Monday, April 30, 2018

Glimpsing Diversity Through A Narrow Window: Making the Canon More Inclusive

Bringing diverse books into the classroom helps bridge gaps between culture, ethnicity, and understanding, so let's swap Romeo & Juliet for something a little more modern!  ♦ 
Junior year of high school. That’s the first time I can remember a teaching including a culturally diverse book as part of the required reading. One of my friends tells me that she did not encounter these types of books at all until college. Of the top ten books most often taught in public school, not one was written by a person of color. This lack of diversity is pushing minority students out of the literary conversation and impeding their literacy. According to the most recent NAEP reading test, only seventeen percent of black high school seniors performed at or above proficient. In comparison, forty-six percent of white students achieved proficiency. Public school teachers need to bring minority students back into the literary discussion in order to begin closing this achievement gap. This is not a battle that can be won with money; there is no correlation between changes in per-pupil spending and student reading achievement. Teachers need to look for new ways to encourage their students to read and celebrate diverse identities in the classroom.
   Rudine Sims Bishop, a children’s literature expert and education professor, says “Reading becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” When teachers only give minority students books that show them other cultures and peoples, they begin to lose confidence in themselves and even resent either their own culture or the white culture that is forced upon them. These students, like any other student in the classroom, often lack an inclination towards reading to begin with. Teachers are responsible for nurturing an appreciation for reading and improving literacy for all their students. Students want to see themselves in their books, to feel connected and see their own experiences validated through the story. When teachers require them to read books like Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby, struggling readers have no incentive to push through the book. These are great works of literature but they become inaccessible for unprepared readers that have no stake or interest in the narrative. By suggesting books that introduce new cultures and perspectives for individual reading, or by listing a few as required reading, teachers can give these students agency in their own learning and improve their feelings of self-worth.
  In her TEDx talk, Grace Lin, a Chinese-American children’s book author, asserts that “As much as kids need books to be mirrors, kids need books to be windows.” In addition to the problem created for minority students not being able to recognize themselves in traditionally canonical texts, it is also necessary for all students to experience diverse books as windows into other cultures. White students, especially heterosexual males, rarely see differing opinions and cultures represented in the books they read. This leads to a danger of a single story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer, spoke at a TEDGlobal event in 2009, warning that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Teachers need to provide their students with many different stories about cultural communities to eliminate racism, discrimination, and prejudice. It’s possible to stimulate positive change in the next generation through the books educators introduce to students, especially at an early age By assigning books like Their Eyes Were Watching God instead of The Scarlet Letter, they can provide a window into a new culture.
   There are many award-winning books that rival the books of the canon currently taught. Teachers need to branch out to find these great diverse books that have similar themes and literary devices of the books they had planned to teach. WeNeedDiverseBooks has compiled a list of resources for finding diverse books. They arrange the lists by categories of diversity and even provide links to diverse book award lists. These lists can be used to find suggestions for students to read individually, for summer reading lists, and even for books to replace some of the literary canon traditionally taught in high school.
  Any of the top ten books taught in schools can be replaced with a more modern, inclusive counterpart. For example, instead of teaching Romeo and Juliet, teachers can assign The Fault in Our Stars. This novel deals with similar things with the added perspective of an illness/disability like cancer. To address issues of cultural diversity, instead of teaching Huckleberry Finn teachers may turn to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This book addresses many similar themes but portrays a Native American protagonist and accurately represents his experience as an indigenous individual. Today’s classrooms should be catalysts for change that create social justice advocates. The first step to accomplish this needs to be taking a hard look at our required reading lists to widen the windows in which our students encounter diversity.
  • About the Author
    Megan D’Clute is a junior at Miami University with a major in Adolescent Young Adult English/Language Arts Education. She is an active member of the Sigma Tau Delta and Students for the Promotion of Writing. She loves reading books and baking in her free time.

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