BLOG POST BY 2019-2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER MARILYN PRYLE
PTAC has recommended that every school district “provide literature choices that allow students to see themselves represented in the main characters.” When questions about representation in literature come up, I usually feel somewhat comfortable. Lately, however, I’ve begun to take a closer look, and I’m realizing that my class is not as diverse as I let myself think.
I teach 10th grade World Literature. World Literature is, by definition, about texts from around the world. In my class, we read the old stuff—Gilgamesh, the Torah, the Mahabharata and the Rig Veda, the Qur’an, the Tao te Ching, African proverbs, creation stories from a variety of cultures, the poems of Rumi, the Greek myths, the Iliad, and so on. This was the curriculum that was given to me ten years ago, and I really enjoy teaching it. I often think to myself that if many of my students didn’t read a text like the Mahabharata in my class, they most likely never would in their lifetimes. (I should note that we only read selections from these texts, as many of them are massive.) So I take it very seriously—this is potentially one of the only times some of my students will be meaningfully exposed to the texts that are foundational to the world’s major religions and the cultural values of various peoples.
Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish students tell me every year that they were both surprised and happy to see something they learned at home included in a public school curriculum—they had never had that experience and were grateful for it. One student whose mother grew up in China told me that through studying Confucius, she was able to better understand her mother’s upbringing, and that she was able to have insightful conversations about Confucius with both her mother and grandparents, who still live in China.
In addition to our regular curriculum, my students do monthly Book Clubs with books of their choosing. They can choose any book they want. Students can find books in the public library or on PDFs online; they are not expected to buy books, although many do, either in print or on their e-readers. I also keep my classroom library stocked with multiple copies of many books, both fiction and nonfiction. I make sure these reflect a diverse array of main characters and subjects, including black, Latinx, and LGBTQ people. Students often remark about how much they enjoyed their reading, or that a certain book spoke to them, or that they were grateful to read something so powerful for them personally that also counted as part of the class.
So when discussions about cultural representations and multiple perspectives arise, my usual response is, “We’re doing it.” But when I look a bit deeper into this default stance on my curriculum and practice, questions emerge: Am I really doing enough? Does my class genuinely reflect our world and the voices that inhabit it? What overall message is my class sending? As I examine everything more closely, I’m realizing how far I still have to go.
Even though students are exposed to many different cultures in the first semester of my class, the bulk of the prescribed curriculum (not including Book Clubs) is still extremely Euro-centric. Gilgamesh, Genesis (from the Torah), and the Greek myths are foundational for the “Western” canon. So is the Iliad, which we spend all of the third quarter on. From there, we read Virgil, Sappho, Ovid, Sophocles, Dante, and Shakespeare. Welcome to whiteness.
Some of this I can part with. (But some I can’t—Sappho is the only female writer in the prescribed curriculum, and the only LGBTQ voice, although we discuss the relationships between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Achilles and Patroclus, in depth). But what makes it so difficult is that like everyone else, I was taught that these texts and others like them are foundational, indispensable, and requisite to any kind of intelligent participation in our culture. In addition, I genuinely love all the texts I teach. They are brilliant and linguistically thrilling. They have stood the test of time and have much to teach us.
But part of what they teach, when stacked together in a curriculum, is the absolute dominance of one group over others. If about two thirds of my curriculum resides in the Western canon, I’m sending a message about what’s most important. I’m passing on the message that was sent to me. In The Racial Contract (1999), Charles Mills explained that underlying all social contracts is a racial contract that centers around global European domination and white supremacy. My curriculum, and I would venture most literature curricula in our country, reflects that.
As an English teacher, I’m not sure how to reconcile this. I know I need to revisit my idea of what comprises literary “essentials.” What messages do I want my students to take away from the class? And what skills? And can these messages and skills be communicated through texts that represent the world in a more balanced way?
In other words: How am I centering the class? Is it on a Euro-centric, linear, white, male trajectory with a few “other” cultures thrown in? How can I decenter it? How can I make it even more genuinely reflective of the entire world?
