If you’re like me, then you know that the internet is both blessing and curse—especially for connected educators. On one hand, there’s so much access to innovative ideas and thought-provoking conversation with fellow educators around the world that it would be hard to justify not being connected, especially considering how many of those ideas could potentially benefit our students.
But on the other hand, it’s also all so much, and like anything, too much can become easily overwhelming, especially when you don’t know how to manage it all and you find yourself with too many ideas: you want try them all.
And there’s the slight panic that starts to settle in—the panic that comes from realizing how much you’re not doing. There are so many bright, talented, and generous teachers out there who are just killing it. And you start to question yourself, and you wonder if you’re not doing enough and really, how will you do it all?
I’ve been there. I’ve met so many inspiring teachers over social media that I don’t know if I could go back to teaching without them to challenge and push me to rethink, always, what I’m doing and why.
But it’s a lot. There’s a lot of noise in education in general, lots of competing voices and ideas about what’s best for kids. And in those moments when it all seems like too much, I keep coming back to a few essential questions, and here’s one of them—
What do my students need most right now?
Whenever I’m trying to decide—usually from among too many options—on what lesson to do next, I come back to this question, and it helps me clarify what’s really important.
In order to answer this question, I have to think about what my students just did and how the next step in our class needs to build on that. It’s a question that forces a teacher to be responsive to students’ needs right now and not in some distant, abstract future. We too often teach students for the adults we think they’ll be in the future instead of the young people who are sitting in front of us right now. This question forces me to think about who they are right now and how I can best support them.
Of all the texts to choose from in the world, why teach this text at this moment?
This particular question has been on my mind a lot lately. I think about the students sitting in front of me and ask myself, what text—what novel, what news article, what essay—can I put in front of them that will not just make them better readers, but better people in the world today?
There’s no shortage of challenging, “rigorous” texts I could put in students’ hands. And I suspect that most English departments teach many of them. But are these the texts that our students need right now? I think when we make text choices, we often make those choices based on the logic that students will need to know this or read this for the future (or, sadly, because we think they won’t read it in the future on their own).
But maybe that logic is flawed. Maybe what we need to do is ask what texts we can put in our students’ hands right now that will be of use to them? That will help to inform them not just who they are (literature as mirror) but also what the world is like (literature as window)? How can we put texts in their hands that speak to the world today and all the issues—including all the political, social, cultural issues of justice and injustice—that students need our help to navigate?
A few examples . . . Sales of Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed in the wake of the election. Why? Because what Orwell warned about totalitarian regimes and doublethink really matter right now. Similarly, Rep. John Lewis’s biography March also sold out in many bookstores as readers looked to the Civil Rights protest movement to see what it might inform us about what protest movements today, like January’s Women’s March, can do to effect change.
Things Fall Apart teaches us about ethnocentrism; Native Son tell us about systemic racism. My colleague next door just finished teaching A Handmaid’s Tale to her AP Lit students; you can bet that the students in that class could see the relevance of Atwood’s work today.
And while all the titles I’ve mentioned so far would be considered canonical texts, I think we also do a disservice to our students to limit them to these texts—to assume that “literary” texts are the only ones that can offer our students a way to better understand the world.
Yesterday, I read a great piece online by Emily Temple called “If Fiction Changes the World, It’s Going to be YA.” It’s one of the best arguments for the value of YA literature that I’ve read—especially in today’s increasingly uncertain and often contentious time. Key point:
These books may be about activism in some cases, but more importantly, they are actions in themselves. They show how it is, for different kinds of young people, right now, and that’s what is going to make a difference.
So, yes: it’s the teenagers who are going to save us. And by extension, it’s also the adults who are writing for and representing them. I’d argue that while diverse books and authors are necessary in every field, seeing yourself in the media you consume is most crucial when you’re young. Not unrelated, it’s when you’re young that you are most flexible, most willing to internalize truths that may be outside your daily ken.
I couldn’t help think of Angie Thomas’s wonderful YA novel The Hate U Give when I read this article. Thomas’s book does what all great literature is supposed to do—make you think, question, and re-evaluate not just who you are but also those around you. It’s a book that inspires readers to empathize with experiences that may not be their own, experiences that especially at this moment in time seem increasingly marginalized. It’s a book that gives voice to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in a way that I don’t know that any news articles and other media can.
What I also appreciate about this question is that it forces me to consider text choices from the point-of-view of students, to consider who they are right now and what the world is like today. It’s a question that forces me to put aside what might be most convenient for me to teach, or what I personally love. It’s a students-first approach.
As most English teachers can attest, one of the most grating questions we can get from students is “Why are we reading this?”
Perhaps if we relentlessly asked ourselves—of all the texts in the world, why this text at this moment for these students?—maybe, just maybe, students wouldn’t need to ask why we’re reading something. They’ll know. And they’ll begin to understand for themselves the power of literature to transform.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.