We’ve come a long way since the days of the “Dick and Jane” books given to elementary-aged children prior to 1965 as they learned to read. Those books’ characters were almost exclusively white and today, especially as our nation becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, they aren’t reflective of most classrooms.
Michelle Person of Beavercreek, an educator for 20 years, now finishing up her final year as principal in the Yellow Springs school district, has seen firsthand how this change has affected school children. Born and raised in Cleveland, Person earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Skidmore College in New York. After graduation, she taught in Newark, New Jersey, and then returned to Cleveland in 2005 to teach in several charter schools.
“One thing I learned after teaching in schools that are considered under-resourced is that every kid in this country deserves a good education,” Person said.
Person also discovered that, even with some cultural updates, most educational materials available to schools don’t show the diversity among races. She and her own daughter, Kai, have light skin, but Kai also has curly hair — a trait she inherited from her darker-skinned father, Julian Hickman.
“The one thing I wish people would understand is that Black people are diverse, too,” Person said. “Though we see books and materials where they might get the dad correct or the daughter correct, they never seem to be able to get the combination of the two.”
Person saw an opportunity and she decided to author books that would more accurately reflect the diversity among Black children. In 2017, she published the first book in her series — “Kai and the Daddyman.”
“I noticed there are not a lot of stories that focus primarily on girls and their dads,” Person said. “So, for me, writing the book was a combination of my wanting more characters that looked like my daughter and her father and also girls who have great relationships with their dads.”
The first book features a baby girl named Kai who is learning about life for the first time under the constant watchful eye of her father — “The Daddyman.” Person has written three books in this series, which follows the little girl as she grows and discovers things like going to the park and learning to dress herself.
“Kai’s father is her hero,” Person said. “She’s learning to be independent and is growing her sense of self with her hero to support her.”
Person said the educator in her was adamant from the beginning that the books tell stories that don’t get told in schools. Her second series — the Nathanial English books — feature a little boy experiencing life with his mother helping him learn things he doesn’t necessarily learn in school. Person integrated history in these books as the main character, Nathanial, learns how to solve his present-day problems by learning about historical figures in the past.
She also launched her company, Just Like Me Presents, in 2017 and today has expanded beyond children’s books to culturally reflective teaching curricula, multimedia tools and educational materials designed for parents, teachers and community organizations.
“We are doing a lot of workshops with schools and families around third-grade reading,” Person said. “We know that current research indicates that utilizing culturally relevant content and teaching strategies are powerful in increasing student achievement and reducing the achievement gap.”
Person and her team work with teachers, parents and families outside of the school day to encourage engagement. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Person was working to get Just Like Me materials into schools in Cleveland.
“We have books, videos and podcasts,” Person said. “We want to teach kids 21st century skills to make them true learners.”
Now focusing 100% of her time on Just Like Me Presents, Person said she likely won’t write many more books herself, but rather is hoping to work with many independent authors and promote their work.
“There are a few more stories I would like to tell,” Person said. “But right now, I am working hard to expand our culturally diverse programming and get it into as many hands as possible.”
Creating the materials is just the first part of transforming the education process. Person said that many people do want to improve their cultural awareness but don’t know where to begin.
“I want to be there to support everyone who is looking to make education as inclusive as humanly possible,” Person said. “That’s how you raise and improve student achievement and self-confidence.”
For more information, visit Justlikemepresents.com.
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