Counternarratives in 6-12 Classrooms: Disrupting Harmful Narratives and Engaging Students in Critical Thinking and Reflection


Christy Howard returns with additional thoughts through the eyes of a literacy educator who works with preservice and in-service teachers as they navigate the changing expectations of education. Read more about Christy at the end of her blog.

Through my work as a literacy educator, I have the opportunity to work with preservice and in-service teachers as they navigate the changing expectations of education. I also work with school support staff, administrators and district-level curriculum leaders. Through this work I have recently been engaged in many conversations around curriculum materials and text selection for classrooms. Educators want to know how to engage students in the learning process, and how to help them in their journey to becoming critical consumers of texts — especially in a world where they are bombarded with so much information. Many secondary teachers recognize the need to look beyond the textbook for classroom materials, often acknowledging content area textbooks fail to provide all the information needed to support student learning. Many of them also acknowledge textbooks provide incomplete stories. My response to these educators as I nod in agreement is, “Let’s take a look at the role of counternarratives in your materials and text selection process.”

What are counternarratives?

There are many definitions of counternarratives. Here I would like to share the definition from Tricia Ebarvia’s new book, Get Free. She shares:

“A counternarrative is a story that stands in contrast to and challenges the values, beliefs and an established dominant narrative. Often counternarratives do this by focusing on the perspectives that are missing, marginalized, or actively erased from the dominant narrative” (Ebarvia, 2023, p.3).

This definition stands out to me because of the discussion of erasure. When I think about my conversations with educators and their stories of how some of them are dealing with curriculum mandates and banned books in their districts, this is an example of how perspectives are actively erased from the dominant narrative. Curriculum mandates and book bans often minimize access to the ideas, experiences and histories of marginalized groups. This is a clear reason why we need to provide space for multiple perspectives, allowing students to engage with both dominant narratives and counternarratives.

Why are counternarratives important?

Stories that only show the dominant perspective can be harmful. Students need exposure to multiple perspectives. These perspectives are not always readily available in neighborhoods and families. Tatum (2017) reminds us, Many of us grow up in neighborhoods where we had limited opportunities to interact with people different from our own families… Consequently, most of the early information we receive about “others”– people racially, religiously, or socioeconomically different from ourselves–does not come as a result of firsthand experience. The second hand information we receive has often been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete (p. 84).

This incomplete information can lead to harmful actions. For example, incomplete, distorted information shaped by cultural stereotypes has led to physical and emotional harm against people in this country. We have seen this highlighted in news stories about hate crimes against marginalized groups, that in many cases have led to death. These incomplete stories and distorted stereotypes can be addressed through counternarratives in our classrooms, and if we believe dominant narratives can be harmful, it is easy to believe that perhaps counternarratives can be healing.

Counternarratives can also help us disrupt deficit perspectives and harmful narratives about people and places. For so long in the publishing world, we saw so few books written by and about the lives and experiences of people of color. This has been well documented by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (2018). With this approach to publishing, the lives, experiences, and voices of marginalized people have been silenced. Tatum (2017) describes an experience where a preservice English teacher commented that she had never learned about any Black authors in her English courses and was concerned she would have difficulty teaching them if she had not learned about them in her schooling. A classmate commented, “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books” (p. 85). This narrative is harmful, inaccurate, and is rooted in a deficit perspective. We must provide access to books for students that serve as counternarratives to this mindset, showing that we indeed have successful, amazing, authors across marginalized groups writing award-winning stories and creating award-winning film, art, poetry, music and dance. These counternarratives can show our students they, too, can be successful, amazing creators if they so choose to embrace that identity.

Counternarratives in Classrooms

There are many learning experiences you can provide for students to engage with counternarratives. I believe it’s important for students to read counternarratives. I also think it’s important for them to have opportunities to write counternarratives as well. Christensen (2017) asserts, “In writing about themselves, students learn to praise their beauty that the world overlooks or cannot see” (p. 82). Writing experiences through this lens allow students to write against false or inaccurate narratives, take ownership of their writing and show their beauty to the world. Here I want to share some opportunities for both reading and writing with you.

