Thousands of Manatee, Sarasota students hear stories of diversity for annual reading day

Categories: Stories of Impact, BELONGING AND CULTURE: Uniting Community, EMPOWERMENT AND SUCCESS: Literacy Support,

A story about a parrot named Mango, a Spanish-speaking grandmother and her English-speaking granddaughter grabbed the attention of students at Bayshore Elementary School on Tuesday morning. Bayshore was one of 78 schools and early learning centers in Manatee and Sarasota counties that took part in the tenth annual Embracing Our Differences Reading Day, where thousands of children participate in a read-along of a book about inclusion, kindness and respect. Those topics are recently controversial in a state where Gov. Ron DeSantis has led efforts to crack down on classroom books, diversity and inclusion efforts and Sarasota’s New College of Florida.

The Bradenton area made national headlines in January when some teachers were told to cover up or remove classroom books to comply with a new state law. And Manatee County officials recently discussed changes at local public libraries. Local nonprofit Embracing Our Differences, which organized the readalong event, also made headlines after its art exhibit on diversity was removed from the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota campus. But on Tuesday, diversity was the focus of stories shared at a total of 200 in-person read-alongs, and another 200 pre-recorded for students in pre-K through third grade.

Five different books were read, each of which had been vetted and approved by the school district for each grade level: “You Hold Me Up” by Monique Gray Smith “I Am Enough: I Think I Can” by Grace Byers “The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh” by Supriya Kelkar “Mango, Abuela, and Me” by Meg Medina “Where Are You From?” by Yamile Saied Méndez. Students also took the books home. Pre-recorded webisodes included community leaders and local teaching artists from Florida Studio Theatre, Sarasota Rising Festival and Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, while volunteers conduct the in-person read-along. Manatee County School District Superintendent Cynthia Saunders read in one of the pre-recorded webisodes.

The reading day was organized in collaboration with the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the Patterson Foundation, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, and United Way Suncoast.

“Part of the day is about grade-level reading, and the other part is that we love to be able to share books with students where they can either see themselves reflected in the characters within the books or their classmates,” said Ben Jewell-Plocher, education director for Embracing Our Differences. LEARNING ABOUT DIFFERENT CULTURES Volunteer Richard Parr read “Where Are You From?” to Daniel Munive’s third-grade class at Bayshore Elementary. “In our school, we have a lot of students that are coming from different countries and cultures,” said Munive. “This story is very important for them (his students) to be able to identify themselves when asked where they are from.” Bayshore has over 30% of students registered as Hispanic or Latino, according to the Florida Department of Education’s 2021-22 survey.

Munive described his class as a mix of native Floridians and students from other cultures, saying, “We have kids from Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico, and even though they’re coming from the same country, they have different cultural backgrounds because of how big the countries are.”

“Where Are You From?” revolves around a little girl from Argentina who asks her abuelo, the Spanish word for grandfather, about her background. The book contains geographic identifiers to help students figure it out, such as the reference to the Pampas, famous mountains from Argentina; the gaucho, a cowboy; and Argentinian animals. Munive taught Olympic athletes in Puerto Rico for five years before moving to Manatee County, where he has been teaching for five years. He said the reading day reminded him of teaching his Olympic athletes, who came from Japan, Singapore and Germany and had to learn not only their core curriculum but also about other cultures.

Sara Brunow, the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s education engagement director, engaged Lauren Pugh’s second-grade class in “active storytelling” of “Mango, Abuela, and Me.” Brunow, who was not there in her official capacity but as a parent, put on a full performance as she read to students. Active storytelling is when students respond spontaneously and in the moment to the story that is being told. Brunow said that she’s learned that this technique is helpful in teaching kids to read.

“I’m a mom, a teaching artist and a theater creator,” Brunow explained. “Literacy is an incredibly important part of our world. Stories are an incredibly important part of our world and can be used to connect with children.”

Brunow had students bring out their imaginations, and many fell to the floor and found their magic balls before the read-along. She kept them engaged in the story from cover to cover, in what felt more like an acting class than a simple read-along.

Brunow also read the book “Where Are You From?” “Recognizing that where we come from is more than just a place, but also a feeling, a family, and a culture,” she said.


See this story as it originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald on March 8, 2023 here.