Rethinking How We Choose Books in School

By Jenna Chandler-Ward

 

Several middle school and high school English departments have approached Teaching While White for help in diversifying the racial makeup of the authors of the books they teach. All of the teachers can articulate why they should have a more diverse group of books: ”We want to provide windows and mirrors for all of our students.” “We want to build empathy.” “We want to prepare our students for a diverse world.” All of this is true, and yet, when it comes to taking old classics out of curriculum in favor of including a diversity of voices, I have seen, time and time again, the resistance to authors of color. They cite these books as either inappropriate in terms of content or literarily uninteresting.

Here is the problem. As long as white teachers set out to evaluate what is good literature and worthy of study without examining how their own experience has shaped their appreciation for literature, then all of the booklists of diverse authors in the world will not result in changing the white literary canon.

I have watched English teachers fiercely defend the notion that there is, objectively, such a thing as complex sentence structure, solidly constructed narrative, and beauty of language — and either a book has it or it does not. No matter how I might try to persuade or examine how that aesthetic has been taught and created, mostly by white men, there seems to be an inability to conceive of great literature as being anything other than an impartial standard. Teachers will often point to books written by authors of color to prove that this objective standard crosses race and culture. In particular, they note the success of books like The House on Mango Street and Beloved as their proof that literary greatness is not a racial formulated construct. The problem with this logic is that it doesn’t take into account the ways in which our exposure to and experiences of linguistic variety impact our affinity for language. For many white educators, this is a clear blindspot.  

In Brene Brown’s research, she concludes that it requires knowing, even a little bit, about a subject in order to feel curiosity about it. It wasn’t until I had learned about romanticism that I was able to full appreciate Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Once I understood some things about the Harlem Renaissance, I developed a deeper connection to the words and work of Zora Neale Hurston. So why couldn’t it be true that with some curiosity about the Black Lives Matter movement, readers would gain a fuller appreciation for Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? It is not simply a matter of discerning what constitutes beautiful language within a white literary world. Context matters and can also allow readers to look into something unfamiliar and see beauty where it is often overlooked.

Similarly, content is too often scrutinized with the same biased approach. As we discuss in our podcast episode, Challenging the Canon, somehow we are OK with the use of the N-word or a description of sexual assault if it is in a “classic.” Perhaps if white teachers had firsthand experiences of the trauma that the N-word still causes people or color, we would be less able to justify teaching some of the books that use that word in the name of illuminating attitudes of a particular era. However, the mention of sexual development or the use of the F-bomb in a book by a writer of color too often renders a book unteachable. In a recent interview with Trevor Noah, Angie Thomas said, “There are 89 instances of the F-word in The Hate U Give... but last year alone, over 800 people lost their lives to police brutality and that number is far scarier. So when your telling me it’s the language. No, that’s not what it is. You don’t want to talk about the topic.” Which forms of violence are deemed appropriate and who decides?

Without questioning what and why we have an affinity for certain literature, we will continue to replicate a world where only the white voice is heralded as true literature and students will continue will be inculcated into the philosophy of a limited, hierarchy of linguistic and literary mastery. Instead of focusing on a narrow and questionable standard of literary merit, we should be asking ourselves essential questions about what we are trying to achieve in our classes. How can we offer context to all the books we teach so that the books’ content resonates more deeply? How can we teach students to recognize and value verbal agility in any form that leads readers to see the world in a new way? And (to reference R.O. Kwon’s quote yet again) how can we encourage students to see the shared humanity in people, even when they are different, by giving students an opportunity to try to imagine their lives? 

Here are a couple of tools. In working with schools on this issue, I culled questions (there are many thoughtful articles, books, and rubrics) to create bias reflection questions and a rubric for evaluating current curriculum and choosing new texts.

 

Questions to consider:

  1.  What are the unspoken rules and hidden curriculum in your department/classroom?

  2. What are the  unconscious beliefs/norms, group values, world beliefs, and core values of your department/classroom?

  3. How would you describe the ideal student for your curriculum? What assumptions do you have about their background, culture, and language?

  4. What messages do you believe students receive about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, and socioeconomic status through experiences in English class?

  5. Are there any assumptions/biases built into your criteria for your assessments? Does it create an advantage for certain students?

 

Text Evaluation Rubric:

  1. Does the text offer a compelling narrative and characters?

  2. Are we addressing any of the “Big 8” social identifiers with this text?

    Age  Ethnicity

    Race                                       Ability

    Gender                                  Sexual Orientation

    Religion                                Socioeconomic Status

  3. What topics and issues do we hope to teach in connection to this book?

    a. What perspectives are missing?

    b. Are there other books/authors that could address these same objectives?

  4. Does this book reinforce stereotypes or offer a counter-narrative to stereotypes?

    a. If the book does have some stereotypes, what counter-narratives and or additional

    readings could be offered? 

  5. Is the author from the depicted social group?

  6. Does this text increase students’ understanding of systemic oppression (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.) prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, etc. 

  7. Does this text have any depictions or language that has the potential to re-traumatize students (sexual assault, N-word, etc.)?

  8. Does this text offer linguistic variety?

  9. Does this text offer students opportunities to apply multicultural knowledge for analyzing and solving social problems?

  10. Does this text offer opportunities to examine cultural biases and assumptions?

  11. What do we need to know more about and research to teach this text responsibly?

Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute. She consults with schools nationally on developing more inclusive communities and curricula.