Over fifteen years ago, I attended an elite public magnet high school in New York City. The school prided itself on developing young leaders who would go forth and change the world - we even recited an oath committing to do so at the onset of our Freshman year.
Core to the curriculum of this school was a centering of classic canonical texts that prioritized white voices. Think the usual: Antigone, The Scarlet Letter, Ragtime, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth. While I won’t discount the value of these pieces on framing my understanding of literary themes and motifs, it is important to note that I didn’t know authors of other races existed - until I proactively sought them in my collegiate years.
Out of curiosity, I visited the school’s page about a year ago. The page had been recently updated, perhaps not more than a few weeks before. Most English courses have their texts listed. Unsurprisingly, the book choices had remained the same. That’s not to say that some educators might have chosen to adjust or include more culturally responsive pieces in their daily instructional focus. However, the school prides itself on sticking to the canon and by proximity centering a white-gaze.
The literature we place in front of our children sends a multitude of messages to them. After all, our first opportunities to interact with the world comes through the written and/or spoken word. We construct meaning of life and an understanding of our identity based on the literature we interact with. As a former English teacher and now mother to a precocious six year old, there is an excruciating intentionality behind the literature my child(ren) have access to. The protagonists, antagonists and ancillary characters should reflect some aspects of the racial, social, cultural and ethnic constructs experienced by those in my charge. Inherent to the themes and central ideas of the literature should be messaging meant to validate and affirm identity. Texts should not convey stereotypical motifs that cause further socio-emotional harm.
My middle school students read texts such as A Raisin in the Sun, Fences, Things Fall Apart, and The Giver, to name a few. Many of these texts are taught in the high school sector. Essential to these units were the following non-negotiables:
- Give ‘em something to talk about: The best learning happens when students have the opportunity to engage in robust discourse on the topic at hand. Ghost Boys, Stamped and Monday’s Not Coming are culturally rich texts that profile the complexity of American society and history. Therefore, it is important to have essential and guiding questions that will allow both teachers and students to navigate such conversations. Take for example the questions from Monday’s Not Coming:
- What does it mean to dehumanize groups of people?
- What purpose does the dehumanization of people serve in relation to larger
societal “goals” and “structures?”
- In what ways does society diminish and undermine the value of Black, Indigenous or Colored women?
- How do we ensure that all voices are afforded a space at the table?
- How might our actions unintentionally marginalize or “other” those who are already vulnerable?
- How do we learn to advocate for our own needs?
- Understand Your Past: There are historical, social and political contexts that are crucial to comprehending the ideas of a text. Therefore, all units of study should supplement the novel or unit texts with thematic poetry, non-fiction, or prose that will develop schema. Such texts are known as “wrap around” pieces. By providing students multiple access points to reinforce the key understandings of the larger novel, they are more likely to appreciate the provided themes while making connections between themselves and the text..
- Do it for the Future: All units should have a performance task that is robust, related to the themes of the novel, and extends beyond the traditional academic paper. Students might often remark, “What is the purpose of English class?” Teachers typically have a myriad of answers that include but are not limited to: “You need to know how to write,” “You will need this to get a good job,” or “Reading is essential to being successful.” To an extent, students are right. Why do they need a five paragraph essay beyond the context of school? Well, if we want our students to be true innovators and change makers, we must profile the relationship between creating change and traditional literacy practices. Therefore, performance or summative tasks should be grounded in real world opportunity and application. The performance tasks for all three units in Elevating Voices ask students to act on problems or tensions that were present in the novel with the intention of finding pathways for shifting current policies. For example, Monday’s Not Coming asks students to explore the history of gentrification and redlining in both the novel and their local communities. Such an experience prompts students to unpack the history of their community and make “good trouble” if inequity exists.
As a principal designer of the units offered through Elevating Voices, creating these learning experiences for your students and district was an absolute joy. As a nation, we are at an impasse. Do we move forward with the intention of evolving and learning from all facets of our history or do we continue to make the same mistakes and inflict further harm on vulnerable populations? We as educators have a responsibility to future generations - we must encourage them to be better than us while adapting to the times. The best way to disrupt inequitable systems is by equipping children of all ethnicities, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds with the knowledge, will and skill to identify and proactively do so.
By: Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, Ed.D