Challenging the Classics to Create an Inclusive Curriculum | SLJ Summit 2020

Three of the founders of #DisruptTexts spoke about the need and reasons to reimagine the canon and how educators can do it effectively.

At the SLJ Summit presentation “Challenging the Classics,” three founders of the organization DisruptTexts discussed the need to revisit the literary canon and create an equitable and inclusive curriculum that values and amplifies the work of marginalized groups.

“A canon by nature is exclusive in its design and nature,” said Lorena Germán, a middle and high school educator in Austin, TX. “We have to ask: Who constructed it, what and whom does it center, and who benefits and at whose expense? Canons reflect cultural values. They reflect a society’s priorities.”

Fellow DisruptTexts cofounders Kimberly N. Parker, assistant director of teacher training at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA, and Julia E. Torres, a language arts teacher and librarian in Denver, CO, joined Germán for the session that was moderated by SLJ's editor of news and features, Sarah Bayliss. A recording of this, and all Summit sessions, is available on demand to registrants until January 24.

“So many of us have just taught books because those are the books that were in the book room, or those are the books that our departments just teach, without taking the time to think, what are we communicating when we put these books in front of children?” Parker said. “Who are we leaving out? Why are we making these choices? We are enforcing beliefs by the books we choose to teach, or we don’t teach.”

Torres noted that it’s important to include students in thinking about what is worthy of academic study, and also to be reflective about the different perspectives educators show when it comes to Black identity and identities of other people of color. For example, she said, when it comes to Black identity, educators should be aware if they are consistently talking about slavery, the antebellum south, or the civil rights movement, and not sharing stories about joy.

“We need to think about who we are centering and what kind of narratives we are centering,” Parker said.


Disrupting text and the four core pillars

DisruptTexts means “to create an equitable and inclusive curriculum which repairs the damage inflicted by a traditionally white-centered canon and pedagogy. To apply a critical lens—to disrupt, dismantle, reimagine, and rebuild curriculum and to apply a pedagogy that values and amplifies the work of marginalized groups, especially IPOC communities," the presentation emphasized. "All students—IOC and white—need to appreciate and study the rich literary legacies of communities of color. DisruptText is NOT simply exchanging a more contemporary title for a classic one, even if the title is by a woman. Sexism is not a proxy for racism.”

The panelists shared the four core pillars of the DisruptTexts movement:

  • Continually interrogate our own biases. “Before we put anything in front of children and young people, we need to think about our beliefs, how we are grounded in what we came to think about literature, about texts, and about race and racism, and our own privilege and our own identity,” Parker said. “We need to do this all the time.” 
  • Center Black, Indigenous, and voices of color in literature.
  • Apply a critical lens to our teaching practices.
  • Work in community with other antiracist educators, especially Black, Indigenous, and other educators of colors.

Torres noted that more than 80 percent of public school teachers are white, as are the majority of people who work in children’s publishing. “We need to not only support one another, but we are going to need folks who have woken up to be actively, consciously, consistently looking for ways to center our work,” she said.

It’s also important to work in the community and “pass the mic” to other educators and librarians who have more knowledge than you do, Torres said.


Examining the white gaze

Much of the literary canon and books that are taught are centered on the white gaze and were written by white male authors, according to Germán.

“The problem is not in and of itself that these are white authors,” she said. “There is not a problem in the color of someone’s skin. This is communicating that these are the voices that are worthy of rigorous, academic discussion, and insightthat this is the writing that should be modeled, and that these are the voices that matter. That is narrow.”

Germán stressed the importance of using texts that have authentic voices.

“There is something to be said about the book written by the person who is climbing the mountain versus the one that is in the helicopter watching," she said. "There is a difference. When we bring in the voices that have been historically excluded, they are coming with topics that have been historically excluded, with points of view that have been historically excluded. Now we are broadening (young people’s) understanding and analysis of the world.”

There is often an assumption that the experiences shared in the canon books are universal, that they speak to all of our experiences, and that we can all relate to them, she added. “Why can we not relate to books by people of color? Why are those experiences not universal?”


READ: Curricular Dystopia in 2020 | Challenging the Classics


Centering Black, Indigenous, and voices of color

The panelists said that educators need to center marginalized voices and actively work to change the canon, because: 

  • Race continues to be the largest determinant of inequity across areas of life.
  • We need to address and fill the racial imagination gap.
  • We need to challenge the problematic, violent, and incorrect dominant narratives that exist about BIPoC.
  • The silence around race in ELA classrooms has existed long enough and has led us to where we are today.

Torres spoke about ways educators can center these voices by strategically pairing texts, intentionally replacing texts, and developing counternarratives.

“We are not suggesting that you just get a booklist and bring it into school and say, ‘Here is the solution,’” Torres said. “We want folks to do the work. That means that that you are going to have to get at understanding why you were ok with Shakespeare for five years in a row, but your students graduate without knowing anything about James Baldwin or Audrey Lorde. Asking those tough questions is where it starts. It doesn’t start with a booklist.”


Thinking about critical literacy

Critical literacy is the idea that students are actively engaged with text, not just passive and consumptive and accepting what the teacher tells them, Torres said. It is a lens and an overall approach and an orientation toward and against texts, not a unit of study.

“We want our students to interrogate texts,” Torres said. “We want our students to understand that it’s not just about the text itself, but about the meaning that the readers ascribe to the text. No text is neutral.”

On a final note, Germán said DisruptTexts is not about throwing out old texts and just getting new books on your shelf.

“It’s about communicating that you value these books, these voices, these stories, and these narratives, and that you are going to engage young people in critical thinking about them,” she said. “Think about meaning, think about impact, not simply about representation.”

Melanie Kletter, a freelance writer and editor in New York City, was previously a senior editor of TIME for Kids.

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