Moving on from the classics

March 4, 2024, 1:03 p.m. | By Sudhish Swain | 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Blair’s teachers are at the forefront of developing a more diverse and inclusive curriculum that deviates from teaching only the traditional texts by dead, White male authors

For the last few decades, school districts like Montgomery County have been grappling with the question of whether the curriculum taught in our English classes is truly reflective of our diverse community. At a school like Montgomery Blair, with a minority enrollment of 77%, this question becomes all the more relevant. After being passed from generation to generation, books like The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, and To Kill a Mockingbird have dominated modern English curricula. These texts fail to represent the multitude of life experiences and perspectives held by students.

To MCPS’ credit, they have made a conscious effort over the last several years to develop English curricula that are more reflective of their students’ diverse life experiences. In 2017, MCPS implemented MCPS Policy ACA, Nondiscrimination, Equity, and Cultural Proficiency 6. C (8) which states that “instructional materials used in MCPS schools will reflect the diversity of the global community, the aspirations, issues, and achievements of women, persons with disabilities, persons from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, as well as persons of diverse gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”

AP Language and Composition (AP Lang) teacher Leigh Tinsley, a White teacher, has seen firsthand how MCPS has adjusted their book lists and curricula. “In the 23 years [I have been teaching], [the county] has really started to change and adjust our book lists… they’ve put in quite a bit of effort to change and adjust and update curriculums,” Tinsley says.

But of the 312 core texts outlined by MCPS in their latest 9th-12th grade English curricula, 192 (62.5%) are by male authors, 108 (34%) of which are White. While this is a clear improvement from Applebee's 1993 findings – where 86% of the required public high school books in the U.S. were male-authored, of which 99% were by White, male authors – it still doesn’t reflect the diverse make-up of Montgomery County. 

How English teachers at Blair choose which books they teach

Blair AP Literature and Composition teacher Sandra Jacobs, a Black teacher, has roots in Barbados, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. She began integrating diverse texts into her classes years before MCPS published their Policy ACA in 2021, but not before she taught the dead, White men’s novels first. “I [taught] the dead, White men because that's how I was trained, and that's how the other teachers taught it [at Blair],” Jacobs says.

Around 2013, Jacobs recognized how teaching diverse sets of literature led to greater student engagement and began sharing this success through Blair’s Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). “When I started to use different literature and found success with it, with the students that I teach, we can share what works for us through PLCs… I see teachers are more inclined to add literature from a global perspective than before,” she says.

For Tinsley, it was a similar story. “When I first started teaching, it was still very much, Shakespeare and then mostly a whole bunch of other White authors, mostly male. When I taught my first few years, I don't think I taught any authors of color,” she says. This turned out to be the product of both a lack of diverse texts on the MCPS list and in her former school’s book room. “It was what was in the book room … and it was also what was on our lists,” Tinsley says. 

Honors English teacher Donna Whitney, a Black teacher, realized it was harder to teach and keep students engaged when they weren’t represented in what they were reading. “[I] found that [my] students who were Black and Brown, and who have marginalized identities, weren't being seen in the books, and it became harder and harder for me to connect with my students,” she says.

Another hurdle many teachers face while integrating more diverse curricula is getting the texts approved for whole-class use. “We're also limited by text approval…texts are either approved for whole class use or they're approved for library use or [literature] circles. Getting a text approved for a full class text is a really long process, and everybody on the committee, which is a central office thing, has to read it and approve it,” Tinsley says.

However, over the last decade, MCPS has steadily approved literature written by non-White, female, and other members of marginalized communities. Once teachers like Jacobs and Tinsley can get their hands on it, they develop their list of books using the “window-mirror” approach, a teaching method coined by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop by which students can both see themselves in the curriculum and learn about others’ perspectives.“My idea is like a window-mirror approach that you read literature and you say, ‘Oh, I can relate to this.’ It's like looking in a mirror… and then there’s the window approach where you're looking through the window, at another culture, another perspective,” Jacobs says.

But if Jacobs does end up using the same book year after year, she tries to incorporate different lessons, refined to better reflect and resonate with the experiences of her students. “Even if I use the same book, it's never the same lessons because my students may be slightly different in some way or form. When we use literature in a culturally responsive way, we build bridges between home and school,” she says.

Darren Wilson, a Black AP Lang and Composition, Journalism and Media teacher, takes a similar approach; he analyzes the representation and unique perspectives of his students in a given class and uses that information to form a robust and diverse set of books. “I like to gauge the representation in my course as much as possible, and try to represent as many voices and as many perspectives… I find that if students at times, not with all text, but at times, can see themselves or their own experiences in the authors that they are analyzing, that it's just a much richer discussion,” he says. 

In Whitney’s Honors English 12 classes, she has begun focusing on teaching the counter-narrative, which means “bringing a spotlight onto the voices, histories, and narratives of people who are not in the majority in terms of power in this country as a way to address a changing demographic.” Alongside the all-time classics of English class, Whitney believes texts from minority communities need to be shared to teach a broader, more inclusive, and more factual story. “Have the marginalized voice sharing their story from another perspective, and then use that as a comparison to the [dead White men] that have been shared.”

Change in the classroom

But this kind of change didn’t happen immediately, not even at Blair. When the 12th-grade curriculum was rewritten to be more culturally inclusive, many teachers were initially reluctant to adopt it. However, now many are embracing the change. “Some teachers, if you're so used to doing something a certain way, you want to do it the same way all along. It took a while…some people just did a short story. Not like a book. Not anything else. But now, like anything, change is imminent and people are moving in that direction,” Jacobs says.  

