” 

After kids have responded to all of the statements, you can have a mini discussion in class about one or two of the statements, perhaps the statement that had the most variance in answers. I always laminate the posters and keep them hanging up while we read the book, because we revisit these statements throughout the text to see if students’ opinions have changed based on what they read. These statements are also easy to turn into a writing prompt, if you wanted them to delve deeper into one specific question. (If you want to see what anticipation statements I use with my class novels, click here and download them for free!)

Picture Prompts

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Another easy and impactful way to boost student discussion around real-world issues is to bring in real-world media, like pictures, videos, infographics, and charts. If you are reading a novel that takes place during a real event, it shouldn’t be hard to find media that supplements what you are reading. Show the images to your students and ask them some guiding questions to get the discussion started. My go-to questions are:

  • What do you notice?
  • What sticks out to you?
  • What part of [book title] does this remind you of? Why?
  • What questions do you have about _____?

Of course, you can tweak these questions to be more specific to whatever you’re looking at. Regardless of what questions we are using, I always give students independent thinking time first, and then they share with a partner before we talk as a class.

As I mentioned earlier, there is one part of ZATH where the main characters are accused of looting by a white security guard. Before reading this chapter, we briefly talked about what looting means to make sure everyone understood the definition. Then, I showed them the images below and  posed these questions: How are these photos and captions similar? How are they different?


At first, students responded on a superficial level, such as pointing out that there is one person in the photo on the right, and two in the photo on the left. But eventually, students noticed that there was a difference in how the photos were described. When a black person is photographed with food, they are assumed to have looted a store, but when white people are photographed with food, they “found” it. Some students understood right away that this was an example of racism, whereas other students needed to talk about it more. This was a perfect opportunity for students to step up and help each other understand.

After we talked about this real-world example, students were primed and ready to read the relevant chapter in the novel and were able to make a connection between what happened to the characters and what happened to real Katrina survivors. The inclusion of a real-life racism and inequality made for a much richer discussion both before and during the read-aloud.

Writing Prompts

Another way to deepen these types of discussions is to have students learn more in-depth about a particular instance of injustice, and then write about it. This works best if there is a real-life example of an event in the book that you can incorporate. For example, the part of ZATH where the characters are held at gunpoint and prevented from crossing a bridge is based on a true story.  Once I realized this, I knew that I needed to bring this NPR article in for my students to read and respond to. Because it’s from NPR, we were actually able to listen to the audio version, which took about 7 minutes. We had a discussion afterwards about what we thought about the article–was it right? Was it wrong? Why would the police do that? What would we have done? How does this connect to our book?


After discussing, students wrote their own letters to the real-life police chief who made the decision to keep Katrina evacuees out of his city. Writing to a real person and in response to a real event made the activity much more purposeful and I noticed a big increase in engagement from some of my more reluctant writers. In addition, because we had read about this issue twice (once in the novel, and then again in the NPR article) and talked about it as a class, students felt knowledgeable about the issue and were able to produce more high-quality writing. This entire lesson took one class period but sent a big message about how we can speak up when we see things that are unfair!

Thinking Ahead

I hope this blog post has helped you see that incorporating racial and social justice into your classroom instruction is extremely doable! Students are absorbing all sorts of messages from the news and from the internet, and talking about these types of issues in school gives them a way to process any questions or observations they may already have. This school year, I challenge you to go beyond reading and writing and help your students become better humans. The future of our country will thank you for it.

P.S. Looking for more ways teach topics related social justice? Stay tuned for my upcoming post about how I use Socratic Seminars to allow students to delve deep into a topic. Make sure you subscribe or follow me on Instagram so you know when it’s up!

P.S.S. If you read Zane and the Hurricane with your class, check out the resources I use here. 





One thought on “Using Novels to Teach about Racial and Social Justice

  1. Thank you so much for this super helpful and relevant post. I look forward to reading more content from you on addressing race and class with students. Thank you!


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