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.