Diversifying curriculum through choice book clubs

by Sarah Reynolds, Secondary Teacher of English, @MsReynoldsELA

Through hashtags, conferences, book clubs, and educational movements, diverse books have become a forefront in the creation and rethinking of English curriculum. As white, male-centered curricula come under scrutiny, the question then becomes how and what voices to integrate into the curriculum–not just to increase student engagement, but more importantly to provide representation and visibility to our most marginalized students. 

Like many teachers, I have designated and required whole-class texts through curriculum; also, like many high school teachers, I guide students through Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird during the year. This novel serves as an opportunity to address and engage students with talk of race and of inequality within the justice system. However, this novel–as noted by many #DisruptTexts threads on Twitter–falls short in many ways of truly teaching and inspiring an anti-racist classroom and providing a full view of injustices and systemic opression of the present day.

In order to combat this and to provide narratives written by those marginalized voices, my grade level team is implementing and preparing to have a diverse book club added to our curriculum. Throughout our Mockingbird unit, there is an emphasis placed on historical context and using nonfiction sources in order to develop a deeper analysis and understanding of character, setting, and conflict. We include sources that discuss the time period from Black perspectives as well as complete pre-reading research on segregation, the justice system, and racist practices of the time. However, there is still a need to bring these issues into the present as opposed to leaving them as conflicts of days past; racism did not die as Atticus Finch gave his closing argument.

With this novel in mind as a piece of our curriculum, my grade level team selected novels that highlight injustice and prejudice within the justice system’s history, development, and practice, not just toward the Black community but also including the LGBTQ+ experience. Our response is to create a choice book club that will occur after our whole-class reading of Mockingbird with titles that include All American Boys (Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds), 57 Bus (Dashka Slater), and The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas). Each of these stories has an injustice at its center–police brutality, hate crimes–but they also serve to highlight more than the action itself and focus on reaction and restoration while remaining focused on the marginalized community.

While reading Mockingbird, Scout’s observations and perspective guide the reader through the events of the Robinson trial. Similarly, Star (The Hate U Give) provides a window into the perspectives of predominantly white and black communities, dual perspectives of Rashad and Quinn (All American Boys) give insight to the reactions of the community, and Dashka Slater (57 Bus) gives a third-person perspective on the story of Sasha and Richard through non-fiction reporting. In an age of media commentary, arming students with the ability to dissect context and perspective on reactions to injustice is more important than ever. Students will see reactionary reporting, writing, and posts anytime an injustice occurs–we witnessed this throughout the Spring and Summer of 2020 with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations post George Floyd’s murder. Not only is it essential that students hear these stories and engage with diverse perspectives, but the selected novels also provide an opportunity to ask “why might this response be occurring” and “how does a history of marginalization inform this view.” 

In addition to the initial reactions, all of these selections move beyond Mockingbird by providing restoration and maintaining focus on the Black and LGBTQ+ communities in each story. Unfortunately, Tom Robinson’s story ends in tragedy, and the remainder of the novel centers on Boo Radley, Bob Ewell, and the Finch family. The selections we made follow the marginalized voices and communities through to the end–the one that stands out of the group is Slater’s 57 Bus and its emphasis on Sasha, a nonbinary teen, and their recovery. These novels never sacrifice the narrative of injustice to resolve prior conflicts or character arcs, as those conflicts and characters are at the center of the novel. 

Books have been regarded as both windows and mirrors: a look into another’s life or a reflection of oneself. The stories of Star, Richard, Sasha, Quinn, and Rashad serve these functions. All students deserve to see their identities and experiences reflected, acknowledged, and validated through the literature in our classroom; while some may find this in Scout Finch, others will not. It is a responsibility of educational institutes and educators to seek out and amplify those voices that have been left out of curriculum before.

Diversifying curriculum through choice book clubs

Notes from the NCTE 2017 Annual Convention Business Meeting

This November, I had the honor to represent the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention in St. Louis. One of my responsibilities was to attend the Annual Business Meeting, and I want to take this opportunity to share with NJCTE members some of what was discussed.

Chadwick addresses NCTE Business Meeting
NCTE President Jocelyn A. Chadwick addresses the Annual Business Meeting

NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick, who presided over the meeting, informed the group that there will be three new committees focused on major work for the organization. The first will focus on teacher agency:  how do we talk to administrators, deans, the community; how do we tell our story? NCTE hopes this committee will create more tools to help teachers communicate more effectively with different stakeholders about the work that we do. The second committee will focus on convention planning, so that we can think about what works well and what can we do better. This committee will work with Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick to continue improving our annual convention. Finally, the third committee will focus on policy and governance, with an emphasis on state and local needs and the ways in which the national organization can assist affiliates, who in turn can meet the needs of educators in our local communities.

NCTE Business Meeting Agenda


Next, NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick reviewed highlights of the year, including the NCTE new vision statement. Kirkpatrick indicated that membership is stabilizing after more than 12 years of decline, but that, while expenses have been reduced, the organization is still relying on financial reserves to balance the budget. Kirkpatrick announced that the Folger Library has signed on as substantial sponsor and financial partner and that the organization intends to forge more connections with publishers to come.

Kirkpatrick also announced the overhaul of The Council Chronicle, which will have an expanded base of writers. The next issue will feature a new piece by Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, who delivered a stirring and challenging keynote address to an audience of more than 400 at NCTE 2017.

Kirkpatrick closed her address with an emphasis on some of the many new initiatives including a new and improved advocacy day, the introduction of lead ambassadors (two members in every section) who have already held local events in five states, a renewed and digitally-focused National Day on Writing – #WhyIWrite, policy engagement, and the new NCTE website.

The next NCTE Annual Convention will be held Nov 15-18 in Houston centered around the theme: Raising student voice starts by raising yours. Convention locations to follow include 2019 – Baltimore; 2020 – Denver; and 2021 – Louisville, KY.

Finally, the Business Meeting concluded with discussion, editing, and final passage of three resolutions. The resolutions are as follows (although please see NCTE for official and final wording):

#1: Resolution on Support of Undocumented Students and Teachers

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English call for the immediate renewal of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program in support of the protection of all undocumented K-20 students and teachers, and endorse their rights to remain in the United States.

Be it further resolved that all students have the right to a high quality education, regardless of immigration status.

#2: Resolution on Professional Learning in the Teaching of Writing

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English recommend ongoing, high quality professional learning in the teaching of writing for all teachers across all disciplines at each grade level, K-20.

Be it further resolved that NCTE actively encourage school districts, colleges, and universities in providing high quality professional learning to give teachers the necessary strategies and curricula to deliver effective writing instruction.

#3 Resolution on Amplifying the Voice of Literacy Leaders

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English advocate for and support literacy teachers who embrace opportunities to amplify their voices and tell their stories.

Be it further resolved that NCTE urge literacy teachers to share their expertise with other education stakeholders and strive to wield more influence in shaping education policy and reform. As teachers and NCTE members we reaffirm an essential principle of our vision statement: “We must more precisely align this expertise to advance access, power, agency, affiliation, and impact for all learners” (NCTE Vision Statement, May 2017).

Written by Audrey Fisch, Board Member, NJCTE, Professor of English, New Jersey City University, Jersey City, NJ

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Notes from the NCTE 2017 Annual Convention Business Meeting