EVERYONE in our house loves books!
Preface: The following are my personal reflections on how white bias becomes institutionalized in high school literature classes. I teach group literature classes to homeschool students, but have never taught in a conventional public or private school, so my perspective reflects that. Also, I earned a Masters degree in Education in Education and National Development, which was kind of a “Macro-Education” program that looked at the big picture of education. Some of my perspective is based on those studies, which extend beyond my personal experience.
A second factor that supports the continued use of mostly older novels by mostly white, mostly male authors is the fact that it takes a lot of work to do something different. With the growing work load we place on our teachers, we make it harder for them to find the time and energy to try to introduce something new and different.
For one thing, the tendency in US education has been to move towards standards-based education that enhances consistency between different classes, different schools, and even different states. Studies—along with common sense—argue that consistency improves student understanding and test scores. But moving towards consistency reduces each individual teacher’s ability to choose their own curriculum, educational intentions, and tools…including what books their students read. I don’t work in a school system, so I can’t speak on how much latitude teachers have in change or adapt the the standard curriculum. I imagine it varies by school and/or by state.
The point is, most teachers don’t have to freedom to simply decide exactly what they will teach in their classes based on their own ideas and passions.
Unless you are a homeschool teacher like I am! In North Carolina (schooling and homeschooling are regulated on the state level), homeschoolers do have the ability to teach whatever and however they want. That is one reason we homeschooled my son—I had some different opinions about the best way to teach, and I thought I could do a better job (in conjunction with the many homeschooling resources and classes in this area) of teaching my son than the standardized curriculum in area schools could. Not a slam on our area’s schools, but I wanted to customize and experiment with some non-traditional ideas, many of which are impossible to do on a mass scale like the public schools need to do to educate all of our children.
So my classes are different. To begin with, I’m not trying to prepare my students for taking the AP exam. I’m not assessed on that by the families of my students as many high academic schools are. So while of course I teach some of the standard AP books, my reading list is more diverse than pretty much any traditional high school literature curriculum that I’ve seen.
So I’m out on my own, paving my own way, which is great. I love the freedom, and I think my book lists better serve a 21st century education than the ones I’ve seen from traditional schools in this area.
However, one of the things I teach my students is that everything in life has its costs as well as its benefits. The cost for my freedom, for my ability to offer a unique and diverse book list, is a LOT of time and effort in curriculum development.
As I did in my post yesterday, let me you give any example to make this more concrete.
At the beginning of this year, BEFORE coronavirus, BEFORE Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I had decided that for the 2020-21 academic year, I would develop two brand new courses (one for middle school and one for high school) on World Mythology. I thought that would fill an important gap in the classes that I have been teaching.
Now, I could probably sit at my computer and come up with eight different stories or characters or heroes or themes to focus on for each of the eight months of classes out of my head IF I based “World Mythology” completely on Greek Mythology. That is, I already have a pretty good knowledge of Greek Mythology, and it would be fairly easy for me to develop eight months of lesson plans on the Greek gods and heroes alone. And it would be a good class, because Greek Mythology is deep and rich and has great stories and great lessons.
BUT…would that be best for my students? I don’t think so. They are growing up in an increasingly international and interconnected world. They need to understand what life is like in other countries, as well as how life in the US is different for people with different ethnic, religious, or cultural backgrounds from their own. An entire course in Greek Mythology would be valuable. But I think a more diverse look at different mythologies would be more valuable for them, particularly at this stage in their lives.
The thing is, mythologies are a people’s most foundational, most basic stories. The mythological scholar Jean Houston calls mythology the DNA of culture. To understand people who are different than we are, a good start is to understand their myths.
So I’m not doing eight months on Greek mythology. I’m still in the planning stages so I’m not set yet, but right now my intention is to spend one month each on three European mythologies: the Greeks, the British Arthurian myths, and the Norse mythology. I’m pretty strong in the first two, and I know a good bit about Odin and Thor and the other Norse stories (the real ones, not the ones from The Avengers).
Then the rest will be non-European mythologies. I’m currently planning to do Native American, Central/South American, African, Chinese, and Oceana/Pacific Island mythologies.
Now, I know some about Native American mythology, and a little bit about Central/South American and Oceana/Pacific Island mythologies. I know almost nothing about Chinese myths, and really pretty much nothing about African mythology, beyond seeing things in museums that are supposed to be used in their rituals.
