Striving for Diversity in American Literature

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Last year, as a first year teacher, I constantly struggled with feeling like I was just getting by, just staying afloat. Often that meant I resorted to teaching the curriculum as it had previously been established. Unfortunately, in my American Lit & Comp class, that curriculum skewed heavily canonical — almost all dead white guys. I found myself apologetic for the limited nature of the perspective in my curriculum at parents’ night; and in general I felt I had missed an opportunity to expose my population of students (mostly white and middle or upper-middle class) to a broader variety of life experiences as depicted in literature and to thereby cultivate empathy for others who are not like them, as well as an opportunity to allow my students who are minorities to see people like themselves on the page.

So heading into this year, I took some time to reevaluate the texts and authors I taught and, along with a colleague, implemented some fairly significant changes — partially with the goal of better aligning my curriculum with a capstone assessment, but also with the goal of diversifying that curriculum. Here’s what my course looked like from last year to this year:

2016-2017

2017-2018

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Transcendentalist literature by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, & Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • [Mini-unit on the American Dream using informational texts]
  • Literature of the Gilded Age, including “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “Ten Days in a Mad-House” by Nellie Bly
  • Jazz Age and Modernist poetry
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • A free choice reading book
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Male authors: 10/11 (91%)
  • White authors: 11/11 (100%)
  • Female authors: 1/11 (9%)
  • Authors of color: 0/11 (0%)
  • Male authors: 6/10 (60%)
  • White authors: 6/10 (60%)
  • Female authors: approx. 3 (+/- free choice read)/10 (30%)
  • Authors of color: approx. 3  (+/- free choice read)/10 (30%)

Clearly there is still room for improvement. Going forward, I’ll probably swap out Of Mice and Men and The Crucible since those earned the poorest marks from students at the end of the year in terms of interest and engagement. I’d especially like to add in a work(s) of LGBTQ literature and a full unit on the Harlem Renaissance (I downloaded some awesome Harlem Ren resources from TPT, including an escape room from Nouvelle ELA and a growing bundle from Write on with Miss G that I’m excited to try this year!). It’s something I’m going to continue working on in the form of summer curriculum work over the next few months. But it’s a strong start, and I’m really proud of the changes we’ve made.

The proof of this curriculum’s efficacy can be found in the reactions of my students, who shared their thoughts in an end of year course reflection. When asked what was one thing they would remember about literature or writing into next year, they said:

Striving for Diversity Blog Post Student Quotes

Ahhh! What more could you ask for! So proud of my nuggets for growing in empathy and understanding for others through our study of American literature.

Do you struggle with teaching an overly canonical curriculum at your school? How much control do you have over the literary texts you teach? Have suggestions for me on diverse literature to consider adding to my curriculum next year? Leave a comment below!

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Talking to Teens about Mental Health through Literature

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Image credit: pebbled on deviantart

TW: mental illness, suicide, sexual abuse

Recently my school has seen an explosion in the number of students who report struggling with a variety of mental health challenges, but especially anxiety and depression. I have had more students than ever being hospitalized, more than ever missing a significant amount of school due to anxiety-related school avoidance, more than ever requiring a non-traditional classroom experience. I’m still a relatively new teacher, but my veteran colleagues agree — our kids are struggling.

They’re not alone. I’ve heard my anecdotal evidence echoed by the anecdotal evidence of other educators across the state and region. This past fall, the New York Times ran a significant article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” describing precisely this phenomenon.

Regardless of its causes (which I don’t pretend to fully understand and I’m sure are numerous and complicated), as a teacher, I see its effects every day in my classroom. It is in this context that I just concluded my unit on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a unit which I teach through a lens of psychological criticism and trauma theory.

I’m sure you’ve read it (I hope you have). Its highly original 17-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield tells the reader about a weekend in his life when he got expelled from yet another prep school (his fifth), ran away to NYC, and hid out in a “pervy” hotel, all leading up to a mental breakdown that lands him in a psychiatric facility. Teaching this text through a lens of trauma theory means that I frame it for my students around the original trauma that sets Holden adrift, the loss of his little brother Allie to leukemia.

In the lead up to this unit, I worried about whether teaching this text in this way would be triggering for any of my students, if I was running the risk of re-traumatizing them by discussing subjects like the loss of a loved one, suicidal ideation, and child sexual abuse, which I already know some of them have experienced (and I’m sure many others have that I don’t know about). In some cases I contacted home to give parents advance notice. I geared myself up for complications, difficulties, a resurfacing of a painful past or present.

Here’s what happened instead.

Continue reading “Talking to Teens about Mental Health through Literature”