Children’s Books as Counternarratives

We know that children are often exposed to negative dominant perspectives through children’s stories, cartoons, and movies, where they have seen inaccurate representations of Indigenous People, as women portrayed as needing to be rescued, and People of Color, as lazy or villains. As educators, we have the opportunity to disrupt these narratives by using well-chosen, multi-perspective texts in our classrooms as counternarratives. At the bottom of this post, I have listed picture books, middle grade books, and young adult books that can be used as counternarratives. These are all beautiful stories, several of them focusing on love, joy, and community, while also speaking back to the dominant perspectives of marginalized people.

As we consider using such books in our classrooms, there are so many resources that can guide us in choosing texts, such as Diversifying Your Classroom Book Collections? Avoid these 7 Pitfalls. In addition, Ebarvia (2023) provides some questions to guide our thinking as well:   

  • Can this text provide meaningful insight to students about identities with which they are unfamiliar?
  • In what ways can this text help to develop a positive social identity for my students?
  • How can this text challenge incomplete or harmful dominant narratives about different identities?
  • Does this writer treat their subject with complexity and nuance and avoid stereotypes?
  • What does this text not do or include that I will have to supplement with another text? What counternarratives will my students need after this text?

I hope through these resources, you find some helpful texts to meet the needs of your students and engage them in exploring counternarratives in your classrooms.

Visual Autobiographies

Visual autobiographies are an opportunity for students to engage in creating counternarratives. Students can generate multimodal projects that include items such as photos, drawings, poems, songs, and videos. This type of assignment is open for students in a way that they are able to choose what they want to present and how they want to present it. They are able to share their identity, culture, history, beauty, and brilliance. They begin by exploring the dominant narratives that might be told about them, parts of their identities or their communities. They, then, consider how they can create visual representations as counternarratives to these dominant narratives.

Talking Back

Talking Back is an activity Christenson (2017) shares where she asks students to “criticize commercially produced images about the way they should look, sound, or act” (p. 82) and to speak back to these perspectives through poetry. In her example, she uses the poem, “what the mirror said” by Lucille Clifton. I have also used Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise poem as a mentor text. Additionally, I have created a poem as a mentor text for this assignment so students can see my thinking in this process as well. As an educator, what would you like to “talk back” to? What texts could you use with your students as representations of “talking back?”

Reflections of…

I believe in self-reflection. It is an important piece of all of my instructional practices. When I consider what it means to include counternarratives in my classroom, these are the questions I am asking myself. I encourage you to join me in reflection as you consider integrating counternarratives into your classrooms.

  • What is the role dominant narratives have played in my life?
  • What is my role in promoting the dominant narrative in classroom spaces? How have I believed or accepted deficit dominant narratives?
  • How can I challenge the negative perceptions in dominant narratives?
  • How do I use narratives to help students construct new understandings of the world?
  • Whose experiences and voices are centered in my classroom?
  • Whose experiences and voices are marginalized?
  • Whose voices are missing? What does this mean? Why does this matter?
  • How can I continue to provide space for my students to “talk back?”

Children’s Books and Professional Resources

Picture books

We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell

Something Beautiful by Sharon Denni Wyeth

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Middle Grade books

Mascot by Charles Watters and Traci Sorell

Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson

Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Young Adult books

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Silence that Binds Us by Joanna Ho

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

Professional Resources

Christensen, L. (2017). Reading, writing, and rising up: Teaching about social justice and the power of the written word. (2nd ed.) Rethinking Schools.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. New York, NY: Scholastic.


Christensen, L. (2017). Reading, writing, and rising up: Teaching about social justice and the power of the written word. (2nd ed.) Rethinking Schools.

Cooperative Children’s Book Center. (2018). Publishing statistics on children’s books about people of color and First/Native nations and by people of color and First/Native nations: Authors and illustrators. Madison, WI: Cooperative Children’s Book Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved from

DeHart, J., & Staff, L. for J. (n.d.). Countering the narrative. Learning for Justice.

Ebarvia, T. (2024). Get free: Anti-bias literacy instruction for stronger readers, writers, and thinkers. Corwin.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books

Christy Howard has been an educator for over 20 years. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Literacy Studies, English Education, and History Education at East Carolina University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family.

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