One of the wonderful things that the #DisruptTexts chat has brought is opportunities to talk with teachers about what disruption can look like in the English classroom. Yesterday was one of those days as our team was invited to talk with teachers at an NCTE Summer Institute workshop run by Ken Lindblom and Leila Christenbury called “Continuing the Journey: Becoming a Better Teacher of Literature.”
Yesterday at the workshop, Ken opened with the question, “What does it mean to
#DisruptTexts?” My initial response was to frame it within the context of our classrooms. And so #DisruptTexts for me involves at least two related and necessary moves:
1. REPLACE TEXTS
Replace some current texts to make space for the rich literary & intellectual history of people of color and other marginalized groups. Ask yourself honestly, are any of these texts absolutely essential, especially ones that continue to reinforce the same voices? And if so, why? Consider the themes or essential questions explored in the curriculum and ask: whose voices, what points-of-view are not reflected in our study? Which voices are marginalized or absent?
Then find those voices; find those texts.
Finding these texts will require some honest and difficult conversations with colleagues. As Dr. Kim Parker pointed out yesterday, this will mean that, yes, you must talk about racism—and we all know how hard that can be given how so many of us (especially White educators) have been socialized to avoid the subject. Talking about racism will mean that we have to admit to the ways in which it manifests itself in our curricular and instructional choices, about the voices we value and those we have not, even if unintentionally. But intention does not excuse impact.
There will be discomfort and defensiveness.
There will be an urge to defend ourselves, to position ourselves as the well-intentioned, dedicated, and hard-working teachers we believe ourselves to be. And that can all be true—but it can also be true that we are perpetuating some harmful lessons about power as it relates to race, class, and gender.
Additional reading: “Adichie, Kureishi, Hurston: What authors should be included in a ‘decolonised’ canon?” and “Open the doors and let these books in: what would a truly diverse reading list look like?”
It will also be hard because many teachers (myself included) are products of a traditionally unjust system. This system has created biases for certain books and authors, and convinced us that some, but not all, texts are worthy of study. Consider, who created this system? Who perpetuates it? As I wrote in this piece, I had always considered myself “well-educated” but now I know that “well-educated” has a rather narrow definition. Now I realize that the canon, while it should be ever-changing, is often more fixed than flexible. Its purpose is to exclude. Ask yourself: exclude whom? After all, historically, the canon can be used and has been used as a tool for colonization.
And this colonization isn’t something that only affects people of color. Here I quote from Michelle Jewett’s excellent NCTE English Journal piece, “Whitesplaining the Canon”—
decolonizing the canon would, as the authors propose, reverse the “prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, and bias” that is embedded within the ELA curriculum while teaching students “deeper compassion, elevated sympathies, and greater acceptance” for people of color.
If what we read forms group identity and defines common values, and if what we read excludes stories by and about people of color, then is it no surprise that as a culture we do not identify with or value the bodies and minds of people of color. I realize that this is not directly causal, but I do wonder if George Zimmerman had read books by and about black people in high school that Trayvon Martin might still be alive. Or, if the jurors on this case had done so, that maybe there would have been a conviction. However, we know that reading creates empathy and that most citizens sit through four years of high school English. If nothing else, canonical reading is a missed opportunity to build understanding of a nonwhite perspective, and the implications of this lack of understanding may extend into their workplace, their housing opportunities, and into their basic civil rights.
Unless you are a teacher who has gone out of their way to seek with intention the voices of people of color who have often been left out of the curriculum and have read extensively on these perspectives—this will also be hard because now you’re in a place where you might lack expertise.
And it will be hard being in a place where we’re not the experts. We’re teachers; we often pride ourselves on what we know. When we’re forced to admit we don’t know something, we open ourselves to being vulnerable, and in a field in which our expertise is constantly being questioned by outsiders, we might hold tighter onto those things we believe we know well.
Consider walking through the eight questions I list and wrote about in this post, “How Inclusive is Your Literacy Classroom Really?“
And it will be hard because it will require doing the extra work to make up for the potentially serious gaps in our reading. It will mean doing a hard, honest audit of our own reading experiences and media consumption: what voices have we been listening to? what voices have we been ignoring?
It will be hard. But what is hard is often what is necessary.
2. APPLY A CRITICAL LENS
But #DisruptTexts isn’t just about replacing some texts, although that will be necessary and hard to do. Replacing texts isn’t always an option for financial or other practical reasons, so the second thing we can do to disrupt our practices is apply a critical lens to the texts we DO teach.
Consider the traditional “narratives” and themes we teach about certain texts. You know the ones. Gatsby represents “the” American Dream. Atticus and John Proctor are heroic. Lord of the Flies is about the evil in all mankind. We can resist these singular interpretations and the narratives they perpetuate. Teach multiple, divergent, even contradicting interpretations. Ask: how are characters portrayed and positioned? Whose point-of-view is centered in this story? Whose are marginalized? Which perspectives are missing? Encourage students to take issue with these dominant interpretations. (The #DisruptTexts team will be updating our site with specific approaches to these texts in the upcoming weeks, so stay tuned.)
We can use literature as a forward-facing entryway into the urgent problems of now. Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird is not a product of its time; racism is a problem now. Don’t assume that students will know this. We need to offer students consistent and varied opportunities to dig in, to explore, question, find relevant connections.
