When I tell people what I do, they cringe. Seriously cringe—as though I’ve just pinched them or recounted a dramatic history of medieval bloodletting.
I teach ninth-grade English.
On cue, they are abuzz with stories of memorizing Shakespearean soliloquies and reciting conjugations of irregular verbs. I admit this is only a small part of what I do (the bloodletting, not the recitation of irregular verbs). Predictably, the conversation veers toward the demographic composition of my inner-city charter school and how it must be so difficult to teach English to those children. How it must be impossible to make those students read because their parents probably don’t know who Shakespeare is.
The next question, adamantly, is why. Why would I, a Brown University graduate, subject myself to such a daunting task (the teaching, not the bloodletting)? Why don’t I simply obtain a doctorate and live happily as a college professor among cobblestone walkways and grassy quadrangles? That’s what bookish people like me do, isn’t it? And there has to be something wrong because I’m not already pursuing my Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies like my liberal comrades.
At this juncture, I generally decide whether I should mention that unlike the majority of my Ivy League peers, I received full need-based financial aid to attend school. That in several notable ways, I identify with those students.
After reading Christopher Myers’ The Apartheid of Children’s Literature, I’ve figured out what’s actually wrong: I like to color outside the lines. At a time when education is trending towards compliance (read: lower-income schools), I find ineffable joy in purposefully challenging sociocultural norms. I believe those children, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or gender identity, respond tangibly to archetypes of narrative fiction as we move into an era of more standardized testing. That those children can find joy and success in literacy; we fervently need to color outside the lines to recognize the real error in pedantic literacy education.
I trace my nonconformity to childhood; as a young, boyish girl, I would rebel against gendered expectations. The words “no” and “why” quickly became part of my emerging vernacular. Thankfully, my mother, being slightly more stubborn than I was, construed my petulance as budding activism. Now, as a young, boyish woman, I revel in rebellion. What was once “no” has only slightly evolved. “Question everything” has become our classroom motto and I’ve come to realize the best way to facilitate genuine learning experiences for those students, my students, our students, is to listen to their voices in the process.
Call me crazy—I don’t believe an overemphasis on curriculum-driven instruction drives students to succeed. Too often, we underestimate the power of stories to inspire our students; we lose sight of the transformative impact of meeting an author who writes inclusive literature. We know the best way to engender literacy is to disseminate stories that have relatable characters, and yet, as educators of minority students, we feel compulsory pressure to stay within the lines. To color ourselves within oppressive boundaries imposed by grade-level standards, national benchmarks, and exemplary literature offered by Common Core.
This spring, I facilitated a conversation on authentic literacy at a Teach For America Conference in Denver. I prompted teachers to recall their favorite young-adult novel and questioned whether they identified with the protagonist. Engrossed in discussion, I almost failed to recognize a generally verbose teacher withdraw into her notebook; she didn’t contribute to our lively dialogue. Is it a non sequitur to note that she was the singular Chicana educator in attendance? When we spoke, she revealed that the only time she’d enjoyed reading was when a mentor suggested Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros in ninth grade.
We wonder why our students feel lost; we wonder why they’re not reading.
All students deserve an education tailored to their interests and needs; they will color themselves within the borders if we don’t challenge pervasive insular mindsets that exist in education. We need not model and praise compliance in low-income schools. I’m determined to help students feel confident, to wander untethered, and discover their truest selves in unconventionality.
What I continue to struggle with is finding grade-appropriate books my students connect with and want to read. We collectively search for identity-affirming literature featuring diverse protagonists who push the boundaries of our imaginations—characters of color who are not auxiliary or foil but central to the exploration of possibility. These are the characters that will provide my students with the validation to question and rebel against sociocultural expectations.
In my quest to incorporate representative literacy into the curriculum, I realized my own love of reading was profoundly impacted by author visits and live readings. Why isn’t this happening across my network? What I found was disappointing; when proposing an alternative or supplemental learning experience at low-income schools, it is too common to face administrative reluctance. “We can’t deviate from our objectives” and “We don’t have time” are typical responses.
Motivated to provide the same opportunities for my students, I organized an author visit in the fall. I browsed the selection offered by Scholastic and found it a bit…repetitive. The same story, written by the same white male about the same white-male protagonist. My kids enjoyed the visit but there was something missing. It wasn’t until I connected with In This Together Media that I found my students’ stories were genuinely valued. The featured authors and protagonists are real; they’re gay, female, and low-income. They speak Spanish. They’re non-white.
The sponsored literature and author visits validated the varied identities of my students and opened possibility. Subversively, these books directed them to begin coloring outside of the lines, beyond the narrow literary and, subsequently, life geographies and trajectories presented to them.
As educators, we are in this together. Reexamine your bookshelves. Students aren’t reading because they don’t like to; students aren’t reading because their stories aren’t recommended. By providing all students with individualized, relevant texts, we will facilitate their entry into more expansive landscapes.