Most English teachers love to read and share the literature that has touched them over the years. They want their students to value and love reading, too. But sometimes the books adults love aren’t the stories that resonate with young people, for all kinds of reasons. As U.S. classrooms become more racially and culturally diverse, many students don’t see themselves reflected in the literature their teachers hold up as worthy of study. But that’s slowly changing. The recent National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference offered numerous sessions featuring authors with traditionally marginalized identities, as well as teachers who are working hard to change how and what they teach. Almost every session with this focus emphasized that educators interested in doing this work need to first examine their own beliefs and biases before jumping into the work.
There are 4 pillars of thought in this piece:
Pillar #1: Continuously interrogate our own biases to understand how they inform our teaching. Pillar #2: Center black, Indigenous, and voices of color in literature Pillar #3: Apply a critical literacy lens to our teaching practices Pillar #4: Work in community with others, especially BIPOC
I was never really into literature when I was a teenager. I loved Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, and I wished that damn turtle would just get run over already in The Grapes of Wrath. I enjoyed Romeo and Juliet, didn’t like Beowulf all that much. I honestly don’t know how much more students will like literature if you change the skin color or sex of the authors. It’s not like I could relate to sword fighting just because Shakespeare was white, and I doubt that BIPOC (that’s a new one for me) didn’t understand Caulfield’s angst just because Salinger was white. I see the value in having read those works, though. Were the Harry Potter books bad because the author was white, or did her being a woman give her a pass?
I’m big on “canon”, just as I was a big believer in Hirsch’s Core Knowledge.