And digging in will also require that we help students reflect on who they are when they read: what are the identities and the experiences that have shaped them? Because it’s these identities that we bring to every single reading experience. Because it’s these identities that are the vehicles for bias and prejudice. Unpack those.
For example, consider To Kill A Mockingbird. This novel, perhaps more than any other American novel, is beloved. Just in the last week alone, I’ve seen several heated discussions among teachers when the novel’s place in the curriculum is challenged. The issue is personal for many teachers. But one problem with the novel, with framing Atticus Finch as a role model, as he is often seen, is that students may walk away from the novel with the flawed assumption that if students can just “be like Atticus,” they can be a good person (i.e. not racist).
Furthermore, if our experiences have taught us to “treat others with kindness,” if we say to ourselves, “I’m a good person,” then admiring Atticus (the individual hero) can be comforting. Yet this obscures and erases the fact that racism is not about a single person as much as it is about a system of privilege and discrimination.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that the language of #DisruptTexts might seem threatening to some. When we remove—or even criticize—a (beloved) text, we think of this criticism as an attack, this removal as a loss. We’re “losing” something, perhaps some perceived cultural or historical value. But the truth is, what we’re doing is making space.
We’re making space for something else, something better. When we disrupt texts, we can be honest about ALL of our literary history, which must include more voices. This isn’t rewriting history; it’s correcting it.
No doubt that the last few years have laid bare for all of us the deep racism and bigotry that persists in almost every aspect of society, our schools included. As I wrote last year, when I saw those young men in Charlottesville marching for White nationalism, I thought about how every single one of those individuals were students in our classrooms. Whatever hatred brought them to Charlottesville, those young men—and the students of color who continue to be underserved and mistreated in our schools—were once charged into our care. If we are not being intentionally anti-racist in our curricular and instructional choices, I’m not sure what we’re doing in the classroom.
Before I end, I also want to include this important point made by Benjamin Doxtdator in his blog post, “Beyond Champions and Pirates”—
Expanding the canon isn’t only about creating a culture in schools where students of color see people who look like them represented in what they read, but also de-centering whiteness so that all students have expanded perceptions of the intellectual legacies of people of color.
And so while #DisruptTexts may be about disruption, ultimately, I think it’s about restoration. #DisruptTexts is a type of restorative practice. We can restore dignity, honesty, and justice to our literary legacies and to our teaching. By reckoning with the gaps in our curriculum—and in ourselves—we can finally address the inequities perpetuated by the very real choices we make as educators. And perhaps we can begin to repair the fractures these systemic inequities create in our classrooms, to forge relationships with all of our students that are based in collective liberation.
Because when we #DisruptTexts, we can invite students to understand the real power of literature—to provoke questioning, build understanding, foster empathy, and maybe, just maybe make our small piece of the world a little bit better for everyone.
NOTE: This post was adapted from a Twitter thread, found here.
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Thank you for this terrific post, Tricia—your thoughtful and reflective voice really comes through! I love that you first introduce the goal of replacing texts, but then acknowledge that doing this might be hard—and also offer the approach of simply applying a critical lens. In that spirit of small steps, I want to remind all of us that we can use poetry to move toward our goals. Find a poem by Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle or U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at PoetryFoundation.org; take one minute to read it aloud. Share anthologies like INDIVISIBLE: Poems for Social Justice by Gail Bush and Randy Meyer, with some favorite poems by Pat Mora, Carmen Tafolla, and Dwight Okita. Take 10 minutes to do the reading + writing prompts that go with a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye in HERE WE GO: A Poetry Friday Power Book (a hybrid anthology-verse novel that I created with Sylvia Vardell). Buy brand new collections such as THEY CALL ME GUERO: A Border Kid’s Poems by David Bowles, so that publishers will know that we support books like these. As we work toward the longer-term goals that you outlined here, we can make an immediate impact through poetry in just a few minutes a day.
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Thank you, Janet! I am still inspired by the presentation you gave at PAWLP Day last year—using poetry every day, in small ways, can open up so many important conversations. I will add that David Bowles to my list! Thank you!!
Thank you for your recommendations. I work in a high school library as an assistant mostly labeling and putting books away. Recently, I have taken to printing poems on small bits of paper for students to take away with them. Some students memorize them and come back to visit with me and recite them. I love doing this with the students. I have recently been wondering which poems I could offer…Invictus by William Earnest was the last one I gave out. I am looking forward to looking at your recommendations.
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I love and agree with much of what you’ve posted here, Tricia. I wonder about the idea of restoration, though. You write that “we can restore dignity, honesty, and justice to our literary legacies and to our teaching,” but were these things ever present? How can we restore them if they have never existed in our schools in the first place? For students of color learning in a Eurocentric educational sphere, have justice and dignity ever been a part of their literary legacies? If the voices of people of color have always been neglected from the canon, are dignity, justice, and honesty things that can be restored? Who has been dignified in the past? Whose experience has been honestly rendered? For whom has justice been recognized?
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*How* authors, editors, publishers, teachers, and readers make their decisions about a text all belong in the ELA curriculum. The answers to these qurestions will reveal the mechanisms of repression and disruption possible at each point. As learner mature, they will have ever greater freedom to read and write critically and act with self-authority. Do you think these “how” questions are as important as *who* questions?