Lately, I’ve been reflecting on an English class where my assignment was to analyze some of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems. The first one wasn’t bad, but the more often I read them the more tired of them I became. His writing wasn’t bad, in truth, it was pretty good. It was the point of view that was tiring. Each time, without fail, the main character was a white man, and if there were a secondary character, they would also be a white man. Identical identities and struggles were represented each time. There was nothing new to learn and I couldn’t connect with any part of the writing. Reading all of these stories felt completely pointless. While there are so many beautiful identities that they can’t all possibly be represented in a single poem, it’s not fair to anyone to only chose to consistently show one when there are so many others out there.
Don’t get me wrong, classics can be beneficial — showing different types of writing styles and conflicts. But one thing that they don’t have is different identities. Throughout school, people learn important skills. No, I’m not just talking about math and science. I’m talking about empathy and kindness. How are you supposed to show empathy for a group of people that you never learn about? In school, the general assumption is that you learn about significant things and people. So, if you don’t learn about something in school, it must not be as relevant. The issue with that mindset and with our current curriculum is that not everything important is included. So many people’s stories aren’t told. Education is power, and the more we know about people the more understanding we can be toward them.
It’s time to stop emphasizing classics and start emphasizing diverse books. It feels like the majority of the books I read are all dominated by white men and the struggles they go through. An article from The Stanford Daily says that in one student’s case,” …even on the rare occasions BIPOC authors were included in the curriculum, they were confined to the summer reading and only a couple days would be spent analyzing and discussing them. On the other hand, weeks and months would be spent reading and analyzing ‘the same old, tired ‘classics’ that don’t represent the people, time or experience of its audience.’” Let’s diversify our lessons and make everyone feel represented. You’d be surprised at the difference seeing yourself in something you’re passionate about can make.
I read a really interesting article by Tricia Ebarvia called How Inclusive is Your Literacy Classroom Really? In the article, she talks about assimilation and not seeing herself in the stories she learned about. One thing that stood out to me was the eight questions she left at the end to help teachers understand whether or not they’re being inclusive. These questions are:
- How inclusive is the media you consume, personally and professionally?
- How inclusive is your curriculum?
- How inclusive is your classroom library?
- How inclusive are your mentor texts for writing?
- How often do you use gendered versus non-gendered language?
- How equitable are your student discussions? In what ways do you ensure all student voices are heard?
- How often do you show (think aloud) inclusive thinking when discussing your decisions and responses to texts?
- In what ways—and how often—do you and your colleagues reflect on your practices to ensure all voices are recognized and respected?
In the article, she also has more questions to go further in-depth into each of these topics. While I’m not a teacher and I can’t answer all of these questions exactly as they were meant to be received, I can think about the impact of these questions on the lessons I’m learning. Teachers aren’t doing badly with most of these, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s definitely not, but there are steps we can take to make things better.
In The Chicago Tribune, they made a helpful suggestion about something we can do.
“For example, a discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird opened with questions about why the book is widely taught: ‘For what reasons might teachers include this text in their curriculum? What is the value in teaching this text? Do you have to teach this text — why?’” Simply by asking questions like these and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, we can begin to make things right.
Yes, the classics have been taught for ages. Yes, they can be great books. Yes, they can be helpful to read and analyze. But who are we leaving out? Are there other books that teach the same things but showcase different identities? I guarantee you there are.
To end this blog post, I don’t want to leave anyone feeling hopeless or like they don’t know where to start. So, here are some resources to look into alternatives to classics:
- 6 Books to Read Instead of or in Addition to the Classic Novel
- 7 Classic Books You Can Skip Reading
- 20 Books Poised to Become Modern Classics
- Disrupt Texts
- Our own Writing Center graduate, Sydney Cunningham’s Uncovered Classroom
Good luck and know that I, along with the rest of the Writing Center, believe in you.