Navigating the Classics: Two High School Educators Explore Criteria for Inclusion or Replacement

The co-founders of Twitter's #THEBOOKCHAT talk about Dante, James Baldwin, and what students should know when they leave high school.



High school teachers and educators Joel Garza and Scott Bayer were taught in canonical-based classrooms. They wanted their students to feel more centered in the curriculum and equipped for the perpetual question of youth: What’s next? Garza and Bayer, co-founders and hosts of #THEBOOKCHAT, a chat on Twitter devoted to having brave conversations about marginalized voices and devoted to curating classroom-ready online resources for teachers eager to read deliberately, share their strategies with SLJ.


SLJ: Many books that teachers use are out of step with the times—or maybe never took the facts of their own times into account. What makes a book worth working around—meaning, teaching it despite the cultural, racial, and other insensitivities (past or present)?
Many teachers consider most canonical books to be “worth working around.” We, however, recognized in each other—and in many other teachers—a shared desire and joy in finding books that needed to be worked in; works that have long been overlooked; works by emerging voices that deserve to be heard. There are ways to teach problematic books so that their cultural or racial deficiencies are addressed through the correct lens—the insensitivities we’re most attentive to are the pedagogical ones. Insensitivity when talking about love, as if love were always between straight people, for instance. Insensitivity when talking about human excellence, as if only well-born men going after their enemies with sharp pointy things were those who could teach us heroism.


How do we shift from the seemingly intractable label of “classic” to the awareness that a book is no longer serving the students, or the curriculum?
Most students will do the work even if the book doesn’t excite them. They’re quite adept at “how to school,” and they usually lack the agency, practice, or forum in which they could say, “This curriculum no longer serves us.” So in our experience, the shift begins with teachers asking these difficult questions and answering them bravely: What do we want students to do as a result of our curriculum? If, say, a ninth grader’s family moved to another school after ninth grade, what skills would that student bring to their tenth grade class? If pressed, few parents and teachers would say that they want students to leave a campus able to discuss a limited set of texts they did not choose themselves. Instead, those parents and teachers probably hope that their students would be able to speak confidently, create thoughtfully, and collaborate effectively with people who don’t look like them, identify like them, or live like them.

[Read: Stirring Up Trouble with The Crucible]

Is this a top-down process or bottom-up? Do students or others come to you with concerns about a title, or set of titles that you then consider changing out, or are there mandates you, or colleagues, put in place (or are mandated for you)?

Joel Garza

Students almost never come with concerns about a title. Admin almost never come with the suggestion that a teacher broaden their reading list. Teachers almost always gain good grades, degrees, jobs, and promotions due to their mastery of a canonical curriculum. As a result, changing a curriculum is both a top-down and a bottom-up process. Challenging yourself and your students to read the world depends on both a snail’s-eye view of your curriculum (who is in the room, which voices have not yet been centered) and a bird’s-eye view (what stories are being told about our lives and our times, which voices have not yet been centered in our national discourse).

What are some popular titles, long part of the canon, that you’ve regretted pulling? What were the substitutes?
I got really good at teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy. Not just the “Inferno,” but also “Purgatory” and “Paradise.” I’ve not “pulled” the Divine Comedy entirely, but I recognize that this poem’s worldview is not that of every student. Since thinking carefully about broadening the voices and perspectives of my students, I’ve enjoyed teaching units on “Right and Wrong” by means of Dante, Pirkei Avot, and Confucius’s Analects. Similarly, I got really comfortable teaching mostly novels and epics. I’ve enjoyed teaching units that blend fiction and nonfiction, lengthy works and short works, podcasts and visual arts.

SB: Because of my reading experiences in high school and college, when I became a teacher, I was never saddled with those generalizations we so often hear: “Everyone loves this book,” or worse, “Since I love this book, my students will see my passion and love this book too.” I’ve always known those statements to be untrue. And so, although I may personally love a book, I’ve always had an acute awareness that the love was mine alone, and that some students might love the same book, and others might detest it. So I’ve never regretted changing texts. There are so many good texts out there, and there isn’t a single text that is right for everyone or that must be taught to understand a certain subject or theme.

Scott Bayer



Do you get pushback for making substitutions (or are we in fact simply broadening coverage to be more inclusive) from any quarter?
Most teachers are more likely to get pushback from their own department colleagues than from any family or student about the “loss” of a particular book from one year to the next.

The hard truth is that those colleagues pushing back are often the same ones that fail to recognize the “losses” of authors they have ignored their entire careers.

James Baldwin, for example, is among the most timely and timeless, the most American and universal, the most personal and political writers you can imagine… and his works are almost never taught in high schools. Where is the pushback against ignoring Baldwin in high school curricula? Where is the pushback against the inequity of representation with respect to women’s writing? The near-absence of contemporary literature in translation?

[Read: Curricular Dystopia in 2020]

Please name a book that you wish, perhaps, you didn’t have to teach but for which there is no easy switch or substitute.
Although I do not teach any complete Aristotle text, I find no easy substitute for how he describes the variety and responsibility of the art of rhetoric. Although I have read and/or taught [The Book of] Genesis all of my life, I find that Genesis is new to my students, that there is no easy substitute for the excitement that the reading brings to a group of young people from different backgrounds—particularly those religious students who have never read it with people of a different background.

SB: I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my career in a district that does not require certain texts. We have approved lists of texts that teachers and students can select from. My whole-class readings are based on choice and since my focus is only on five things—helping students become better thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and listeners—there’s no need for me to teach any singular text.


Does bringing in newer or more inclusive books end up—over time—changing the curriculum?
Yes. In many cases, one just needs to ask the question in very stark but realistic terms: “On what basis and to what end should this department ignore living authors, BIPOC authors, and LGBTQIA+ authors?” A colleague might very well decide to teach the same curriculum as the previous year, but that colleague cannot say that the question has not been asked. For each year, that colleague is choosing a less-inclusive curriculum than what is at their disposal. They are choosing to ignore stories that might lead students to know themselves and love themselves, to know people who don’t look like them or live like them and to understand—if not love—those other people.

Joel Garza is chair of the Upper School English department at Greenhill School in Addison, TX; he is also an instructor and an instructional design coach through Global Online Academy. With Bayer, he co-founded and co-hosts #THEBOOKCHAT, devoted to having brave conversations about marginalized voices and curating classroom-ready online resources for teachers. Follow him @JoelRGarza

Scott Bayer has spent his 20-year career as a high school English teacher, department chair, and an English Language Arts instructional specialist for grades 6-12. He co-hosts #THEBOOKCHAT. Follow him @Lyricalswordz.

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