Walter Dean Myers, author of Monster, Fallen Angle, and Scorpion, among others young adult novels, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” As a self-professed ‘book nerd’ I found my friends in the literature I read. Books took me on adventures to near and far away lands. I discussed my literature friends with classmates and as I got older, in book clubs. Our discussion focused on how characters and people shared similar struggles, adventures, epiphanies and life lessons. I learned about characters’ lives in books including those who lived in other parts of the world. Because I was widely read, the friends I met between the pages came in all shapes and sizes and experienced different ways of life. We had many similarities and differences, those book friends and I, that helped me grow as a person.
Novelist Chimamanda Adichie raises the same issue in her TedTalk entitled the “Danger of a Single Story”. Adichie introduces the audience to her Nigerian upbringing reading mostly American and British books. The characters she created as a young author had blue eyes, pony tails, and drank ginger beer. They represented nothing of her Nigerian friends or life. She stressed the importance of including culturally relevant texts with young readers and writers and that when we don’t, we “risk a critical understanding” about one another.
In my own classroom, where racial and religious diversity are virtually non-existent, I attempt to introduce my students to a variety of characters, some of whom look like them while others do not. I am not a traditional teach to the canon teacher but I do like to include a few of the classics such as “The Crucible”, To Kill a Mockingbird and the required dabble into a Shakespeare tragedy. While these are all outstanding texts, what they lack is relevance to my students and their lives. These “traditional texts” do not introduce students to a wide array of diverse characters. The “different” characters included in these books are stock or stereotyped in many instances.
I’ve been building my array of literature to include The Pecan Man which has strong black and white female characters; and Everything I Never Told You and Samurai Garden which feature strong Asian characters. I also teach The Other Wes Moore which explores the lives of two men, one white and the other black, named Wes Moore and what happens to them in Baltimore.
book covers from Amazon
Each year I try to find more texts that represent an element of diversity that my students do not typically see. Following different blogs, networking with teachers, joining specialty FaceBook groups have all been wonderful sources for identifying new literature to teach in class. My hope is to have them begin to find new perspectives in the literature to stretch their thinking and understanding of others.
I want all students to find themselves somewhere in the literature that we read in class while also finding their friends. I push them to see themselves as readers and writers with complex ideas and thoughts which I also want them to see reflected in the texts which we read. Ezra Hyland says in best, “When you have children in school and the literature doesn’t look like them, it doesn’t sound like them, it does not deal with their issues, you’re pushing them out rather than inviting them in.” I want to invite my students in to the conversation by helping them create connections to the texts. With 50% of the population in the United States being non-white, we need to challenge ourselves to bring everyone into our classrooms through the literature we teach and read.
Cheryl Stahle is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She teaches at Parkersburg High School and is the Co-Director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project based out of Marshall University. Cheryl is also the Vice President of the Marshall Literary Council. She is a not so regular tweeter @msstahleclass. Besides teaching American Literature, her other classroom goal is to teach 1970s classic rock to her students.
WVCTE is wondering how you use diverse literature in your classroom?
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