I also don’t want to ignore the dominance itself. I don’t want to have a happy, simple mix of cultures and texts and pretend that none of them interacted with each other. Mills explained that the global racial contract “requires a certain schedule of structured blindness and opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity” (p. 19). Even though the time frame in my class does not overlap with the modern era of colonization and enslavement, there must be a way to address the cultural thinking that laid the groundwork for this era. This is another question I will be researching this summer.
But what about Book Clubs? Book Clubs are how I let myself feel “covered” in terms of having diverse voices in the room. My thinking goes something like this: “Sure, all the students are reading Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, and Ovid in a row, but one Book Club group just read The Hate U Give this month.” I’ve done my job, right? Maybe. But maybe not.
Yes, the variety of books I keep in my classroom helps expose students to different voices. And yes, many students will gravitate to diverse voices, especially to stories that have made it to mainstream films. And yes, some students eagerly devour the biographies of their favorite rappers or athletes, many of whom are non-white. I’ve created that space.
But maybe I’ve only created it for the students who are already there. Is this important? Of course. But have I pushed the others to consider new perspectives? Not really. Here’s an example. For the past two years, I’ve had a couple groups of students—all male—read Stephen King’s It for the whole year. (Since the book is about 1100 pages long, they were permitted to read 200 pages each month.) I was delighted about this, and recently was explaining it to a colleague. Her reaction was not what I expected. “So that’s all they read, all year?” she asked.
“It’s 1100 pages long,” I replied. “It was definitely an accomplishment.”
“Sure,” she said. “But that means they were only exposed to one additional voice, a white, male voice.” This stopped me in my tracks. Obviously, Stephen King is one of the most brilliant and skillful writers of our time. But what had I done to show these students other voices, to broaden their perspectives? And wasn’t that my job?
What makes this so difficult is that I premise the Book Clubs on complete student choice. Students must develop the skill of figuring out what, out of the entire universe, they want to read. This is a deep-seated conviction of mine. But isn’t it my role, as an experienced reader, mentor, and fellow citizen, to make students aware of the variety of voices in literature, the country, and the world? Won’t my students need this knowledge when they leave our small, mostly homogeneous, town? Is there a way to preserve the ideal of choice and still nudge students to seek out the unfamiliar voice?
These are yet more questions I’ll be deliberating this summer.
And speaking of summer, I’ve also turned a critical eye to one of my most prized documents: my summer reading list.
My Summer Reading List
I love my summer reading list. Besides being comprised of some of my favorite books, it also sets students up with concepts we will discuss all year in class. Man’s Search for Meaning, for example, not only tells a story of physical, mental, and spiritual survival; it lays out the meaning of life (quite literally; it’s on page 66*).
Under closer scrutiny, however, the list brought up some questions. Sure, I have different cultures and perspectives, such as Coelho’s The Alchemist, Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, and Patel’s Life of Pi. But I realized that other books are other-cultured stories told through white voices, such as Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Buck’s The Good Earth. Even Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh is about the principles of Taoism applied to the stories of Winnie the Pooh.
Let me be clear: These are beautifully written masterpieces that portray the cultures within their stories with authenticity, respect, and love. They are wonderful books that everyone should read. But what message am I communicating as a teacher when these books are stacked one atop another on a recommended list? What is the cumulative effect?
What Is the Cumulative Effect?
To put it another way: What voices am I elevating? What voices am I not? My intention is not to clean house of all the white, male voices in my curriculum. But the overall effect is something I want to examine.
Many students won’t even remember the exact texts we read. (I realized this the hard way, in a discussion with my own son, whom I taught two years ago. Throughout the conversation, he said things like, “We read that in your class? I thought we read that freshman year,” and “Are you sure we read that? I don’t remember that book at all.”) For most students, the school year in any given class is like an impressionist painting. The details, up close, are grainy and seemingly unrelated. But the overall picture becomes clear when taken in as a whole. What is the general impression that remains with my students, either consciously or unconsciously? What messages do students internalize—about which authors are “important,” about who gets to tell a story, and about dominant cultural values?
* * *
We should all be asking these questions, no matter how integrated we think our curriculum is. We are all part of a never-ending journey of growth and recovery, in our communities, country, and world. In order to help our students grow, we must never stop questioning our own content, procedures, and methodology.
Our students are counting on us.
* “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Frankl, p. 66).
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.
Mills, C. (1999). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee