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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The first month, in 10 words

So I’ve been teaching full time for a month now. I don’t have much extra time or energy to expend on blogging at this point in the semester, but I thought I’d try to capture how I’ve been feeling/what I’ve been thinking about this past month in 10 words. Here we go, in roughly chronological order.

Literally me. Source: Kappit
  1. NERVOUS
  2. Unqualified
  3. Comfortable
  4. Harambe?!
  5. Sick
  6. Stressed
  7. Connections ❤
  8. Tireless!
  9. Exhausted…
  10. Content

What’s in a name? A lot.

So here’s my brand new baby blog, making its way into the world for the first time, as I more fully enter into the world of teaching for the first time.

The title of this blog was of course inspired by E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View. This title therefore holds several valences of meaning for me, and will, I hope, for you, as well.

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My well-loved copy of E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View (1908)

On a personal level, A Room with a View was one of the texts that most ignited my love of literature and literary analysis. Taught to me by a beloved AP literature teacher, Forster’s novel follows a young girl, Lucy Honeychurch, as she travels to Italy, grows up, and falls in love. As a teenager, this book moved me like no other, and I was so grateful to my teacher for having introduced me to it.

In a sense, “A Classroom with a View” represents my own feeling of growing up and falling in love, in this case with teaching English. For the past three years, I’ve been pursuing my Master’s degrees in English and Teaching, but this semester — for the first time — I’m finally teaching in the high school English classroom, reading, discussing, and writing about texts that may change my students just as A Room with a View changed me.

In another sense, the title of this blog signals my desire to facilitate a classroom environment that is honest and open — with a “view” to the outside world. It is only in achieving her room with a view, both literally and figuratively, that Lucy is able to become the passionate, independent person she was always meant to be. I hope that by opening up my classroom to the view of others, I, too, will become a better teacher for it.

Finally, during the course of the novel, Lucy discovers a paper with only an “enormous” question mark written on it, and it disturbs her without her understanding why: “‘What does it mean?’ she thought” (12). Lucy’s initial discomfort with the mysterious question mark symbolizes her reluctance, in that moment, to seriously consider her own complacency and stagnation. In my own classroom with a view, I hope to prompt my students to undergo the same process of self-discovery as Lucy, as they encounter important texts that will perhaps shake them and their previously-held understandings, beliefs, and values.

Thank you for peering in on my classroom. I hope you enjoy the view.