Create Textual Lineages with Students

Invite students into thoughtful reflection on the relationship between the texts they read and their own emerging sense of self.

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Librarians, literacy instructors, and teachers of literature share the pleasure, and responsibility, of introducing young people to stories that can shape their understanding of the world and themselves. We increasingly realize the importance of offering students diverse stories that can be, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop has written, “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.” As we build out our bookshelves with more representative text selections, we can also invite students into thoughtful reflection on the relationship between the texts they read and their own emerging sense of self.

In his ground-breaking literacy research that focused on providing African American boys with meaningful literacy experiences, Dr. Alfred Tatum developed the idea of “textual lineages,” or texts that have meaning and significance in our lives. These might be texts that stay with us throughout our lives because they transported us to an imaginary place or showed us something magical about ourselves. Or perhaps they challenged us to think in new ways or to act differently. The stories in these texts resonate with us, and over time they become part of our own story.

We invite you to explore textual lineages, on your own and with your students. We have provided some learning experiences that help students consider the profound impact that the spoken and written word (as well as art and sound) can have on an individual’s identity and sense of self, and the way that our textual lineages can spark our minds, hearts, and imaginations.

Reflect on meaningful texts in your life

  1. Generate a list of different types of “texts” on the board. Use an expansive definition where a text can be anything that conveys a meaning: a book, short story, article, journal, essay, work of art, play, mural, podcast, movie, song, poem, cartoon, etc.
  2. Then have students respond to the following prompts in their journals:
    1. Make a list of texts that have been most meaningful to you in your life. Perhaps they helped shape how you think about yourself, how you understand others and the world, or how they create a roadmap for where you want to go in the future.
    2. Put a star by 2–3 texts on your list that have had the biggest impact on who you are today. Explain their significance in a short journal reflection.
  3. Explain to students that they have started to create their own “textual lineage,” a collection of texts that have had a meaningful impact on who they are today. Use the Concentric Circle teaching strategy to have students share lists, encouraging them to pose questions to learn more about their classmates’ choices.

Create textual lineage timelines*

  1. Have students review their notes from the previous activity and see if they can expand or deepen their thinking to include texts, defined broadly as above, that may have played an important part in their life in earlier years.
  2. Then have them organize their texts in a rough chronology on a textual lineage timeline, starting with texts that might have been read aloud to them or told in the oral tradition, through children’s literature and other texts, and up to the present. Model with your own timeline, sharing stories about each text as you add it to your timeline.
  3. In a written reflection, have students respond to the following question. Let them know that they can focus on one text or consider their textual lineage as a whole: How have the texts you’ve read, heard, and seen sparked your mind, heart, and imagination? What makes you say that?

Create a textual lineage for a literary character

In literature, as in life, characters can be impacted by the books they read, the poetry and music they experience, or a film they watch. Think of the way Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” functions in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, or the influence of Tupac’s work in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. Texts can become part of the character’s identity—the story they tell about themselves and the story they lean on to help them understand others.

  1. If you are reading a work of literature together that includes meaningful allusions to texts, help students explore how these texts have impacted a character’s identity and sense of self. Review the expansive definition of texts (see above) and then divide the class into groups. Assign each group a character, or have students choose their characters and then move them into groups.
  2. Instruct groups to discuss the following questions, recording their ideas in their notebooks or on a piece of chart paper. Start by having them review the story and make a list of texts that have been most meaningful to their character. Briefly discuss why they are including these texts on the list. For example, have these books, poems, songs, or works of art helped shape how the character thinks about themself, how they understand others and the world, or how they help them set goals for where they want to go?
  3. Then project or pass out the following questions for small-group discussion. Debrief as a class, perhaps having each group present their responses to one of the questions.
    1. How do you think the character would answer the question, “What has been the most influential text in your life?” What makes you say that?
    2. How have texts influenced the character’s sense of who they are? How about their ideas about other characters in the text?
    3. How have the texts influenced how the character sees their future?
    4. Imagine that the character has asked you for a text recommendation. What would you recommend and why?

*Adapted from Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy , pp. 147–149.

Jennifer Nauss is senior content developer at Facing History and Ourselves, where she creates classroom resources and learning experiences for educators and their students. Laura Tavares is program director for organizational learning and thought leadership at Facing History and Ourselves, where she leads strategic partnerships, designs learning experiences for educators, and creates classroom resources.

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