As teachers, our classrooms hold the world in miniature. We curate the texts students encounter, each selection shaping their perspectives of how they’ll fit into the world.
My own experience teaches me how true this is. I remember being in the eleventh grade, reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as if it were my first real book. Reading the novel felt like coming home, a recognition of myself after years spent reading authors who probably never imagined a young black girl would open their work. Hurston wrote of the camaraderie of black people gathered over shared meals. The warnings of black grandmothers who’d seen too much. The shift and turn of language, vernacular picked up and then dropped again, depending on the listener. I was sixteen, then, and Hurston was my late awakening.
Much of my work as an English teacher seeks to offer my students that feeling of being seen. I want them all—regardless of race, sexual orientation, or gender—to feel affirmed by my curriculum, to see the diversity of human experiences made real in our box of a classroom.
Still, it’s a challenge to create lessons that celebrate different voices. Here are concrete strategies for broadening the worlds we present to our students. As I continue to grow as an educator, these practices have challenged me to be more inclusive:
Diversify Your Tastes Outside of the Classroom
Improving classroom inclusivity means diversifying curriculum and including works by authors traditionally erased from the literary canon.
This requires teachers to expand our personal tastes—often defined by similarity to our own experiences—and encounter other perspectives.
Explore www.lithub.com to broaden your literary awareness. Go to your local bookstore to browse for unfamiliar authors producing work in conversation with your unit goals. Here are ten texts I’ve come across in the past five years.
These novels, poetry collections, and memoirs—written for varying levels of maturity—could broaden the scope of your curriculum.
Creating a diverse curriculum doesn’t mean cutting all white men from reading lists. In truth, it’s demeaning to assume that students can’t identify with their work too.
Instead, consider discussing their racial, gender, or class privilege as a construct. What does it mean that Gatsby is able to successfully flaunt his wealth, despite his upbringing? What does Holden Caulfield expect from the world, and how does it differ from Phoebe’s expectations? What is the function of the secondary female characters or characters of color that so often appear in canonized novels?
By calling attention to certain “invisibilities” in the text, educators have the opportunity to de-normalize heteronormative whiteness and excavate different experiences.
Use Supplementary Multimedia Texts
Some schools have more fixed reading lists, making it difficult for teachers to replace an old curriculum. However, short multimedia texts are also a great way to broaden connections between students and class topics.
For example, introduce historical concepts on the American dream with a visual analysis of Rihanna's "American Oxygen".
Not only will you be likely to build connections with contemporary student interests, but you’ll also teach students that literary texts can be in conversation with one another, regardless of authors’ different experiences or artistic mediums. If you’re stuck on where to find such multimedia resources, have students complete a brief survey at the beginning of the year, asking them about what they consume in their personal time. In this way, you create a well to draw from later.
The challenge of teaching is to imagine the student who is not like us. The student who wakes up in a different house or apartment, who speaks a different language, who has fears and anxieties that we’ve never had to face. But if our curriculum acknowledges these differences—and perhaps our similarities too—then our students leave our classrooms just a bit surer of themselves. The world they step into might not be as inclusive as we’d like, but we’ve started to give them the tools to make it so.
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