The Necessity of Diverse Literature in our English Classes
By Jori O'Grady
Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible, Tale of Two Cities, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
What do all these books have in common? They are “classics” — often from the 1800s or some other bygone era — written by white men, mostly in the genre of realistic or historical fiction. And, unfortunately, they make up the majority of our high school English reading curriculum.
The English curriculum is chosen solely by the teachers, coordinators, and the educational board, which is why it is no surprise that it reflects College Boards SAT/ACT and AP Literature reading list.
The A.P. Recommended Reading list, a compilation of all books that have appeared on A.P. Literature Exams since 1973, is primarily composed of realistic fiction books written by male authors who are white Americans or Western European.
“I came into the curriculum twenty years ago with the curriculum already decided,” said English Department Coordinator, Jenette VanWormer.
Of Mice and White Men
The AP reading selections are normally made up of white male authors, depriving all students of other, equally important world views possessed by women or authors of different ethnicities or sexualities.
Grandview's curriculum is no different. Out of all the required books read for English classes, from CP to AP, female authors make up less than 13% of the required books and minority groups make up only around 10%.
With the overwhelming majority of Western European and American male authors, minority groups often feel overlooked and excluded.
When given a survey on which book was the most relatable that Grandview students have read in English, the most popular answer was Catcher in the Rye, a coming to age novel about a white prep schoolboy in the 1940s, the second most overwhelming answer was none.
“I haven't really related to most books," said a Grandview junior in the survey.
The English curriculum has stayed mostly static since the 60s, and while there is a need to analyze older books, as it improves linguistic skills, reading similar “classics” constantly will not encourage any new discussion or ideas. The curriculum has simply not adapted to the 21st century.
“The ninth grade curriculum is similar to the classics I read in ninth grade,” said VanWormer.
The books we read for English are supposed to teach us history and universal themes like love, sacrifice, ambition, but when we are constantly reading the same type of book these themes become redundant and one-sided.
While many of these classic books are masterpieces, there are so many other books that tell important and overlooked stories from other cultures. Those including; Persepolis, which is by an Iranian author Marjane Satrapi, whose work details life surrounding the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Beloved by Toni Morrison, which centers around, Seethe, an escaped slave, The House on Mango Street by Sandras Cisneros, about a Latina girl who lives on Chicago's Mango Street, Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich that tells a Grandfather’s tribal stories and Ojibwe heritage to his mixed raced granddaughter and countless of other books. To leave those stories out of the English Curriculum effectively sends the message that the literary traditions of non-Western people are not important or relevant to us today.
With the increase in technology, new and diverse literature is at our fingertips, from music, to online literary journals, to even film. All of these mediums can be analyzed for literary devices and can be mixed into the curriculum for more relevant and stimulating discussions and connections.
Holly Hoggarth, both a librarian and English teacher at Grandview believes a diverse selection of books is essential for students.
“The best thing we could do for our students would be to have a mix: some books that are classics, some books that are contemporary and have a variety of authors and a variety of voices,” said Hoggarth. “I think that that balance would be really key.”
Death of a Reader
“We have a reading crisis right now,” said Van Wormer. “It's not just kids, adults don't read.”
Most English teachers seem to believe the fact that kids don't read for pleasure anymore is a mystery.
The mystery is simple. Throughout elementary school, there were regular trips to the library, giving us free choice and time to read. All throughout elementary school, there was time built in for teachers to read to us. As we got older, free choice and class readings became less frequent. According to a survey conducted throughout Grandview, 29.9% of students admit to never read for pleasure, but only 14.9% admit that they never enjoy reading.
“It seems there is a big disconnect,” said Hoggarth. “Somewhere maybe around eighth, ninth or seventh-grade, kids seem to stop reading for joy.”
Students stop reading when the curriculum becomes formulaic, repetitive and not relatable.
After reading several similar books, a student may develop a general dislike for reading; however, exposure to a wider range of stories could likely persuade a reluctant reader to enjoy reading again.
“English is the only subject that has no freedom, and we learn nothing interesting except how to write an essay the way the teacher likes it,” said sophomore, Danijela Prizmic.
The English curriculum does not take advantage of what is supposed to be an art form. Art can be defined as communication between an artist and the audience. When an author writes, they take words to create a story to communicate to us. This communication is essential for learning about the world around us anecdotally and emotionally.
To illustrate, Freshman Seminar and health classes integrate issues like drug abuse, sexuality, bullying, sexual assault, mental health, etc. which has never been taken seriously by students. It’s “cringy” and prohibits students to truly discuss these issues. While schools understand the importance of integrating these issues, they are failing to see that they don't belong wedged in a freshman’s almost-off period, but in a constant discussion that can be directed by the literature, we read in English, as a platform for these emotional connections.
According to both Van Wormer and Hoggarth, the purpose of English is to make students better readers, writers and most importantly, thinkers.
“Reading essays, reading articles and books, agreeing and disagreeing with them, hones in those thinking skills," said Hoggarth. “Being able to think is one of the most important things a person could have.”
However, if students aren't reading, they aren't thinking. When students are bored, many turn to SparkNotes or Shmoop instead of reading or thinking freely for an essay. Students won't read if the book is boring and especially if the teacher doesn't make class engaging.
By including new and diverse works, discussions, and creative projects, the curriculum could break from its formula and encourage students to think outside of just what the teacher wants them to think.
“The number one mistake we could make is to stop reading,” said Van Wormer.
Featured Image courtesy of Google