Windows and mirrors

Windows and mirrors

There is more than one way of viewing the world.

For many teachers, the only books available growing up showed mirrors of themselves. Very few provided windows to other worlds.

Consider for a moment a picture book from your primary or secondary school years. A poem.  A text book. Were these reflections of your own worlds, or were there other different, interesting, imagining worlds?

Life in schools can be filled with contradictions.

The concept, or metaphor, using windows and mirrors was originally conceived by Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, who specialised in African American children’s literature. In a 1990 article she wrote:

‘Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.’

The curriculum should be both a window and a mirror for students, and it helps to reflect on your own teaching and whether schools should be places where children and young people have the opportunity to discover other worlds, as well as those with which they are familiar. For a number of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students whose language and cultural backgrounds differ significantly from the wider school community, mirrors can reflect their own lived experiences.

When I was at school, a very long time ago, there were no mirrors, unless it was the carnival mirror of my first encounter with written stories Little Brown Piccaninnies of Tasmania (1950).

Or by the time I reached Book IV of my readers, there was a fairly strong Australian content, encompassing poetry; ‘An Australian Cradle Song’, geography – The Australian Coast – and ‘facts’. A striking example of ‘fact’ is an account of ‘An Ingenious Method of Catching Wild Ducks,’ in which the technique of netting ducks is described, all the while managing to portray Aboriginal people in a very negative light.

It might be thought that the wary game would escape by soaring over the obstacle, so high is their flight. But no. The blacks take advantage of the extreme timidity of the poor birds, and, just at the right moment, cause them, by a cunning trick, to swoop right into the trap set for them (Macmillan 1902, p. 32).

By using words such as timid and cunning, the reader is left with the impression that Aboriginal people should not be procuring food. While the method is communicated well and the reader can imagine how the catch is made, the hunter carries out ‘deception still farther,’ imitating the cry of a hawk, the wild ducks’ nemesis.

Or my text book, page 14:


But it was not really the white man who first settled in this southern land. For many long years it had been peopled by a dark-skinned race with lank hair and generally flattish noses. They had migrated from the mainland of Asia very many centuries before the coming of our race, crossing the sea lanes in primitive canoes, but we have no definite knowledge of their journey hither. We must be careful, however, to distinguish them from the frizzy-haired Tasmanians who had not made even as much progress as the Australians towards mastering their environment. The accompanying illustration [that does not depict lank hair] shows an Australian aboriginal and some of his implements. In the sketch, which is taken from a photograph, you will find evidence that he lives in a land of strong sunlight and intense glare. The aborigines, who were nomad hunters and fishers, did not bother to grow crops although they dug for edible roots such as yams. They did not build good dwellings, being content with rough bark and shelters, and made little attempt to make pots and other vessels or furniture, though they made beautifully ground stone axes.

                We usually regard our aborigines as being very low in intelligence but we must remember that they showed sufficient intelligence to exist in a land where nature had not been as kind as in other places (Williams, 1956).

This text book made me feel kind of “not human” and my feelings were reflected much later by the Pulitzer prize winner Junot Diaz, a Dominicam American, who in an interview in 2009 said ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. Growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?”
Available at: Accessed 29 May 2016.

What if I’d had Herb Wharton’s poem? How different may I have felt?

School days

One mile to school each morning
shank’s pony was my bus,
home sometime for dinner
in midday summer heat
barefooted from shade to shade I raced,
that ground sure burnt my feet.

Sometimes a glance towards the river,
rod lines set down there,
I’d better check them out
Catfish might be biting

Better down the river catching fishes
than learning silly tales in school,
golden apples, flying horses
dragons breathing fire
or some pommie playing bowls.

If they’d taught us how to ride
or just had cowboy movies
I’d never have played the wag.

Think about how the curriculum functions today. When we look at all the items, we can conclude that there is more than one way to view the world, but how often do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students get the opportunity to do this? I could name at least 50 books off the top of my head for younger readers, but let’s think about chapter books and graphic novels for older readers.

The following is taken from Learning to Teach in the Primary School, chapter 13:

In 2011, Laguna Bay joined up with Oxford University Press to develop, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, a series called Yarning Strong (Robinson, 2011). Teachers have been heard to say that if this is the only resource they have in the school, they have all they need to teach about things Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. The set is based on four themes: family, land, law and identity. One of these novels, Dallas Davis, the scientist and the city kids, written by Jared Thomas (2011), has three themes: taking responsibility for the land, taking responsibility for younger people, and the importance of knowledge and learning. (Other works in the set include stories on concepts such as hard work and determination, value and importance of family, intellectual property, justice, peer group pressure, bullying and racism.)

On a first read through of Dallas Davis, the scientist and the city kids, the following concepts are apparent: Country, belonging, passing on of learning, protection and protecting, responsibility, people – land, feelings, Elders, extinction, ecosystem, grandfathers, early settlers, missions, forced ‘protection’, culture, being talked into Country, ancestors, right knowledge, birds and trees go together, survival, common sense, mirror image, shelter trees (lined with fur), scientific gathering of flower buds (pressed), leaves, twigs (paper bags) and seedpods; birds and animals – if we take away their home then we should plant new, possums and birds maintain the species by passing seeds, bees eat pollen and keep birds and possums away; knowing something makes you feel good; pointing with finger is rude (point with chin); some city children do not realise where food comes from; catching yabbies; Aboriginal humour; the Ancestors’ campfires; different cultural groups have different stories about the Milky Way; tennis courts and swimming pools versus the bush; how to tell male/female yabbies as females are not eaten; challenges, first-aid using a bull ants’ nest and a fire pit; ants make antiseptic; infection; ash is sterile because it has been burnt and under the ground; germination, Aboriginal colloquialisms – ‘proper little tracker’, ‘pretty deadly’, ‘biggest mob’, ‘proper good’, ‘Cuz’.

This is a very long list.

  • Do these concepts fit within the Australian Curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures?
  • How would this information assist you in providing mirrors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as windows and sliding glass doors for non-Indigenous students?

Related content

Windows and mirrors

Windows and mirrors

Activity: Reflect on the statement ‘we need books in which children can find themselves’.

Read More


Sims Bishop, R 1990, ‘Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors’, Perspectives: Choosing and using books for the classroom, vol. 6, no. 3, viewed 29 August 2016, <>.

Fletcher, J 1952, Little Brown Piccaninnies of Tasmania, John Sands, Sydney.

Hudson, P (ed) 2013, Learning to teach in the primary school, Cambridge University Press Port Melbourne, Victoria, pp. 240-241.

Macmillan and Co, Limited 1902, Macmillan’s Australasian Readers Book IV, The Macmillan Company, London, p. 32.

Thomas, J 2011, Dallas Davis, the scientist and the city kids, Oxford University Press, Victoria.

Wharton, H 2003, Kings with empty pockets,  Herb Wharton, Brisbane, p. 12.

Williams, M 1956, Out of the mist, Oldham, Beddome & Meredith, Hobart.