Centering Joy in ELA Text Selection

Book Joy

Joy. It is something I have been ruminating on and desperately trying to find these past few months. In the midst of a global pandemic that has brought immense loss and trauma, in the midst of continued displays of racial inequity that have produced immeasurable loss and trauma, and in the midst of personal changes and challenges. Joy, I need it. Where is it and how can I hold onto it when I find it?

As I have been gearing up for this new school year, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how the same need I have to center joy in my life is what students will need too. As an ELA teacher by training and trade for more than a decade and a half now, I can list a plethora of ways that student joy can be centered in an ELA classroom, but the one item on my list that I keep coming back to over and over is the texts we select as teachers. Joy as defined by Merriam Webster is a feeling in which someone, “experience[s] great pleasure or delight due to well-being, success, good fortune, or the prospect of possessing what one desires.” I don’t know about you, but this is what I want for all of my students. It is what I want for myself. More than that, it is what I want for any person in every learning environment they enter. 

I first started thinking about the connection between text selection and joy this summer while I was working with Teaching Matters colleagues creating curriculum for a school who identified their desire to revise their ELA curriculum to be culturally responsive and reflect an anti-biased and anti-racist (ABAR) vision for teaching and learning. Specifically, the school wanted to center voices from history that have historically been silenced by explicitly teaching the truth of white supremacy, oppression, exploitation, and resistance. While in conversation about the general focus and text selection of the units, my colleague, Jacobē, raised a concern that was directly connected to the authenticity of what we were creating. She asked, “Where is the joy?”. In that moment, I was immediately brought back to what I had been fiercely fighting for in my personal day-to-day life. With this question,  Jacobē centered the humanity of the students we were writing this curriculum for and reminded me that we could not build a Culturally Relevant-Sustaining (CR-S) curriculum that did not include joy. True CR-S curriculum must in addition to building knowledge and critical thinking around our country’s racist and oppressive past and present, must also center joy. More specifically, it must center the beauty, joy, resilience, and variety of Black, Indigenous, People of Color’s (BIPoC), LGBTQ+, and differently abled experiences, the experiences that historically have not been centered in our society and less so in our schools.

It is important to stop here and note that centering BIPoC joy is not only for spaces with BIPOC students. This is a call to all teachers, no matter the amount of melanin in your classroom. The notion that CR-S and anti-racist curriculum is not needed in predomoniatly white spaces is a misunderstanding of the work of anti-racism. As Dr.Rudine Sims Bishop describes in her essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” students need not only mirrors to acknowledge and affirm their own identity, but also windows into other cultures and experiences. This practice is explored in a Teaching Tolerance blog, where the author Christina Torres explains that “students from communities with white privilege need to hear voices from other perspectives in order to grow their thinking.”

In the same post Torres highlights the importance that “those perspectives need to be diverse and empowering as well--only showing Black suffering or slavery does not begin to break down problematic beliefs about Black people.” The perspectives that are shared in our ELA classes need to not only teach the true narratives of oppression and exploitation that have been erased or white-washed at best in most curriculums, but also need to include narratives of joy. ABAR culturally responsive educators work toward equity and joy for all of their students. They realize that only talking and teaching about the trauma and pain of BIPoC or communities that have been pushed to the margins is not anti-racist or culturally responsive, but that culturally responsive curriculum must also focus on the joy, success, and various experiences of BIPoC, the LGBTQ+ community, and those who are differently abled. 

If we as educators are saying we are culturally responsive and anti-racist, then one way we can center student joy and put our words into action is to revisit our text selection to insure that it centers the variety of experiences (i.e., not just historical fiction set during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s) of the voices that are not typically celebrated in the literary canon.

Centering joy, and more specifically BIPoC joy in our ELA classrooms through the lens of the texts that make up our curriculum is one way that we can recognize and affirm the FULL humanity of our students, families, and communities during these traumatic and uncertain times. Let’s center the humanity of our students this year by co-creating spaces where they are heard, seen, and experience great pleasure and delight.

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