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