Back to my earlier quote: the benefit is I’m going to get to learn a LOT this year on some really interesting and important topics. The cost is that it is going to be a LOT of work and because not many middle school or high school classes cover this range of world mythologies in depth, I haven’t found many resources geared to this age group to help guide me.
Here is some specifics to demonstrate what I mean by a lot of work. Let me say upfront that this is developing two entire classes from scratch, which school teachers almost never have the need or the opportunity to do. That means the scale is larger than what most teachers would do. But it is an illustration of the process for any curricular change.
The first thing I need to do is to choose eight books, one for each month, in both sets of classes. Ergo, I need to select a total of sixteen books.
I started on this process in February. Since then, I’ve read a total of about twenty novels related to World Mythology to consider for my two classes. I’ve rejected seven of them as not being appropriate for the classes, even though some of them are excellent books (I’ll be talking more about appropriateness in Tuesday’s post). Another seven I’ve chosen to include in the classes. The other six are in a “maybe” pile.
I also have three books that are new to me to read to see if they make the cut. Plus I have an additional seven books I need to re-read to decide if they are right for my classes. Some I haven’t read since my own high school or college days, and I’ve learned my years-ago memories of books aren’t always very accurate.
That is a minimum of reading thirty novels just to choose the books for the classes. It could be more if I can’t fill all my slots in both levels from this current crop of possibilities.
That’s just the workload for choosing the books; the actual curriculum development process only starts once I know what books I’m going to be teaching. Then for each of those books, I need to figure out how to break down the contents, what aspects of each I will highlight, and how I will support learning with other resources. I will have to research all those mythologies that I don’t know well. I’ll have to come up with specific learning outcomes and activities. At some point, I’ll have to write all the class handouts and all the text that will go into each of the class-specific online learning management system (LMS) websites.
So…that’s what I mean by a lot of work. Good thing for me I’ve been sheltering at home with less outside activities to distract me from my reading! Plus, I don’t have to get approval from anyone else or make my books match standards someone else has determined or all the other work teachers in most educational organizations have to do on top of curriculum development.
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I chose to do this, and I’m excited for the ways the process of doing all this will help me to grow. Most of all, I’m excited for what valuable classes I envision these being for my students. Making a difference in students’ lives—I think that’s the biggest motivation for most teachers.
I’m just laying this all out so that you understand it’s not just a matter of a teacher deciding, “OK, I’m going to substitute a contemporary novel by a person of color for, say, The Catcher in the Rye” (one of the white male standard high school literature books that I personally think has not aged well). You have to read a bunch of books to figure out WHICH contemporary novel to teach. For example, African American author Colson Whitehead has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his novels in the past four years. I haven’t read his latest, because I didn’t really care for his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, which I thought failed to deliver on its promise (but he got a MacArthur genius grant, so what do I know…).
My point is that you can’t just go by awards because award-winning books don’t necessarily make good teaching books. Teachers actually prefer recommendations from other teachers over Pulitzers and such because it is evidence that the book works in a class setting. But that’s the problem—most teachers don’t have recommendations of new diverse literature to teach in the classroom because most aren’t doing that.
Then there is doing the curriculum development around a new and different book. If I type in “high school lesson plans for The Catcher in the Rye,” pages and pages of resources immediately pop up. That gives me some idea of what other teachers have found to work in teaching a book in a high school class. If I type “high school lesson plans for Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad,” I get one lesson plan—from Swarthmore College, a relatively elite private liberal arts college.
This is not to pick on The Underground Railroad; literature, like all arts, depends on individual taste, and I’m sure that I’ve missed something that others love about the book. It is just an example of much easier is it for teachers to simply stick with the old standard books, even if they are predominantly by white authors, then to do all the work involved in creating lesson plans around a new novel by an important black author.
Teachers are already overworked and underpaid, and with state and local revenues down due to the coronavirus, there may be even more cuts to education on the way.
To me this is another reason most literature teachers continue to teach a predominantly white male curriculum without being racists. The burden we put on school teachers has been heavy enough that maybe they just haven’t been able to do all the work it takes to add different types of voices to their classes. Thus, the original white bias continues to be institutionalized in literature classes.
(To see my Introduction to this series, see How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: An Introduction.
To see my first factor, see How White Bias Becomes Institutionalize in Literature Classes: Part 1 – Testing. )