In Tinsley’s classes, this change may look like supplementary texts to provide context and new perspectives to the original, “classic,” texts. “One of the things I've tried to do is give [everyone] supplemental texts… I think it's important to remember too that even if you are reading or teaching a book that is written by a White man and has White, mostly White characters, there are ways you can, as a teacher, still get the voices that are not there,” she says. 

For example, when Tinsley used to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic English class book from the 1960s, she would supplement it with texts from Black authors. “Even if you're teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, which is a decidedly White view of racism in America, there are ways that you can supplement that text and be critical of it while also analyzing it and reading it in a critical space…We have to sometimes work within what we have in the book room .. but we can also do things with what we have,” Tinsley says. 

A movement by the students

Blair’s student-run Project LIT chapter runs monthly workshops to highlight diverse and culturally relevant books, encouraging students to read books with a distinct set of perspectives. For this past Black History Month (BHM), Project LIT has been hosting a BHM reading challenge, showing BHM movies in the cafeteria, and running a BHM reading challenge. 

CAP Junior Sophie Pranio, a member of the Project LIT leadership council, is frustrated that some English teachers at Blair do not integrate many diverse texts into their curriculum. “In ninth grade, specifically, we didn't get a choice on anything. We all read the same thing. And it was all dead, White men… I feel like there were so many more books that could have been chosen,” she says. 

But 9th grade Honors English teacher David Goldberg has recently begun allowing his students to select their own books and explore them in different avenues, like through literature circles and group read-aloud. “Starting last year, just to help make the class more accessible, [my students] could choose between reading the full text ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the play ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, or if they didn’t find that engaging, they could read the novel All American Boys. Both texts deal with race, but one in a far more contemporary way,” he says. All American Boys, published in 2015, was written by Jason Reynolds, a Black author, and Brendan Kiely, a White author. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was written by Harper Lee, a White woman, and published in 1960.

An image of Blair's bookroom Photo courtesy of Maggie Megosh.

Pranio believes that the county should be responsible for choosing diverse literature, not the teachers. “If the county is saying, ‘Here are the books that you can read,’ and teachers are like having to cherry pick the books that they feel are best for their classroom…. I don't feel like that should be on the teacher,” she says. 

Keith Anderson, a White Male teacher, who has taught Honors English 11 and AP Lang at Blair for the last 19 years, takes a different approach to choosing books. He has also observed a shift in the diversity of authors whose books reside within Blair’s bookroom. However, he differs from other teachers because he uses books as a conduit to teach the material in the curriculum instead of assigning whole books at a time for their content.

Anderson often opts for excerpts, sometimes only one page long, instead of assigning an entire book. “Given that there's such a variance of ability in the class, I will often not choose a single novel from the book room to read with the class. I will find other ways of getting at that material, whether it's through short excerpts, poems, short essays… In practice I do not use books very much with the [Honors English 11] kids,” he says. 

With AP Lang, Anderson tends to focus more on finding something within the language of the books instead of reading it for the content or based on its author. “My focus with the AP Lang [curriculum] is not ‘what is the book about?’ It’s ‘is there something in this language that we can study,’” he says.

Furthermore, instead of choosing books for his students based on what he observes, Anderson made the decision to allow his Honors English 11 students, who have a less rigid curriculum than his AP Lang students, to choose their own books. 

“I have decided to essentially let the kids choose their own books based on their reading level and their interest. I think that assuming that a kid is going to like a book, because the author is the same background of them, is a terrible error, a tragic error actually,” he says. Some of the full texts Anderson has taught in the past few years are The Great Gatsby, The Awakening, The Scarlet Letter, Macbeth, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fences, Native Son, and Old Man and the Sea.

Anderson has found that sometimes, using older texts is a more effective way to prepare AP Lang students for the exam. “One of the things that the kids need to be able to do for the AP exam is to be fluid with reading older English, so they might end up with a passage from the old text on the AP exam. I consciously use The Scarlet Letter, not because I think the book is great from a content perspective, but because that is a book that's got extended passages of difficult, difficult, syntactically complex writing,” he says

Blair junior Nateneal Eshetu, a Black student who is currently enrolled in AP Lang, struggles with seeing himself represented in his English classes so far. “ I would say more or less that [the books] don’t really… showcase who I am or even represent me at all. The last book we read was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It really doesn't represent who I am at all because it has so much formal register,” he says.

For Wilson, a step in the right direction is including more student and teacher voices in the decision-making process for choosing books. “What I would love to see more is a bit more of teacher and student voice in the decision-making process [for developing English curricula] because a lot of the times those decisions are made above our heads or by individuals that quite frankly are not in the classroom as regularly as some of us are,” he says.

There’s no question that the current selection of books MCPS offers fails to portray the experiences of the majority of their students accurately, and Blair’s recent efforts to change this on a schoolwide level have been hindered by a lack of availability in the bookroom and teachers’ reluctance to adopt….. However, allowing students to see reflections of themselves in their classroom and learn about others is not something we can delay any further. As Wilson puts it, “[With more diverse texts], we can understand and discuss as many myriads of the human condition as we possibly can.”

Last updated: March 6, 2024, 2:01 p.m.

Sudhish Swain. Hi! I'm Sudhish (he/him) and I'm one of the sports editors as well as a videographer. I often record videos at games, write beats, post recaps/galleries/videos on our social medias, and more! Besides SCO, I love running, listening to music, and learning new languages! More »

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