By Matthew Romano
The following piece appeared in the September 2019 edition of The Campus.
“She eats the candy, and its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (Morrison 50)
In the wake of iconic African American novelist Toni Morrison’s death on August 5, 2019, we face the sobering reality that the youth of the current generation is growing up with no knowledge of who Toni Morrison was. However, this is not to say that young people of color don’t grow up facing the same or similar societal tribulations as a Pecola Breedlove, namely the self-loathing alluded to in the above quote. Of course, Toni Morrison’s fading memory is not simply a result of time’s passing but is also due in large part to the banning of her novels in many middle and high school classrooms across the country, a hesitance by some teachers to enter into conversations about issues wherein Morrison’s words could be invoked, and the failure of our schools’ libraries to reflect the diversity of its’ students. The following Do’s and Don’ts will outline why I think this uprooting and updating of the current canon of high school literary texts is especially important in urban settings as well as suggest some other steps that I and others see as necessary in urban literacy education.
DO modernize and diversify your classroom library and literacy curriculum
It was early one Saturday morning before I would start teaching proportions to my 6th-grade class at Baychester Middle School when I noticed the English teacher, Ms. Pagan, brimming with excitement over books she had ordered. Upon my asking about the books, she said with passion and vigor that the books she ordered were for her students and all were written by and featured people of color, not one of them having a white main character.
Chances are that if you are teaching in an urban setting, many of your students are minorities, speaking multiple languages and coming from cultures both diverse and complex. Some may not even understand their culture as they haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore it either through discussion, research, or travel. By ordering novels and other genres of texts that are written for your students or with students like the ones in your classroom in mind, you are giving them an opportunity to learn about themselves as they will be seeing themselves reflected in the stories of the people they read about for what may very well be the first time. This will promote the overall growth of the whole child while also giving them an entryway into engaging with and becoming passionate about what they are learning.
One hurdle when rethinking the canon of literary texts is that while it may seem obvious to use culturally relevant texts, it can be hard to gauge what exactly is culturally relevant while still being school and age-appropriate and something your kiddos will engage in, not to mention what activities, lessons, etc. to employ when teaching these texts. On this note, Julia D’Ambrosio, a Caucasian student who taught English this summer at P.S. 103 where she was the only white person among all the students, teachers, and faculty, shares “I think the biggest frustration for me is that I’ve read so many articles on representing different cultures in the classroom and stuff and how important that is, but very few articles I’ve read actually have suggestions, like what to do after you read the articles”
DO encourage creativity, self-expression, and meaningful connections to diverse texts
Filler work, busy work, frickin’ packets – many teachers partake in these approaches but few students enjoy them. Examples include word searches, low-level recall questions, and purposeless coloring activities, all of which have been proven to be non-educational examples of passive learning that asks for students to disengage from the material and disconnect from whatever text they are reading.
Instead, young students of color, in particular, flourish most when given opportunities to draw connections between themselves, their lives, and the lives of other people like them that they read about. These sorts of connections allow students to make meaning and see the importance in what they are learning, retain more, and in turn, become more culturally competent. Creative writing, student-led discussions, and multi-media projects are some engaging activities in an English classroom that can help students to draw these connections. They also help to build a stronger classroom community, reach a larger audience of students, and grants agency to students not only in the classroom but outside of the classroom as members of a larger community, change-makers in society, and future leaders.
DON’T rely on the ‘classics’
First, allow me to explain what I mean by ‘classics’. I use classics here in reference to books, some mentioned above, commonly canonized as the ‘classics’ as well as the ‘classical’ routines of teaching English that seem to be commonplace in many classrooms despite some of them being outdated and out of tune with what we now know about teaching students who have multiple intelligences, learning styles, learning needs, etc. Some of these classical routines are the infamous ‘book reports, independent reading logs, popcorn reading, whole-class lecturing, etc.
Surely, if you’ve ever been in an English classroom, you’ve seen some of these practices in use and likely have some strong feelings about them. I can still remember the countless SparkNotes searches for summaries that became the basis of my book reports because if I churned out X amount of them by the end of the year I could get a reward and forging my parents’ initials for independent reading logs on those nights that I just refused to read. As for popcorn readings, some of us loved it because it was like a free period with how little brain activity was required, some hated it because it was excruciating having to hear others’ read, while others tried their best to wrestle out of it because reading in front of everyone was a nightmare.
The same is true for classrooms now, especially in urban settings with considerable populations of ELL’s, students with disabilities or reading impediments, or visual, social, or kinesthetic learners, all of whom find these types of practices rather inaccessible. Some alternative pedagogical approaches include: literature circles (which group students together as critical readers, writers, and discussers); PBL’s (Project Based Learning experiences which engage different learning styles and allow students to construct their own learning experiences); and in class discussions (sensitive yet honest group discussions targeting the social issues present in culturally relevant texts). These strategies give students an outlet where they can discover and express themselves while learning about issues common in urban areas in a structured and safe environment.
DON’T mistake Literacy as being specific to English
The percentage of students who are English Language Learners in public schools across the United States is quickly increasing. All this is to say that there is no guarantee, especially for English teachers of younger grades where ELL’s have a stronger presence, that all of your students will speak perfect English (In fact, some may not speak much English at all). If you are a literacy teacher in one of these settings it is vital to remember that literacy is defined as “the quality or state of being literate, especially the ability to read and write”. Notice that nowhere in that definition is the English language specifically stated – literacy does not necessitate the ability to read and write in English.
Of course, with English being the one national language that isn’t a national language, your school will likely force-feed English and by all means, you should promote the learning of English by ELL’s in your classes. However, this should not require that they lose their L1 in your class; rather, the best-case scenario is a move towards bi- or multilingualism with your ELL’s gaining confidence in English and comfort in using their L1. Some of the strategies teachers can use to allow for this negotiation of languages in the classroom include real conversations about language rights, accepting drafts of student work that are written in a students’ home language, providing cognates in students’ native languages, and creative projects allowing students to explore code-switching between languages, among others.
It is important to note that the Do’s and Don’ts above, although all based on research or experiences in teaching in urban settings are simply suggestions, not prescription. Central to culturally relevant teaching is realizing that no child is the same, learns the same, or lives the same, and so it stands that while these strategies could work in one classroom with one group of students, they may not work, or at least not in the same way, in another. These suggestions simply provide support for literacy education being reassessed in urban and modern contexts so that our students feel empowered to enter the real world, be themselves, and create their narrative rather than conforming to one already made for them.