I’ve been teaching middle and high school English for a decade, and it’s safe to say that the books I read as an adolescent shaped my life. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies helped me understand how metaphor and symbolism could change the way an audience sees the world. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet helped me discover a love of early modern poetry that I still tap in to 20 years later as a PhD student studying his work.
I owe my life’s work to my English teachers, and as one now, I also owe my students the most thoughtful, expansive, and inclusive curriculum I can create. As much as I loved my education, I also struggled to see myself, as a half-Mexican, half-Filipina girl, in the books we were reading. This makes sense since, even today, most books taught in schools are overwhelmingly written by and/or about white characters.
While that afforded me the opportunity to have many windows into other worlds, it made it hard to find the mirrors or sliding glass doors, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop discusses, that would have allowed me to see my family’s “lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience … becoming a means of self-affirmation.” I also understand my classmates would have benefited from gaining windows into my lived experience as well.
I’ve learned a lot from the #DisruptTexts movement over the years. One thing I learned was how I could rethink my own curriculum to disrupt this imbalance in the stories we share with my students. I understand those who fiercely defend “the canon,” and also think there are a lot of good responses to those arguments that encourage rethinking what we teach. Here are three commonly taught texts that we could reconsider in our classrooms.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This beloved novel often vacillates between being banned and beloved by people, with some feeling it brings about conversations that are too “difficult” and others arguing that it is a necessary text for discussing racism with students.
For what it’s worth, I myself have vacillated between intensely defending the text to rethinking my own beliefs on the novel’s place in the canon. It’s a book I still teach to my eighth graders, though with discussions about how the characters often fail to be the shining beacons of allyship many believe they are.
While there are ways to teach the text that invite important discussions, I face these questions: Is the best text to talk about racism, particularly faced by Black men in the American justice system, one written by a white woman? And whose voice and perspective am I centering when teaching my students about that experience?
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ll admit, I never fully fell in love with Gatsby the way so many did (and I’m expecting a faux-angry text from my brother, for whom Gatsby was deeply affecting). Many cling to this novel for its critique of the American class system and the failures of seeking wealth and power. There are interesting discussions to be had about reading the novel through a queer lens, which can disrupt often-heteronormative class texts.
Still, the novel has a continually problematic view of women: Daisy, Myrtle, and Jordan all represent facets of deceitful, shallow, materialistic women who inspire men to make terrible decisions. While it condemns racism and eugenics via Tom Buchanan’s dinner conversations, its characters represent a highly white-centered representation of “the Jazz Age,” which is ironic for an era named after predominantly African American music.
Instead, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun looks at the fallacy of the “American Dream” and deconstructs meritocracy while also showing students a look at the real-life ramifications of redlining that still affect American society today.
3. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
This book has been a long-beloved staple on the West Coast, as it is based on the true story of Juana Maria, a Nicoleño Native American who lived alone for 18 years on an island off the California coast during the 19th century.
While the novel does center on an Indigenous character, it is full of problematic inaccuracies, as described by both Dr. Debbie Reese, who runs the site “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” and by Dr. Eve Tuck, an Aleut scholar whose people are portrayed in the book. While it can be tempting to reach for any representation of indigenous people in our classrooms, it’s important to seek texts that accurately portray these cultures and who center their voices, so we don’t become complicit in the erasure of indigenous cultures.
The School Library Journal shared a list of books to explore instead of Island of the Blue Dolphins. I especially loved Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, for those looking for a strong female protagonist.
While all three of these books have made, and can continue to make, lasting impacts on students over the years, we can still seek out other texts that will also leave lasting marks on our students. In searching for those new texts, perhaps we can find a way to not only engage our students in great storytelling, but find stories that will also inspire them to be thoughtful, critical, and conscientious readers and seekers of change long after they leave our classrooms.